Is it going to be "Tiger Time" this week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes? Will he lift the Claret Jug for a fourth time?
Oddsmakers the world over seem to think so, with Mr. Woods the favorite to win his first major since 2008 as the British Open gears up, beginning Thursday in Lancashire.
Of course, Tiger’s 2012 season has already been wildly successful with three tour wins, but the nature of the sports media beast has come to put the "majors" under such a microscope that Woods’ year will not be deemed a complete success unless he wins one of the big ones. Ridiculous, to be sure, but Tiger has caught more grief for his down-the-leaderboard finishes at the Masters and US Open than praise for the other wins, the most recent of which three weeks ago in the AT&T National at Congressional.
Such is the nature of the monster created by the Tiger man, who continues to be measured only against his past accomplishments.
Speaking of monsters, how about the layout at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, treacherous under the best of conditions with its well-placed 205 pot bunkers. Moreover, the wet spring has the native grass covering the dunes and hillocks extremely thick; any balls straying too far off of the fairways could be lost forever.
While not quite on the water, its proximity to the Irish Sea still allows for strong winds to come into play. Royal Lytham is also unique among tourney layouts in that its first hole is a par three.
And then there is the weather, which can change in a snap on the British seaside. Forecasts this week call for rain to abate by Thursday morning, and a "dry spell" expected over the following few days with winds that could howl to as much as 25 mph. But, as always, weather forecasts come with an asterisk in the northern reaches of England.
Royal Lytham is also an honored part of the British Open rotation, although it hasn’t hosted one since 2001, when David Duval survived to record his only win in a major.
Past winners at Royal Lytham also include Tom Lehman (‘96), the late Seve Ballesteros (twice, in ‘88 and ‘79)), the great Gary Player (‘74), Brit Tony Jacklin (‘69), Aussies Bob Charles (the smooth lefty winning in ‘63) and Peter Thompson (‘58), South African Bobby Locke (in ‘52), and the legendary Bobby Jones (1926). Duval, Lehman and Jones are the only Americans to win the Open Championship at Royal Lytham.
Majors have been wide-open affairs lately, with the last 15 being won by as many different players, a streak exceeded only by the 18 straight majors won by different players between 1983-87. Of course, this dates to Tiger’s last major win at the US Open in 2008 at Torrey Pines.
Woods, it should be noted, tied for 22nd as the low amateur in 1996, and tied for 25th, in his past Open experiences at Royal Lytham.
Many insiders suggest that better price value probably can be found with European golfers, who are more used to the slower green surfaces that are a trademark of British golf. By comparison, the US Tour greens are considerably more slick.
Following are looks at some of the top contenders this week, with win odds accompanying.
Tiger Woods (9/1): Prohibitively favored, although there are many who still won’t touch any golfer listed under 10/1 to win a tourney. Tiger has won three times this season but has also been far back in pack on several other occasions. Woods, who had not played the course since the last Open at this venue in 2001, was able to get in extra practice rounds earlier this week when the weather cooperated, and suggests his new-found accuracy can play well at this links course. Tiger, who used his driver only once when winning this event at Royal Liverpool in 2006, will feel more comfy playing it conservatively this week, a necessity perhaps off the tee with the thick rough looming menacingly aside the fairways. The three-time British Open winner will be paired with Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose in Thursday’s featured trio.
Lee Westwood (14/1): The first major is always the toughest to win, but even by that definition, the top-class Westwood is long overdue. Pressure is on to become the first Brit to win an Open on English soil since the aforementioned Tony Jacklin in 1969. Flopped at Royal St. George’s last July when missing the cut. Came close at The Masters when finishing in a tie for third. Sometimes-erratic short game has cost him in past majors, though Westwood believes he is beyond those problems now.
Luke Donald (18/1): Like Westwood missed the cut last year at Royal St. George’s; like Westwood also looking for his first win in a major. Has won on the US PGA Tour this season (the transitions Championship in March at Innisbrook) but far off the pace in The Masters (finishing tied for 32nd) and US Open (where he missed the cut).
Rory McIlroy (18/1): Flying a bit under the radar, missing the cut four times in his last six tourneys, McIlroy has ceded the limelight, which was all his last year at this time after winning the US Open, to Tiger. Capable of the big effort and rising to the occasion, so cannot be summarily dismissed. Is McIlroy too reckless, too careless, too aggressive to work out a links course? Still has the ability to rip any course to pieces, yet the hyperbole begins anew with his first under-par round. We’d keep an eye on McIlroy if within striking distance on Sunday.
Phil Mickelson (28/1): Lefty’s four wins in majors do not include a British open. Form has been erratic since a seventh-place finish in the Byron Nelson at Las Colinas in mid-May, withdrawing from Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial due to back problems, far out of the running in the US Open (tying for 65th), and missing the cut entirely at the Greenbrier two weeks ago. Recovered somewhat at last week’s Scottish Open, putting himself in contention with rounds of 64 and 65, then falling out of it with a grim 74.
Sergio Garcia (33/1): Speaking about never winning a major, meet Garcia, once considered a worthy rival of contemporary Tiger, but having disappointed too often on the big stage. But like his countrymen from Spain who used to flatter to deceive in major international soccer tournaments before getting the hang of things, perhaps the best is yet to come from Garcia, who has hinted at special efforts this season. Should not be spooked by Royal Lytham after a solid 9th-place finish in 2001.
Francesco Molinari (35/1): Hits the British coast in good form after losing in a playoff to Jeev Milkha Singh in last week’s Scottish Open. The Italian already has a win in the Spanish Open and top 10 finishes in France and Ireland in this season’s European tour. Not rattled by links courses, which he has tamed since his days as a successful amateur.
Others to watch, including a few bombers: Louis Oosthuizen (45/1), Jason Dufner (45/1), Ian Poulter (50/1), Zach Johnson (70/1), Martin Laird (90/1), Andres Romero (150/1).
As always, stay tuned.