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Preview of 2010 Open Championship
One hundred and fifty years ago, host professional-come "Keeper of the Green" Tom Morris Sr. and seven of his fairly ragtag countrymen, with their scraggly beards and oversized lumberjack coats, teed it up at Prestwick GC in the very first Open Championship. This newly organized tournament didn't go by that prestigious title just yet and was "open" only to players who earned their living from the game playing hastily arranged exhibition matches, caddying, making feathery balls and crude-looking clubs, or maintaining their club's links as best they could. The original eight navigated Prestwick's 12-hole layout three times in a howling wind on October 17th, with Morris's nemesis, Willie Park Sr. from Musselburgh, winning with a score of 174.
It's fascinating to think what Morris, Park and the rest of those unknowing pioneers would make of today's British Open. No doubt their eyes would widen and their hearts stop when they saw how much cash they could have been playing for had they been born a century and a half later. They'd wonder at all the TV cameras, the size of the galleries and their devotion to their favorite players, and the strange little vehicles ferrying officials, players, caddies and scorers (can't these future players keep their own score?) about the place. They'd look at the Old Course and see something very familiar but considerably longer and altogether more manicured than what they once played: the bunker faces beautifully riveted; incredibly short and strangely uniform turf; and abnormally flat areas constructed specifically for teeing off.
Soon enough they'd notice the equipment today's golfer was using and their eyes would widen still further. Even though Morris and his ball-making mentor Allan Robertson saw some change (progress?) in their lifetimes - feathery to gutta-percha - they could not have conceived of anything so aerodynamic, so consistent and so perfectly round as a Titleist Pro-V1. Iron clubs with metal shafts would certainly elicit a skeptical mumble and the total shock triggered by seeing a 460cc titanium driver head would not be dissimilar to how Neil Armstrong must have felt when he looked over his shoulder and saw a blue-and-green ball getting smaller and smaller in a universe of black, or how prehistoric man reacted when he first knocked two chunks of rock together and made fire.
What would grab their attention more than any of these alien additions to the tournament they started, however, would surely be the incredible numbers alongside the names of their fellow professionals on those oversized scoreboards - 18 holes completed in the mid-60s, 72-hole totals of 270 or even lower.
The best modern pros average almost a stroke a hole less at St. Andrews than their ancient counterparts. The condition of the course is a very significant factor in that - fewer shots ending up in sheep scrapes or ginger-beer cart tracks promotes better scores - and the fit of contemporary clothing enables Tiger Woods et al to swing a golf club with a great deal more freedom than the constricted golfers of yesteryear. Greater athleticism means today's elite can remain focused and strong for the entire round and create club-head speeds at which Morris would most likely gag.
Old Tom would be mightily impressed with most, if not all, the players in this year's Open Championship field, but the one he'd be particularly struck by is, of course, Woods, especially since the world No. 1 has twice won the Open on Tom's old stomping ground.
No one from Morris's generation and only a few of his contemporaries can fathom how pure and how powerful Woods's ball-striking is. And Tiger's strength of mind and unwillingness to accept defeat whatever the situation would also gain Morris's admiration.
But, of course, Woods returns to his favorite course in the world, if not a broken man, then one whose recent past and immediate future seem a good deal bleaker than in 2000 when he beat the field by eight strokes, or in 2005 when he triumphed by five.
Woods is patently not playing anywhere near his dominant best, having made only six starts this year, completing 72 holes at just four of those tournaments, and failing to finish higher than tied for fourth. His last official event was the AT&T National - an event he formerly hosted - at Aronimink in Pennsylvania, where he finished tied for 46th at 4-over-par. He is a cumulative 5-over-par for the season and his scoring average from 21 competitive rounds is 71.19. Whoever heard of Tiger Woods averaging 71.19 shots per round?
The 14-major winner played in a 36-hole pro-am in Ireland last Tuesday and Wednesday, finishing tied for 21st, seven shots behind winner Darren Clarke. Woods then returned to Florida to prepare for this week, surprising Irish reporters who assumed he would be heading straight to Scotland to reacquaint himself with the Old Course. Were his circumstances different, he surely would have headed east rather than west, but in saying that he needed to see his kids made clear where his priorities lie just now.
Even though you discount him at your peril, especially on a course where he is 33-under-par for his last eight rounds, Woods probably isn't the man to beat this week, so apparently ill at ease is he mentally.
So who is then? The next man in the world rankings, Phil Mickelson, already has one major this year, but he seems every bit as incapable of playing to his potential at the Open as six-time major champion Lee Trevino did at the Masters. The "Merry Mex" played at Augusta 20 times but never finished higher than tied for 10th. Mickelson has competed for the Claret Jug 16 times but only once finished inside the top-10.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about the Californian and his game that renders Mickelson so ineffective on the British coastline. But whatever it is there's no reason to suggest he is going to work out the solution this week.
Far better prospects who have shown great recent form and have at least some affinity with links golf might be world No. 3 Lee Westwood, who finished a shot out of the Stewart Cink/Tom Watson playoff at Turnberry last year; world No. 4 Steve Stricker, who won the John Deere Classic last week: No. 11 Graeme McDowell, the game's most recent major champion after his surprise victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last month; and No. 16 Justin Rose, who has won two PGA Tour events in recent weeks.
So accomplished is every major field these days, however, cases could also be made for two dozen other players, especially, perhaps, the seven Spaniards who will be riding an emotional high following their nation's victory at the World Cup last weekend.
The 7.58 Thursday morning tee time looks particularly compelling, with Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano playing alongside Ryan Moore and Charl Schwartzel. Fernandez-Castano missed last week's cut at Loch Lomond, but he has four European Tour victories and is 110th in the world rankings, exactly the position from which Y.E. Yang launched his attack on Hazeltine National at last August's PGA Championship. Moore, the 2004 U.S. Amateur champion who passed up the opportunity of playing the 2005 Open at the Old Course in favor of turning professional, finished second at the AT&T National two weeks ago and, one suspects, has the powerful and punchy type of swing that will do well on a links course in inclement weather, the sort that is forecast for much of the tournament in fact.
Schwartzel began the year at No. 65 in the world, but after a number of impressive performances - his win at the Africa Open in Johannesburg and the second to Ernie Els at the CA Championship at Doral in particular, he has risen to 25th. Els has often said Schwartzel is South Africa's next superstar, and what better place to realize the Big Easy's prediction than St. Andrews?
On reflection, suggesting the winner might come from this threesome might seem a bit fanciful. Basing a case on someone simply because his homeland just won the World Cup and the fact he holds the same ranking as Yang did prior to becoming Asia's first major champion is admittedly a bit of a stretch. Moore will be playing in only his second Open Championship and Schwartzel has made the cut only once in five Open starts. Added to which, with a roll-call of winners that includes J.H. Taylor, James Braid, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Bobby Locke, Peter Thompson, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Woods, a victory for someone in the world's top one or two would seem far more plausible.
And yet, Woods is not in a good place right now, physically or emotionally, and Mickelson's sole top-10 - a third place finish at Royal Troon in 2004 - is but a distant memory.
So who is going to win? No idea, but regardless of who lifts the Claret Jug at the conclusion of St. Andrews' 28th Open Championship, one thing is certain: Old Tom, who won four championships at Prestwick, will be looking on from the great clubhouse in the sky with an approving, though still slightly disbelieving, nod.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.