A Similar Look to This British Open

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TROON, Scotland -- First, a U.S. Open that looked like it belonged in Britain.
 
Next up is a British Open played on a true links that has been dominated by Americans.
 
About the only thing that makes sense in this unusual year for major championships is the caliber of players winning them, which signals the most parity at the top since Tiger Woods first began to dominate golf.
 
Nine players have won the last nine majors going into the 133rd British Open at Royal Troon, which includes six of the top 10 players in the world ranking. Missing from that group is Vijay Singh, whom many believe has been the best player over the last 18 months.
 
Phil Mickelson finally captured his first major with a brilliant back nine at Augusta National and an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the Masters. He almost won the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, too, until he was done in by a three-putt from 5 feet on the 71st hole that left him two shots behind Retief Goosen.
 
As for Woods?
 
He has been closer to the cut line than contention in the first two majors, extending his drought to 0-for-8 in the Grand Slam events and maintaining the party line that his game is close -- close to what, no one is quite sure.
 
'Golf is waiting for someone to step out and take charge other than Tiger,' Tom Lehman said. 'There is a number of guys who have been there a lot, yet no one has gone out and taken it.'
 
Mickelson wasn't sure if the parity is greater than it has been in a while, saying it was a tough question to answer.
 
'But it's fun that we can ask it,' he added.
 
Some answers might be available this week at Royal Troon, the second of three consecutive majors being played on links-styled courses. The PGA Championship is at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
 
Some players might wonder if they ever left Shinnecock Hills last month.
 
Both courses have troublesome bunkers lining the fairways and protecting the green. Both have fairways framed by brownish natural grasses that look like miniature wheat fields. The most dangerous hole on both courses is also the shortest -- a par 3, which at Royal Troon is the famous 'Postage Stamp' hole measuring in at 123 yards.
 
The good news for the players? The U.S. Golf Association is only in town as a guest.
 
Mickelson played a practice round at Royal Troon a week before the British Open and declared it to be in sensational shape and a tough, but fair, test of golf.
 
'But then again, so did Shinnecock the week before,' he said.
 
The USGA was so determined to protect par at the U.S. Open that it stopped watering the greens. On an overcooked course, no one broke par in the final round and 28 players failed to break 80.
 
Despite heavy rain in recent weeks, the rough is not awful at Royal Troon and the fairways and greens are lusher than usual for a British Open. The Royal & Ancient prefers to let wind -- the strongest defense on any links -- dictate scoring, and it doesn't lose sleep if the winning score resembles the John Deere Classic.
 
'It's not as tricked up as the other three majors, and I think the players realize that,' Davis Love III said.
 
There is one trick to Royal Troon -- get your birdies while you can.
 
The first seven holes run south along the Firth of Clyde with a prevailing breeze at the players' backs. The front nine is a par 36 at only 3,462 yards, and even the 601-yard sixth hole -- the longest in British Open history -- can be reached in two by most players. The back nine is dead into the wind, and is a par 35 at 3,713
yards.
 
'If you're even par after the front nine, you think you've lost something,' Love said. 'And if you're even par on the back, you think you did pretty good.'
 
Royal Troon is just north of Prestwick, where the British Open was held the first 12 years and Colin Montgomerie is famous for saying, 'If you're not under par after nine holes at Troon, you may as well go to the clubhouse at Prestwick and have lunch.'
 
Goosen's victory at Shinnecock Hills kept one streak alive -- Americans have not swept the four majors since Craig Stadler (Masters), Tom Watson (U.S. Open and British Open) and Raymond Floyd (PGA) in 1982.
 
But they have enjoyed great success at Royal Troon, five straight victories dating to Arnold Palmer in 1962. Justin Leonard won the claret jug the last time the Open was held at Troon in 1997, coming from five shots off the lead.
 
The best American hope used to be Woods, but that's not necessarily the case anymore.
 
Woods has only one victory this year, in the Accenture Match Play Championship, and he has not seriously challenged in the last three majors. Tensions ran high last month in the U.S. Open, when his caddie kicked over the lens of a news photographer on the 10th tee and confiscated the camera of someone in the gallery during the final round.
 
There is great scrutiny of Woods' swing, and great curiosity where the ball is going.
 
'Pure and simple, he can't drive the ball in the fairway,' Nick Price said. 'From all I've seen now the last five months, his off-the-tee game is so erratic, and there's no pattern to it because he's losing it right and left. Until such time as he starts getting the ball in the fairway, he's going to struggle.
 
'You have to be a great driver of the ball to win major championships.'
 
Mickelson has never finished in the top 10 at a British Open, although he has never played this well. And he has never been this excited about playing in golf's oldest championship.
 
'In the past, I felt not as comfortable with the type of shot that I needed to hit or the way to hit them,' Mickelson said. 'Many of the shots that I have worked on throughout the year are shots I'll be expecting to use at Troon.'
 
Woods narrowly made the cut at the Western Open and wound up in a tie for seventh, another top 10 that only made his game look better than it is. He was working on the low stinger shot that figures to come in handy at the British Open. But Woods, who won at St. Andrews at a record 19 under par, said British links require a variety of shots.
 
'You can get suckered into hitting the low ball all day,' he said. 'The problem is you start doing that, and then you can't get the ball in the air. One of the things I work on for the British Open is trying to hit the ball really high and really low, so I've got a whole arsenal I can work with out there.'
 
Woods said he was 'very happy' with the state of his game.
 
When asked to elaborate, he smiled and said, 'No.'
 
The answers will come at Royal Troon, where the competition figures to be tougher and deeper than ever.
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - British Open