Still aglow from a scorching 64 that had carried him to victory at the Advil Western Open, Scott Hoch was asked on Sunday what kind of reception he expects next week at the British Open, which he has entered for only the fourth time in his 22-year career. "Pretty cold, I imagine," said the game's hottest player. The iconoclastic Hoch's antipathy toward golf's oldest championship has long been the source of controversy, but he will arrive at Royal Lytham and St. Annes as more than the tabloids' Public Enemy No. 1. Hoch goes into the tournament in the unlikely role of contender. At the prospect of winning the claret jug, Hoch once said, "If I win, it'll prove that God has a sense of humor."
Could there be a better cosmic joke than a British Open champion who abhors wind and rain? Although Hoch has famously likened the Old Course at St. Andrews to a cow pasture (which no doubt had his Scottish grandmother spinning in her grave), he insists his beef with the British Open is not about the courses but the climate. "I hate cold weather," says Hoch, a native of North Carolina who makes his home in Orlando. "The single biggest criterion I use in selecting tournaments is the climate. I'm serious. I almost didn't play the U.S. Open last year because it's always cold at Pebble Beach. That kind of weather affects me. My hands get cold quicker than anybody else's I know."
That might seem like another blast of hot air from golf's geyserlike oracle, but Hoch even had tests done in the early '80s to see if he suffers from a circulatory disorder. (He doesn't.) At the Western he showed up for the second round wearing a sweater, this on a humid day in Lemont, Ill., that had a recorded high of 73�. What makes Hoch such a heat junkie is the convalescent effect it has on his brittle body. He had shoulder surgery in 1992 and this year has endured a seriously sprained left ankle and two cortisone shots to alleviate the pain from a mysterious injury to his left wrist. Through it all this 45-year-old war horse has not only soldiered on, but also produced the best golf of a fine career.
Over his last nine tournaments, beginning with April's Houston Open, Hoch has finished no worse than 16th, a torrid stretch that includes two victories, a second and three other top 10 finishes. However, it isn't the hot streak that has compelled Hoch to journey to England. A clause in his endorsement deal with Yonex demands that he go. Still, his frosty feelings toward the British Open are sure to melt once he lays eyes on Lytham. A quirky little bandbox of a course, Lytham is the narrowest layout in the Open rota, and it sets up perfectly for Hoch. Peter Thomson, who won the 1958 British Open at Lytham, has written, "It is the ultimate test of driving skill, strategic planning and nerve control."
Hoch displayed all three traits during his stirring triumph at the Western, the 10th victory of his career. Long considered one of the game's premier iron players, Hoch attributes his success this year to driving and putting, and the stats bear him out. He ranks seventh in driving accuracy and is tied for first in putting. During his first-round 69 Hoch hit 14 of 14 fairways on Cog Hill's long, twisty Dubsdread course. He followed with a 68, which put him in third place, four back of the midway leader, Davis Love III, who has overcome injuries of his own.
Slowed by a bulging disk in his neck, Love didn't play 18 holes even once in the two months between the final round at Harbour Town in April and the first round of the U.S. Open. When a reinvigorated Love birdied the 15th hole last Saturday, he was 15 under for the tournament and leading by five strokes. But Hoch finished with a flourish, birdieing the final four holes to trim the lead to one.
Sunday's round was the best mano a mano of the season. Over the first 15 holes Love and Hoch combined for 14 birdies—many of them spectacular—and no bogeys. "It looked as if whoever cracked first was going to lose," said Love, who blew 54-hole leads this season at San Diego and Los Angeles. "That turned out to be me." Clinging to a one-shot lead on 16, Love hooked a seven-iron way left of the green, then flushed the ensuing chip over the green and into a bunker and took a bogey. Tie ball game. On 18 both players bunkered their approach shots, but only Hoch got up and down. His 21-under 267 established a tournament record.
The Western has always served as a precursor to the British Open, and this year, for the first time, the relationship was formalized. Fifteen players at the Western earned invitations to Lytham through a new set of qualifying criteria, while those already exempt strained to generate momentum. Or not, in the case of Tiger Woods. His uninspired showing at the U.S. Open was followed by an opening 75 at Westchester, and when Woods began the Western in similarly lackluster fashion, he finally snapped—his wedge, that is, after dumping his approach to Cog Hill's 18th green into a pond.
Woods came back from his 73 with a 68 on Friday but was more excited about what happened at the range after the latter round. "I figured out something with my swing," he said. "I started hitting my shots the way I used to, and started getting the normal distances." Over the past month Woods had mysteriously lost a bit of distance with his irons—"not that much, three to five yards," he said, but enough to take the precision out of his game.
On Saturday, Woods took his recalibrated swing from the range to the course, and the result was one of the wildest rounds of his career, including a stretch on the front nine during which he went eagle, double bogey, birdie, double bogey, birdie. He finally got a handle on his distance control over the final five holes, playing them in five under and making another eagle. "It was like driving a race car," Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, said following the 68. "Hit the gas, hit the wall, hit the gas, hit the wall...."