The Great National Divide

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135th Open Championship Tiger Woods is back to defend his title ' and doing so after missing his first cut as a professional in a major championship. Phil Mickelson is playing in a major for the first time since giving away the U.S. Open. Colin Montgomerie is doing the same thing.
 
The 135th edition of the Open Championship has a bevy of intriguing storylines just waiting to be played out this week near Liverpool, England. But the most intriguing of them all may well be the course itself.
 
Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods hopes to keep hold of his claret jug.
For the first time since Robert De Vicenzo won in 1967, Royal Liverpool will play host to the seasons third major. Because it hasnt been in the Open rota for nearly 40 years, most players know little if anything about the venue.
 
I haven't been there, haven't seen any photos of it. All I know is it's in Liverpool, Woods said at the Western Open two weeks ago.
 
Not that he seems too concerned.
 
'I honestly don't know anything about Royal Liverpool, but I'll play three or four practice rounds and that should be enough time to prepare. The key is to make sure you do your homework and find out what the golf course will allow you to do,' he said last week in his monthly newsletter.
 
'It was the same with Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Carnoustie and St. Andrews. It's not like I haven't done it before. We play around the world and learn different golf courses in a day or two. It's part of playing golf. I think people are making too big a deal out of the fact that the tournament hasn't been played at Hoylake since 1967.'
 
Like most everyone else in the field of 156, Woods will be getting his first look at the location which hosted the first British Amateur in 1895 this week.
 
Mickelson, however, is not arriving to Royal Liverpool sight unseen. He came a few weeks ago, prior to the Western Open, doing his usual preparatory routine for major championships. And he skipped this past week's Scottish Open, which he normally plays prior to the British, in order to get in a few more practice sessions.
 
Surprisingly, Royal Liverpool has a lot similar shots required as Cog Hill (site of the Western) than what I had expected. I thought it would be a lot more run-up shots, but full shots will be working out very well there, said Mickelson, who didnt want to divulge too much of his inside knowledge.
 
Mickelson said he was using the Western as a chance to sharpen his game for the British, but he will have to greatly improve upon his tie for 65th to have a chance to hoist the claret jug for the first time.
 
Woods, meanwhile, tied for second at Cog Hill.
 
Does that make Tiger the favorite this week to repeat as champion? Perhaps with the betting public, but not necessarily with us. Here are our favorites ' with a twist. We have picked one player from five different groups, based on national and continental affiliation.
 
Europe
Unfortunately for countries like England, Spain and Ireland, they all get lumped into one big continental group. Obviously, there are plenty of names from which to choose, given the deep, Olympic-size pool of talent here. Scotlands Paul Lawrie was the last European to win this event, in 1999 ' making him the last European to win any major, for that matter. It would be poetic if fellow Scot Montgomerie ended that drought this week ' but thats probably not going to happen.
Darren Clarke
Darren Clarke looks to become the first European to win a major this century.
The best European player may be David Howell, the Englishman who leads the European Tours Order of Merit. But, as evidenced at the U.S. Open where he stormed to an early lead and then melted like Icarus wings, he doesnt appear ready to handle the pressure of contending in a major championship. The same thing could be said for most European players, but eventually one of them has to win a major. Right? If it is to happen this week, were going to go with Northern Irelands Darren Clarke. He is one of the few players familiar with the course. And this is by far the one major above all others that he plays best, with six top-20 finishes -- as many as in the three other majors combined.
 
USA
Americans have claimed nine of the last 11 Opens. But, on paper, they might not be the collective favorite this year; that distinction might go to the Australians or the South Africans. Obviously, two Yankee names immediately come to mind: Woods and Mickelson. But, take away St. Andrews and Woods is a guy with almost as many finishes outside the top 20 as inside the top 10 at this event ' and no wins. And Mickelson is a guy who has all of one top-10 in 13 career Open appearances. Between the two, Woods will likely have the better result. But will he beat everyone else? Probably not ' yet hes still Americas best bet. He looked like a much different player at the Western Open than he did at the U.S. Open. If he can continue his improvement along those lines, he could claim his third claret jug, and his second in a row.
 
Australia
Five different Australians have won seven different tournaments on the PGA TOUR this season: Stuart Appleby, Geoff Ogilvy, Rod Pampling, Aaron Baddeley, and John Senden just last week at the John Deere to earn an invitation to the Open. Appleby and Ogilvy have each won twice, with Ogilvy capturing the U.S. Open. Ogilvy will be making his first start since becoming the great benefactor of Mickelsons and Montys collapses at Winged Foot. He tied for fifth in last years Open, but it will probably prove too great a task to win back-to-back majors ' especially when he cant sneak up on anyone. Greg Norman was the last Aussie to win this championship, doing so in 1993 (he also won in 86). Countryman Ian Baker-Finch was victorious in 1991. There are no fewer than 20 Aussies in this field. And though there are the likes of the previously mentioned, as well as Adam Scott and Robert Allenby and Steve Elkington, were going with Mark Hensby. He has four top-25s in seven career major championship starts, including a tie for 15th in his Open debut last year.
 
South Africa
South Africa may have only about half the representation as does Australia, but they pack plenty of power in their smaller number. Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Tim Clark and Rory Sabbatini lead the charge. And unlike with Australia, we dont expect one of the lesser known countrymen, like Louis Oosthuizen, to outshine the notables. If someone is to join Els as the only South Africans to win this event since Gary Player in 1974, then it will most certainly come from the top of the class. Then again, that person may very well be Els. The countrys most recognizable player of this era has gotten far more publicity for his knee injury than he has for his play over the last year. The head says go with Immelman, who won the Western Open two weeks ago, but the heart says Els ' and the heart always seems to win out. Els has a remarkable record in this tournament in even-numbered years. He tied for second in 1996; tied for second in 2000; won in 2002; and finished second in 2004.
 
Rest of the World
It would be easy to say that Fijis Vijay Singh is the favorite in this group. But that would be wrong. Singh has been way too inconsistent this year ' particularly on Sundays ' to be considered a favorite to make this the third leg of his career Grand Slam. Since most of the field falls into one of the four other categories, there arent many options in this one. But, pick we must. And pick Michael Campbell we will. The Kiwi has a lot to prove after missing the cut in his title defense at the U.S. Open. He talked a big game prior to the tournament, but came up small, shooting 12-over 152. Campbells win at Pinehurst a year ago came as a surprise to most. Not because hes not talented, but because if he was to ever win a major, it figured to be at the Open Championship. Campbell almost claimed the claret jug in 1995, when he held the 54-hole lead but ultimately finished tied for third. He tied for fifth last year.
 
Related Links:
  • Tee Times - 135th Open Championship
  • Course Tour - Royal Liverpool
  • Full Coverage - 135th Open Championship