Golf: The 121st Open: Faldo poised to profit from five-year itch: Britain's tournament favourite will welcome a wind of change to stem the American tide of recent success in majors

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THE OLD silver claret jug is safely in the custody of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, back at a course once dismissed by a Scottish heretic as an auld watter meadie. That was 100 years ago when Mr Harold Hilton, an amateur from Hoylake, won the Open Championship with a score of 305. When Nick Faldo won here five years ago the score nobody could beat was 279. Hilton won the Open again in 1897 and there is evidence to suggest that another Englishman, namely Faldo, can satisfy the five-year itch.

The bookmakers believe that Faldo is up to scratch, making him the 7-1 favourite. Considering what is about to unfold over the next four days, over 72 holes, over a links that may or may not be at the mercy of the weather, over rough, over sand and with the Americans over here, these are particularly parsimonious odds. Nevertheless, of the field of 156, a betting man has to include Faldo in his considerations. He is 119 under par for 14 tournaments this year and the only question mark on the betting slip is over his ability to kill off the opposition down the finishing stretch.

Despite the impressive statistics, Faldo has only the Irish Open to his name and he nearly blew that one after spreadeagling the field. 'I've got my name on the trophy and in five years' time they won't know what the hell I did,' he pointed out, quite accurately. He has finished in the top three in six tournaments and in the top 10 in 11. Backed each way he is a blue-chip investment. In addition to his admirable form is the venue for the 121st Open. Faldo is a course and, apart from the addition of seven yards, distance winner. He is at home here. 'If I could play one type of course for the rest of my life it would be a links,' he said this week. Asked to elaborate he conceded that of all the links in all the world he would walk onto Muirfield's. 'Nicest, fairest,' he said. 'It's nice to be back, nice to walk onto the 18th tee, very nice feeling. This is where it all started.'

It all started for Faldo on the first tee in the final round in 1987. He made par and, on a foul day even by Scottish standards, proceeded to par the living daylights out of Muirfield and the rest of the field. Paul Azinger was in a position to stop him but finished six, five. Faldo, and others, will welcome a wind of change this week. A becalmed Muirfield would be like scaling Everest in an elevator. 'Semi-boring,' according to the world No 1, Fred Couples, another member of the wind section. Because of a shortage of rain, the rough is a lot less rougher than in previous Muirfield Opens.

Since Tom Watson won the fifth of his Opens in 1983 the Americans have had a lean run in Britain, broken by Mark Calcavecchia's victory at Royal Troon in 1989. And that was something of a fluke. Over 72 holes any winner would be on first name terms with Lady Luck but Calcavecchia consummated the relationship. This season, however, there has been a sea change, the score in the majors to date is: US 2, Rest of the World 0.

The chokers have stopped choking. Couples maintained his phenomenal form and almost walked across the waters of the Rubicon by winning the Masters at Augusta National, thus ending the British colonisation of Georgia. The US Open at Pebble Beach in California was won by Tom Kite, another man renowned for winning everything but the ones that really matter. Under the most trying circumstances, Kite shot 72 in the final round, an achievement on a par with Faldo's performance here five years ago.

It is possible that Kite, fuelled by hot ire, won on the rebound after missing the Masters. He was not at all amused that Greg Norman received an invitation while he did not. Similarly Norman did not play in the US Open and that taught him a salutary lesson. His raison d'etre was not to make dollars 10m ( pounds 5.8m) a year by advertising hamburgers and that realisation could make Norman dangerous again.

'When you don't work at golf you pay the price,' he said. 'Now I want to get back. The pressure to win is greater as you get older. When you are a rookie there is no pressure because you have nothing to prove. You have had no experience, you go for broke. Now I am comfortable with my mental and physical ability. I feel more comfortable than I have ever done.' Some of the credit for that can go to Bob Hawke, the former prime minister of Australia. Hawke asked him about the damage caused by so many near- misses. 'I had it locked up inside me,' Norman said. 'I just let it go and felt so much better.'

Norman finished second to Ben Crenshaw in the Western Open in Chicago two weeks ago. The Texan's star has faded since then, culminating in his failure to qualify for the Open, but while he was here he threw some light on Norman and Faldo. 'Norman is very hungry,' Crenshaw said, 'and he's driving the ball spectacularly. Muirfield is very much a driver's course.' Crenshaw partnered Faldo in the Scottish Open at Gleneagles last week. 'He looked rock solid. He is much stronger than when I played with him in the Masters in 1984. He is thought of as the best player in the world and has consistently performed over the last six or seven years.'

The same cannot be said of Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Jose- Maria Olazabal and Sandy Lyle. Ballesteros, who has won the Open on three occasions, has been out of sorts, out of form, out of contention. 'I'm looking for inspiration,' he said, and he hoped to find it in the support of the galleries. When did he last have this inspiration? When he won the Open at Royal Lytham in 1988 came the reply.

If Norman's slump has peaked, Ballesteros's could be deepening. He shot 81 in the last round of the Masters this year, 79 in the last round of the US Open. Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champion, is fallible on the greens and as a result his confidence is lower than his centre of gravity. Olazabal does not appear to have fully recovered from finishing runner-up to Woosnam in the Masters after taking a bogey at the last. He withdrew from the French Open a few weeks ago saying he was mentally exhausted. He is the only player in the field to have prepared for the Open by going shopping with his mother.

Lyle, who joined the upper crust by winning the Open at Sandwich in 1985, is at present a slice short of a full loaf. He is satisfied with his putting and nothing else. This week he is reunited with his wife and caddie, Jolande, who yesterday got her sums wrong during a practice round. Having miscalculated the distance to the 15th green, she advised Lyle to use a nine-iron instead of a seven and he came up short.

Faldo says he will not come up short. 'I have been preparing for this one,' he said. 'Every part of my game is good.' He had a replica made of the claret jug. He has the mettle to be re-united with the original.

Hole-by-hole guide to Muirfield

Ken Jones on Peter Alliss, page 36

(Photograph omitted)

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