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Open Championship Preview

-by Michael A. Riley

The Open Championship, or as we call it on this side of the pond, “The British Open,” is annually one of the most compelling tournaments in all of sports. The modern game of golf can be traced back to the shores of Scotland in the 15th century, and players from all over the world desire to kiss the Claret Jug – perhaps more than any other trophy in the sport. This week, the championship will be held at the legendary “links” course at Muirfield, just outside of Edinburgh, for the 16th time. Note the official name of the course: Muirfield – The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Oh yeah, they take this game seriously in Scotland.

Ernie Els, seen here winning the Open Championship in 2002 at Muirfield (Photo: cnn.com)

The field of players is one of the deepest in recent memory. Ernie Els is back to defend his title from last year, and winning the 2002 Open Championship at this same course makes him clearly one of the favorites. Tiger Woods has won the trophy three times, but never at Muirfield. As a matter-of-fact, his worst ever round as a professional came at Muirfield in the third round of the 2002 tournament (81). Can he get over that nightmare, as well as a recent elbow injury, and win major No. 15? I would never count out the greatest player of this generation, even if his game has suffered a bit in recent years. Tom Watson, 63, is back, and the five-time Open champion almost always seems to find the fountain of youth every time he plays across the pond. No one will soon forget how he was thisclose to becoming the oldest winner of a major, when he took the lead going into the final round – and also going into the 72nd and final hole – only to lose in a playoff to Stewart Cink. Oh yeah, he also won at Muirfield…back in 1980. Whoa!

Throw in recent winners such as Louis Oosthuizen, Darren Clarke, two-time winner Padraig Harrington and thrice champion Nick Faldo, and the field is as deep as many of the infamous British Open bunkers. Oh, and did I mention that Phil Mickelson just won the Scottish Open in dramatic style in a sudden death playoff on Sunday in the lead-up to this event? Once again, we learned why he is called “Phil the Thrill”, and he proved he could win on a links course (for those needing a lesson in golf vernacular, links courses usually are coastal lands that have sandy soil, undulating terrain, little vegetation and barely any trees).

This is going to be some tournament!

The weather conditions, an overlying hallmark of any Open Championship, will be classic Scottish. The forecast calls for a high of around 73 degrees on Thursday when the first round of action is played. That is a bit chilly by our summer standards, but over there, it’s a bit warm. Sure, it will be windy, with gusts of up to 20 mph. They say it is always windy in Scotland. Rain? Why not. It only rains about 360 days a year in Edinburgh. Best to break out your sweaters (or as the Brits call it, your jumper).

The course will be tough – as per usual – for an Open Championship. I don’t think you will need to be 10 under par to win, but remember 1999, when local hero Paul Lawrie (the last Scotsman to win) emerged as the victor with a final score of six over par. That was at the brutal Royal Carnoustie links, just off the North Sea, where many a golfer has seen their hopes of winning a tournament vanish like the legendary Loch Ness monster. Just ask Jean van de Velde.

So, what do we expect to see this week? Ernie Els is dead set on winning his third Open Championship to cement his already legendary career. Tiger is looking to win his first major in what seems like an interminable drought after winning 14 such events early in his career before being sidelined with “non-golf” issues.

After finishing in a tie for second in 2011 at Royal St. George’s, Mickelson missed the cut at last year’s Open Championship (AP)

He is chasing the record of 18 majors held by the great Jack Nicklaus, and it seemed like it was a given that he would surpass that a few years ago. But he has not been able to pull it off and time is catching up with him. That said, he has won four tournaments in 2013 in nine PGA Tour starts. Mickelson has never won a British Open, yet is looking like he is playing the best he has in years after the Scottish Open tournament win and his near-miss at the U.S. Open last month at Merion. So you can’t count him out, and he REALLY wants this one. A first win in the Open Championship would fill one hole on his Hall-of-Fame resume. Because of the momentum he is carrying to Muirfield, I am “all-in” on Lefty. Phil Mickelson is going to finally hold the Claret Jug, arguably the most coveted trophy in the game.

So raise a nip of Scotch whisky, pull on your jumper, and enjoy this tournament. Golf, the way it was meant to be played. The Open Championship.

**To find out some of the key holes to pay attention to while watching the 2013 Open Championship, go to the Open Championship: Holes to Watch page.

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