“It’s the most difficult hole in the world.”

— Seve Ballesteros

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — First you pick a letter. Jack Nicklaus likes the T in “HOTEL.” Arnold Palmer goes with the S in “COURSE.” Mark Calcavecchia, a little less picky, settles for anything between C and E. This is how you begin the toughest par-4 in the world. Look straight ahead. Pick a letter on the side of the railroad shed. Aim. Swing.

Pray.

One hundred and fifty-six men were praying here Thursday, the first day of the British Open, as they stepped up to the 17th hole. They were not praying for birdies. You don’t even think about birdies when you tee off on Road Hole, 461 yards of golfing terror that has been frustrating players for at least two centuries. You can’t see where your ball is going. You have no idea whether you’re even in bounds. Birdies? No, you think about more important things here — like not hitting the hotel, which is between you and the green.

“Uh-oh, looks like I might get a window,” Ray Floyd moaned during a practice round, when his drive disappeared into the complex. Greg Norman, standing nearby, tried not to laugh. “I just hope you don’t have your name on your ball,” he said.

This is what it’s like on the toughest par-4 in the world. Windows with protective glass. Walls with divots. A duck pond. Yes. You could land your tee shot in a duck pond, too. It sits in front of the hotel, which sits behind the old railroad shed, which boasts the painted letters “ST. ANDREWS OLD COURSE HOTEL” which you use to line up your shot, since the dumb thing is completely blocking your view of the green. And this is only your tee shot.

Of course, if you are lucky, you sail that tee shot over all these obstacles, avoiding the tall grass on the left side and the out-of-bounds on the right, and land somewhere on the bumpy fairway, which looks more like a green carpet that was thrown over the kids’ toys.

Then comes your second shot. The hard part is just beginning

This, believe it or not, is actually the killer stroke, since the green you are approaching is about as easy to get to as Michael Jackson’s house. It is long and narrow, dropping off sharply in the rear to a paved road and a brick wall, all of which is in play. And, as if that weren’t enough, on the front left lies the infamous Road Bunker, which is as steep as a mountain and deep enough to land the lunar module from Apollo 11.

Maybe you remember 1978, when Tommy Nakajima went into this thing, and didn’t come out until four strokes later? Whack! Plop. Whack! Plop. He sprayed so many grains that day, the headlines read “The Sands of Nakajima.”

So you have to be careful with shot No. 2. Danger left. Danger right. Danger behind. Some meeker golfers don’t even try for the green with their second shot; they’re content to sort of roll up to within striking range. Most, however, go for glory — this is, after all, a par-4 — and many go down. More than once, the championship has gone with them.

Back in 1930, Bobby Jones won the championship after his approach shot bounced off a spectator’s chest and rebounded 10 feet from the hole. Six years ago, on the final day of this tournament, Tom Watson, who had won the previous two British opens, sailed his second shot too hard. It bounced off the green and rolled all the way to the wall. He also lost the title by one stroke, to Seve Ballesteros; he has not won a major since.

Some say the 17th still haunts Watson. He soon may have company. On Thursday, a young Aussie named Craig Parry was leading the field, until his second shot on 17 landed by the wall. Double-bogey. Peter Jacobsen was tied for the lead, until his second shot sailed into the bunker. Double-bogey. Ballesteros was cruising, until he put his second shot behind the big yellow scoreboard. Double-bogey. And the weather was nice Thursday.

The scoreboard?

Got any fours? Not many

Wait. This brings us to the third shot. By this point, you are either on the road, by the wall, in the bunker, or on the green, in which case, I want to be standing next to you during the next earthquake. We saw some interesting third shots Thursday. Jacobsen got one foot in the bunker, and blasted out away from the flag, just to make sure he didn’t pull a Nakajima. Some guy named Joe Higgins wasn’t so lucky; his ball did a loop-the-loop — up the steep bunker ledge and back over his head. It landed about 20 feet behind him. Now that’s embarrassing.

But then, that’s what this hole is all about. Embarrassment. Humility. A few hundred years of torture. They love it here in the birthplace of golf. They wouldn’t touch a single blade of grass. “The reason this is the toughest par-4 in the world,” quipped Ben Crenshaw, “is because it’s a par-5.”

Which, by the way, still wouldn’t be enough for Ballesteros, Jacobsen, Bob Tway, Wayne Grady or Mike Reid, all of whom took 6’s Thursday, and we won’t even mention the guys who took 7’s, or the one lonely soul who quadruple-bogeyed with an 8.

Actually, I think he’s still out there. He obviously picked the wrong letter. He should have shot at “H.”

For HELP.

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