By John Leicester, AP Sports Columnist
SANDWICH, England (AP) -- The signs still said the Open and Royal St. George's but, other than that, the place was all but unrecognizable and absurdly wet.
Ah, the joys of links golf, wizened veterans nodded sagely, unfazed by the seeming eccentricity of people hitting little white balls along a mournful English coastline in the midst of a howling storm.
They actually play in this goo?
Rain drops as juicy as grapes and umbrella-destroying gusts grabbed the world's best golfers by the scruff of their weatherproof (or so they thought) vests and put them through a blender on Saturday.
Messed 'em up good.
Mashed up all those golfing skills they've honed over years, too.
Holes that aren't friendly even under blue skies (apparently, such things have been spotted on occasion in southeast England) became simply evil.
Aside from the weather forecast, gravity was one of the few things that still seemed to be working as before, because balls did eventually drop back to Earth, often in unexpected places, after the winds had finished beating them black and blue.
But pretty much everything else was, well, strange.
"Brutal," said Matthew Millar, the first man sent out into the gloom.
"Like going 18 holes with the heavyweight champion of the world," said Trevor Immelman, who achieved the minor miracle of getting around in 2 over par.
"Impossible," said Kennie Ferrie, who was 6 over.
"Unreal," said U.S. Open and Masters runner-up Jason Day.
"To be honest," said Edoardo Molinari, "I had some fun."
In other words, this very British way of playing golf on wind- and weather-bitten shorelines will never, and was never meant to be, everyone's cup of tea, especially when there's a storm in the teacup.
Links golf, because it is so weather-dependent, might even be horribly unfair.
Saturday's late starters, the likes of Darren Clarke, Lucas Glover and Thomas Bjorn, had a comparatively easier (as opposed to easy) time of it, because the rain and worst of the 30-mph gusts that swept up the English Channel eased off as the afternoon wore on. By evening, there was even some wan but welcome sunshine.
The likes of football, tennis or athletics would never accept such inequality. All that stuff about needing to ensure that athletes compete on level playing fields. The Alpine-like bumps on the fairways here would be totally alien to them.
But those are sports that masquerade as games. Golf is a game masquerading as a sport. Like life, it doesn't do fair. Nor do those who play it expect it to. Because, to slightly twist the words of John Lennon, golf is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.
In practical terms, playing in dastardly conditions that Tom Watson said "can tear you up and spit you out" brought alive bunkers that players had previously soared over on Thursday and Friday, when their balls weren't being tossed around like rag dolls.
Clubs that had been plenty big enough to fire the ball where players wanted in earlier rounds became feeble against these winds that robbed them of their bearings.
On Thursday, just one drive nearly got Molinari to the green on No. 10. On Saturday, a driver followed by a 2-iron still came up short.
"It was playing stupidly difficult," he said. "Some holes were just a joke."
The tee on No. 4 was moved forward 26 yards but still players were only just making it over a huge jaw-like bunker that they'd flown over from further back a day earlier.
Watson hit left of that obstacle and then used his driver again from the fairway. He was hoping that would carry him 210 yards. He finished 30 yards short.
And the man in the crowd shouting, "Rory, I want to have your babies!" was really the least of Rory McIlroy's problems. The U.S. Open champion found himself taking unwanted scenic routes to holes and was 4 over for his round. Like everyone, McIlroy struggled to stay dry. After only two holes, the first of which he bogeyed, McIlroy was already reaching into his caddie's bag for a dry glove to replace his sodden one.
"We were actually going through a glove a hole" from Nos. 12 to 14, said Immelman. "We also went through about five or six towels."
Watson, water beading off his coat, snuck into a hut to mark his scorecard in the dry at the tee on No. 3. His pencil would have gone straight through his card had he tried doing that in the damp outside.
"Nice day!" his caddie said to the crowd, which immediately understood the gallows humor. Wet, wind-battered but not miserable, the British spectators were as impressive as their weather.
"I can't believe they are out there. Would you spend your weekend out there?" Millar marveled.
No, not without a golf club in one's hand.
Because those crazy British figure golf can actually be played in such conditions.
And it can.