In Britain, Open drama is promised

Predicting winner tough

weather muddies picture

July 15, 2004|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TROON, Scotland - Step right up to the open Open, where the Tiger is wild, especially at the tee. See the smiling, left-handed, birdie machine known as Phil Mickelson. Thrill to the exploits of the man known as "Double-E," Ernie Els, who can go from 70 to 80 in a blink. See if lightning strikes Retief Goosen one more time.

The British Open begins today at Royal Troon, and it's anyone's guess who will win. Consider what happened last year at Royal St. George's, where 396th-ranked Ben Curtis came out on top.

For the first time in memory, Tiger Woods isn't drawing a great deal of attention. In fact, he isn't even the betting favorite. Ladbrokes, the British bookmaking chain, lists Els as the top choice, which means the Open will be the first major in which Woods hasn't been favored since the 1997 Masters.

Complicating the picture is the weather. Rain is in the forecast every day through Sunday. If it isn't raining, it's supposed to be blowing gales.

Woods, who is working on a streak of eight majors without a victory, said bad weather combined with the typical British Open links conditions that feature hollows and hills on the fairways should even the playing field.

"You know that everyone is going to be dealing with it," he said. "You're going to hit a good shot and get a bad bounce or hit a marginal shot and get a great bounce. That's the nature of playing links golf. You're hoping at the start of the Open Championship, you get a good draw.

"So there is a certain part of luck being involved, if the weather does turn poor. And hopefully you're on that side where you can capitalize on it."

Royal Troon isn't particularly long - 7,175 yards and a par 71 - but it has sharp teeth on the back nine, which is played into the prevailing wind.

"The birdie holes are the first nine holes," Masters champion Mickelson said. "They're not easy birdie holes, because it's hard to stop the ball close downwind, but it is by far the best opportunity to go under par. The backside is a tough stretch, the golf holes that you would take par on any hole."

Par is what eluded Mickelson at the 71st hole in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. His three-putt double bogey on the next-to-last hole allowed Goosen to take the lead and eventually pull the trophy from Mickelson's hands.

Whether that outcome will affect Mickelson this week will be closely watched.

The same goes for Els, despite his favored status. In his last round at Shinnecock, Els double-bogeyed the first hole on his way to an 80 - 10 shots worse than his third-round score - and fell from second place to ninth.

Last week in the Scottish Open, he had a 65-68 weekend and tied for third, showing no ill effects from his Shinnecock stumble. And because he was in contention at Shinnecock, Els obviously had no trouble coming back from his disappointment at the Masters, where he closed with a 67 and lost by a shot to Mickelson, who had a 69.

Els said he has been driving the ball well, which is key here, but he also said it's all right to miss a few fairways here and there.

"You can go into the rough. If you go into the real high stuff, you've really got a problem," Els said. "But if you hit solid drives, they just might run off the fairways [but] you're still going to be fine. That's why I say it's very fair. You've got to maybe manufacture something out of there, but you're going to be fine.

"I like that because I'm not the straightest hitter in the world, but I'm not off the planet, either. So it's going to favor the longer hitter, and you don't have to be the straightest hitter, either."

That would be good news for Woods.

As for the latest major champion, Goosen has four top 10s in nine British Open appearances, including a tie for eighth at Muirfield in 2002 and a tie for 10th last year at Royal St. George's.

Goosen was struck by lightning as a teenager and many say that incident helped produce his calm and unassuming demeanor. With a pair of U.S. Open titles on his resume, Goosen must be considered a factor this week.

"I think there are some guys here that respect the way I'm playing and so on," Goosen said. "But I think I've got a little bit of catching up to do with guys like Ernie and Vijay [Singh] with what they've done over the last 10 years."

With three top 10s in his previous three British Opens, Sergio Garcia appears to be on the verge of something big, and now he's taken some consolation from Mickelson's success at the Masters, but doesn't agree that the timing is the same.

"I think that what Phil did earlier in the year was great and he played good at the U.S. Open," Garcia said. "I think it's a totally opposite position. I'm 24, he's 34. So if I play half-decent for the next 10 years, I should have 40 chances of winning a major. I just have to put myself in that position."

Meanwhile, there is the weight of recent history. No European player has won a major since Paul Lawrie in the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. And U.S. players have won the previous five British Opens at Troon - Justin Leonard in 1997, Mark Calcavecchia in 1989, Tom Watson in 1982, Tom Weiskopf in 1973 and Arnold Palmer in 1962.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

British Open

When: Today-Sunday

Where: Royal Troon; Troon, Scotland

Course: Par 71, 7,175 yards

TV: Today-tomorrow, 7 a.m.-2:30 p.m., TNT; Saturday, 7-9 a.m., TNT; 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7; Sunday 6-8 a.m., TNT; 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7. Defending champion: Ben Curtis

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