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This Open feels more wide open than ever
Adam Scott, Anthony Kim or Justin Rose? How about Scott Verplank? Dozens of players look like real contenders this week, and the conditions will go a long way toward determining the winner.
By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Contributor
SOUTHPORT, England - To answer your question, we have no clue.
We too wonder what this 137th Open Championship will feel like without the best player in the game. Will the Open have an electricity shooting through it or will the field be beaten down by the relentless gusting winds? Will Royal Birkdale shake that overlooked/underrated-member-of-the-rota image?
Will Phil go with a hybrid in his bag or a 2-iron that will bore through and under the wind? And, while we're at it, what will he do next?
Can Sergio keep pace with his buddy/countryman Rafael Nadal and turn a heartbreaking 2007 into a triumphant 2008?
Will Geoff Ogilvy, who's already in the major club, step up to the next level, and
while he's at it, challenge Phil for world No. 2? And when will we stop overlooking him, period?
Can Ernie Els win another one of these or will Adam Scott - yes, his hand is totally healed from that run-in with the car door - be the next Australian to raise the Claret Jug here in Merseyside? Or should we be looking at someone more like Stewart Cink or Aaron Baddeley?
Welcome to the first true Open in more than a decade.
We're talking wide open here. No Tiger, no automatic expectations. And, honestly, no sizzle on the driving range or in the practice rounds. Just a gathering of the best players in the world, minus one.
Since you asked, Sergio is the bookies' favorite, followed by Els. But what does that really mean away from the betting windows? A guide for wagering with your friends, or
something to just talk about. Period.
And if you're looking for a tad of trivia before the field tees off Thursday morning, only Aussies and Americans have won at this course - Peter Thomson (1954, 1964) and Ian Baker-Finch (1991) from Down Under; Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983) and Mark O'Meara (1998) for the Yanks.
But whatever you do, don't overlook this course, which was made for the relentless gusts that buffet the holes cut though sand dunes. Without the wind, which was gusting to 25 mph and was due to remain like that before gusting to 30 on Friday, Birkdale is defenseless.
Less quirky fairways leave nothing to chance without the wind. But with it? It's relentless. The next hole won't play even remotely similar to the last one. The tees and dunes tower above fairways and greens.
And, despite the wind, it won't dry out soon. Rains have left it soggy enough to hold up under what are expected to be cool, overcast and gusty conditions. Can you say real Open golf?
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"This is certainly a golf course that's a little more defined than a typical links course, I guess," said Scott. "Probably because it's set in amongst the sand dunes and the holes play in between the dunes. And I think it's just a great design, a great test of golf."
And, perhaps, the perfect place to open a two-major run without the best player in the world.
Whoever does win here will have to keep it in the fairways. Thigh-high nasty long whisps of marram grass that cover the high dunes catch anything way off line - the same goes for all the bunkers - and turn pars into bogeys and great television shots. Advantage goes to good wind players who can keep it under the wind - or bore through it - and great short games. Think creative bump-and-runs.
"I can't really identify the changes individually (since 1998), but it just feels like the course as a whole has just got a lot more teeth to it," said Justin Rose, who tied for fourth here as an amateur in 1998. "It's obviously got some added length, and I know they've moved the odd bunker around.
"It just feels like the course has a lot of really well-placed bunkers out there that make you think almost when the wind blows in both directions, which is obviously what links course that's the amazing thing about links courses. The way they're designed, certain bunkers come into play with one wind direction and others come into play in another wind direction."
We all know who plays chess games like that better than anyone; who manages his game and controls his focus better. But in his absence, we'll have to make due.
Els counts 30 or so players who could contend. In the first two rounds, maybe. After that? We'd whittle that to - at best - a dozen.
Take all of the aforementioned, then add major-in-waiting Anthony Kim (even if he is an Open rookie), Englishman Lee Westwood, Andres Romero (brilliant in the last two Opens), stands up to the course and former Open champ Justin Leonard (wind game beyond compare). Just to name a few.
The bottom line here is none of the above - and we're talking all the way up the world rankings to Mickelson - give the field a jolt the way Tiger does. So get ready.
This one will get interesting. Perhaps as interesting as Carnoustie where Sergio had it, then Padraig Harrington had it, then both gave it away, then Paddy grabbed it.
But in the end, as with all majors, it'll come down to focus.
"I keep my head on better when it comes to majors," Ogilvy said. "In a regular event, I'm always conscious of the fact that there's another tournament like it next week. When it comes to the Open, though, I'm telling myself that there's not going to be another Open for 12 months and that I'd better handle the bogey I've made at the third, or whatever. The event itself forces my mind to be in the right place."
As always, it's a matter of doing it. For 72 holes. Or at least the better part of it.
You could look at this one and think surprise winner. And you could be right. Ben Curtis did it at St. George's in 2003 and Todd Hamilton at Troon in 2004. Both times with Tiger in the field.
This one, though, it feels like a veteran. Like one of those dozen who's ready to step up and begin to fill the void and take his game to the next level.
Yet we could be wrong, too. This Open could be as turned-upside-down quirky as Birkdale's white art deco clubhouse that stands in stark contrast to the history of the championship.
Like we said, no Tiger, no expectations.
This Open is, indeed, just that wide open.