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Royal Troon will offer great golfing intrigue this week.


Quin Hillyer

Whether fans see sport as spectacle, as gripping drama, as character test–or as morality tale, patriotic grudge match, or human-interest tableau–this week’s Open Championship (“British Open,” as Americans often incorrectly call it) promises to be one of the most entertaining sporting events in years.

In the grand old game of golf, sportsmanship still reigns, steroids aren’t even a question, sheer athleticism is on the upswing, and competition has never been better. And as this British Open begins on Thursday at the superb, supremely fair links known as “Royal Troon,” more great players, more rising stars, and more grizzled veterans alike arrive at the tournament with their games in top shape and their legitimate hopes for victory.

Of all the Open Championship courses, Troon–in southwest Scotland, hard by the Irish Sea–is the one that most thoroughly and directly hugs a real shoreline, the one with the fewest quirky shots, the one with the most dramatic change of personality between the front nine and the back. The tee box of its most famous hole, the tiny-greened, 123-yard par-3 known as the Postage Stamp, stands on a hillock so exposed to the fierce sea winds that at least one slender golfer has been be blown almost entirely off balance while in mid-swing (believe me, I know).

And because of a number of factors, including the famous “slump” of Tiger Woods (Lord, bless us all with “slumps” so sublime!), Troon this year offers a proving ground on which any number of jousters could stake a claim both as this year’s greatest golfer and, more importantly, as a competitor so accomplished that he belongs in the same conversation as the top 20 or 25 players in the game’s history.

Ernie Els comes to Troon with dreams of a fourth major championship, which would elevate him above the near-greats–the Hale Irwins and Nick Prices–into the pantheon of the game’s greatest champions. Third just last week at the Scottish Open, with three worldwide wins and a second in the Masters already this year, the South African is within striking distance of taking the top spot in the world rankings away from Tiger Woods.

Another South African, Retief Goosen, won his second U.S. Open in June and followed up with a win in Europe just two weeks ago. A British title would tie him in major championships with his childhood rival, Els.

Vijay Singh, the proud man from the Fiji Islands, knows that major championships after a 40th birthday are rare. At 41, he longs desperately for a third major title, in pursuit of a career grand slam. With three regular-tour victories already this year, plus a second, a third, and last week’s fourth-place finish in Illinois, Singh believes he has the right stuff to win redemption for faltering down the stretch at last year’s British Open.

Another man who had last year’s tournament for the taking before stumbling on the final day is American Davis Love III. One of the most gifted players in several generations, Love does not want to be ranked with former Troon champion Tom Weiskopf as the most talented golfers to end their careers with only one major championship each. At 40, Love too is running out of time–but in his last two rounds at the Western Open two weeks ago, he awoke from a months-long slumber and served notice that his game again is in gear.

Phil Mickelson, of course, always commands attention; and his Masters victory this year, followed by his thrilling-but-failed bid to take the U.S. Open as well (he finished second), has helped him overtake Tiger Woods as the game’s most compelling figure.

Ah, yes, Tiger. Poor, pitiful Tiger. Tiger whose game, say the critics, has completely run away from him. Tiger who “only” finished 22nd in the Masters and 17th at a brutal U.S. Open. This Tiger is a horribly plagued critter with merely one victory this year. And two thirds. And two fourths. And two sevenths, including two weeks ago at the prestigious Western Open. That’s where this beleaguered player, who is so delusional about being “really close” to finding his proper swing mechanics with a driver, merely hit eleven of 14 fairways in windy conditions on the final day. Eleven of 14 fairways in the wind at Troon, combined with Woods’s unmatched creativity and putting stroke, and Tiger could eat the whole rest of the field for breakfast and not even burp.

Woods, Els, Mickelson, Singh, Love, Goosen: So those are the six with attainable dreams of career greatness who could be crowned at Troon. Significantly, there’s not a European among them. Therein lies a major subplot: Not in a quarter-century has Europe gone so long–five full years and counting–without at least one of its sons claiming a major championship. Europe (or at least Western Europe, where most of the golfers come from), in the midst of a wave of anti-Americanism, with a Europe-vs.-United States Ryder Cup on the fall horizon and a potential Ryder Cup team looking even more underwhelming on paper than usual, wants to reclaim the Open Championship on a course where Americans have won the last five times it played host. Even in friendly Scotland, the Americans may face hostility of the sort to which they are not accustomed.

One European, though, does seem primed. Young Sergio Garcia has finished in the top ten in the past three British Opens. On a course that will reward accuracy, he hits it straighter than almost anybody on earth. And he has won twice on the American tour in the past ten weeks.

An odd statistic from previous Opens at Troon favors Sergio. Nobody who has ever played a previous Open Championship at Troon has ever won the title there. And all who have won there in the past four decades have been on hot streaks, just like Sergio. In 1962, Arnold Palmer was the hottest player on the planet. Ditto for Weiskopf in 1973 (three victories in his previous six tournaments). The same for Tom Watson in 1982. In 1989 the world’s premier player was Greg Norman, who lost in a playoff to that year’s hottest, Mark Calcavecchia, who was coming off second- and fourth-place tournament finishes in the previous month on top of two victories earlier in the year. And in 1997, Justin Leonard won at Troon after a victory, a third, and a fifth in the preceding six weeks.

Sergio Garcia has never played a British Open at Troon. Neither have young Australian Adam Scott–two victories this year, including one three weeks ago–or Bunyanesque. John Daly, with a win among four top-tens this year and a fierce desire to qualify for his first-ever Ryder Cup match. And all three have enough power to fight the headwinds on Troon’s long, brutal back nine.

Nine players, therefore, top the field. Throw in the enigmatic Colin Montgomery–whose father was Troon’s longtime club secretary and who has played the course hundreds of times–and that makes ten not-so-little Indians, all vying to be chief. In a tiny seaside village, with howling winds likely to create atmospherics worthy of Agatha Christie, it should be a murderously good show.

Quin Hillyer, an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register, had his golf swing blown out of kilter at Troon in 1999. In particular, the Postage Stamp licked him, and he spent the entire back nine lost in the rough.