The Ol' Switcheroo
Players normally spend the early part of a tournament week learning the nuances of a course. That may have been wasted time this week at the 135th Open Championship. With rain and wind expected to soften Royal Liverpool soon, the field could face an entirely different course than what they've seen during the dry, bistering-hot practice days.
By T.J. Auclair, Junior Editor
HOYLAKE, England -- The single best piece of advice players might want to consider on the eve of the 135th Open Championship is this: Forget practically everything you've learned about Royal Liverpool in the practice rounds.
With temperatures reaching nearly 90 degrees on each of the practice days, the old, brown-grassed links that lies beside the Irish Sea and last hosted an Open Championship in 1967, has played far from what it's supposed to. With little wind and no rain in weeks, the course has gotten firm and fast, while the greens have gotten exceptionally crusty.
All of that is expected to change when the oldest championship in golf tees off on Thursday morning. The cooler air will roll in off the Irish Sea, dropping temperatures into the low-to-mid-70s, the wind will make an appearance and with an 80-percent chance of rain, Royal Liverpool will, indeed, have the look and feel of an Open Championship, rather than that of a burned-out municipal course somewhere in middle America during the brutal days of July.
If the rain doesn't come and conditions stay the way they are now, could we see an unlikely winner like a Ben Curtis, or a Todd Hamilton rise to the top again?
"That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?" said South African Ernie Els. "Yeah, I think this tournament reminds me a lot of St. Annes, with the bunkering. It's not a very long course, so you can go with an iron or the aggressive route with the driver. So it really suits all the players, doesn't it? It's the guy that's very accurate and straight and maybe shorter and the guy that's a bit more adventurous. The course lends itself to that kind of play, too.
"So it's tough to say, you know," Els continued. "At the end of the day it's the guy that scores the best. Right now you'll take four rounds under 70, you'll be very close. Who knows what the winning score is going to be? If you get really hot on your putter and you're making everything, you can shoot a good number around here. But to do it for four days in a row is going to be tough. So there's enough trouble out there for the guy that's a little off."
Reigning PGA and Masters Champion Phil Mickelson, who tied for second last month in the U.S. Open -- one shot out of a playoff -- after a heart-breaking double-bogey on the tournament's final hole, has tried to put the Winged Foot collapse behind him. Since then, he has put all of his efforts into preparing for the Open -- the major championship he has struggled most in with just one top 10, which was a third-place finish at Royal Troon in 2004. Mickelson, along with caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay, swing coach Rick Smith and short-game guru Dave Pelz, have spent a lot of time at Royal Liverpool since the U.S. Open. Mickelson is hoping all his hard work will be rewarded this week in the form of the claret jug.
"As far as preparation, it's just been an evolution of finding out what works for me," Mickelson said. "And each player has to go through that, what works for them best. A lot of guys get worn out coming to a particular course a bunch, a lot of guys would get a lot out of it. You just have to find out what works for you individually."
Els thought his preparation for the Open started about a week after the U.S. Open ended, and was shocked to find out it was actually Mickelson who was the early bird.
"Obviously that's his way of preparing and it's working for him, and Tiger has his way, I've got my way, Vijay has his way," said Els, hoping to win his first major title since the 2002 Open at Muirfield. "The guys, thank goodness we're all different, you know? And I was out here three weeks ago, the first time I came out here, I came in on I think it was a Wednesday and they asked me to come sign in the book, the club book, and I saw Phil's name there. That was like the Tuesday after the U.S. Open, basically. And I was like, you know, is he playing today? And they said, no, he was here two days ago. And that kind of surprised me a little bit. He's played the course many times. That's the way he wants to prepare. He wants to see the course a million times. That's his way right now. We're all different. I normally just play my three practice rounds and that's enough."
While most of the field will be making last-minute tune-ups at Royal Liverpool late into the day on Wednesday, Mickelson won't be one of him. As a part of his new major championship preparation formula, he instead prefers to practice off-site the day before the championship begins.
"I think that the reason that I have been going elsewhere on Wednesdays most of the time, not always, but most of the time, is that it just gives me a little bit of a relaxed state of mind to ease into the tournament day, get away from all the hype and the pressure, the anxiety of the British Open, the PGA, the U.S. Open and The Masters and just enter a little more relaxed. That's probably why I do it," he said.
Reigning U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy will be playing this week for the first time since the biggest triumph of his career. Since the win, Ogilvy spent time at home in Australia, where he has become a national hero. While he recognizes the U.S. Open was practically handed to him by the shortcomings of Colin Montgomerie and Mickelson on the 72nd hole, don't expect Ogilvy to apologize for winning any time soon.
"You'd obviously love to win it by five shots and come up the last and know you've won it and all that," said the 29-year-old Ogilvy, who joined Tiger Woods as the only other player to win both a major and a World Golf Championship in the same season. "But I definitely got a big break on the last hole with Monty and Phil, really. It doesn't happen to everybody. It doesn't usually happen. But I played 72 holes in less shots than anyone else and I won the trophy. If that had happened to Greg Norman in Australia in the last few holes on the Australian Open, it would all be made about him. You can understand why it was written up like it was, because it must have been quite a bizarre way for a tournament win for everyone watching. It must have been an interesting one to watch."
One of those watching the U.S. Open debacle on television was Woods. He missed the cut at Winged Foot -- his first at a major as a professional -- and made himself watch the final round as punishment.
With Winged Foot in the rearview mirror, Woods is as determined as ever in his attempt to become the first player since Tom Watson in 1983 to win the Open in consecutive years.
"The golf course is definitely fast," Woods said. "It's hard. It's a little bit slower the last couple of days because obviously they're putting some water on it, trying to keep it alive. But overall it's going to be a fantastic challenge this week to play a golf course this fast. We don't get a chance to do this very often."