The Open: Four days of drama await

Tiger Woods. Picture: Jane Barlow

Tiger Woods. Picture: Jane Barlow

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Exactly 121 years after the first staging of The Open, Muirfield golf course’s reputation for producing champions of enduring quality is about to be tested when the annual battle for the claret jug gets under way on the East Lothian links tomorrow.

When defending champion Ernie Els was asked this week to name the favourite, his eyes seem to glaze, searching for an appropriate and heartfelt response.

“To name one, I’m going to have to name 20. That’s how close it is.” Then the Big Easy admitted defeat in embracing the entire field of 156.

“I don’t know who is the favourite. A guy that likes the bounce, who likes the layout? I’m not sure . . .”

If Els does not know the definitive answer to what it takes to win round Muirfield, where he triumphed on his last visit 11 years ago, then what chance any pundit?

What we do know is that of the last 12 majors, there have been 11 first time winners, a statistic that does not sit easily with a course where the name of every post war Open champion . . . Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo (twice) and Els himself has transcended golf itself.

And what if the trend continues – a bouquet to anyone who by this stage has pinpointed Rory McIlroy as the only double major victor in the past dozen – and even stands history on its head?

Surprisingly, a Scandinavian has yet to win a major. Could this be the time for, say, Henrik Stenson to restore some sporting pride for a region where once tennis champions fell out of trees, but couldn’t even produce an entry to the Wimbledon men’s qualifying event this year?

Or how about a breakthrough far-east winner of the Open, although, tellingly, the desk allocated to the Chinese People’s Daily in the massive media centre remains unoccupied. Hardly a vote of confidence.

On a course where Japan’s Isao Aoki shot 63 in 1980, could Ashun Wu, from Xiamen, China, come charging through the field?

For those looking for omen, or perhaps some romance, it is exactly half-a-century since the Open produced its one and only left handed winner.

That is one stat that looks seriously imperilled, with Phil Mickelson, fresh from winning his first links title at last week’s Scottish Open, and Bubba Watson ready to let rip.

Bookmakers have Mickelson third-favourite behind Tiger Woods and US Open kingpin Justin Rose. It would be no upset if the man who finished a stroke off the lead in 2004 and was runner-up to Darren Clarke two years ago triumphed.

There is, however, revenge in the air here, and it emanates from Tiger Woods.

Without a major to his name in five years, Woods has bounced back to world No. 1 after well-documented personal problems and injuries.

What has still to heal is a sense of hurt stemming from his worst ever major score – 81 – when trapped by a Saturday storm here in 2002. If Woods responds to a Muirfield return like he hit back 24 hours after his nadir when he posted a 65, then watch out.

With the fairways running like motorways, Woods’ accuracy will be vital, with a premium on placing drives – remember how Woods went 72 holes at St Andrews in 2000 without visiting sand?

Explains Woods: “It is all in where you land it. It could land into a slope and get killed of land on the backside and it could shoot forward another 40, 50 yards. I’ve had a pretty good year so far: won four times. Even though I haven’t won a Major in give years I’ve been there in a bunch of them where I’ve had chances. I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I’ll get some.”

There was a time when Americans wrapped the Open in the stars and stripes. No longer – there has been just one American winner in six years.

Like yesteryear, there are other US names to conjure with alongside Woods.

Bill Haas won the AT&T National at Congressional a fortnight ago and has won at least one event on tour in each of the past four seasons.

Haas just might be ready to step up and likewise Brandt Snedeker, who led at the halfway stage last year.

Dustin Johnson displayed much dignity when a penalty for grounding a club on rough ground controversially deemed a hazard may have cost him the 2011 USPGA crown. He will have the galleries on side in a country where such things are remembered.

More relevantly, Johnson has finished top 15 in each of the last three Opens.

Of the European hopes, Luke Donald, a former world No. 1 but still seeking to rid himself of the “best player never to win a major” label, could benefit from conditions and may just need a break to get himself firing again. The same goes for Lee Westwood, credited with 
better form approaching this event and with seven top three finishes in Majors under his belt.

Sergio Garcia captured the amateur title on Muirfield in 1998 and thus has a winning record here, but if Garcia was hailed as the heir apparent to the late, great Seve Ballesteros, bear in mind that Italy’s Matteo Manassero, now 20, won 
three times on the European Tour as a teenager. Not even Ballesteros managed such a feat.

Manassero’s time will come, but maybe not this week, where all the indications are that the winner will be from the current golfing elite.

Just so long as the tournament is won and not lost.

Twenty-one years has not been long enough to erase the memory of John Cook after the American stuttered down the home straight.

Whereas he had played the 17th in four under par in three earlier rounds, Cook could only make par on the Sunday and a bogey at the last meant he missed out by a shot to Nick Faldo. Afterwards Cook conducted a round of television interviews with the stiffest of upper lips, but my behind-the-scenes vantage point enabled me to note that as the cameras were switched off, he slumped in a chair, took the deepest of breaths, slapped hands on his knees and moved on with his life.

Poignancy personified.

And, adding salt to the wound, Cook finished runner-up again in the subsequent major, the USPGA, and that was a close as he came.

Such are the stakes at the high end of sport, it doesn’t come any bigger than what is about to unfold on Edinburgh’s 
doorstep this week.