Classic in prospect as Woods and Els battle with history

Portents look good but precedents are poor as duel between world No 1 and Open champion is expected in 132nd Championship
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The best players in the world on top form, a links in prime condition, playing firm and fast, and a late afternoon thunderstorm on the eve of the Championship. The portents for the 132nd Open are remarkably similar to those of 10 years ago at this course. Then a classic Championship ensued with Greg Norman holding off the challenges of Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer.

Another Sandwich thriller is anticipated with Tiger Woods and Ernie Els both having won on their last appearances and both by the convincing margin of five strokes. At this very English club, the cross of St George flags that mark the holes on the 18 greens were packed away last night. Today, and for the three days that follow, they will be replaced by special Open Championship flags. From now on if you cannot stand the heat, and the temperatures for the practice rounds were sizzling, stay out of the Kitchen.

The hollow on the first fairway, which is so named, is only one of the features that make many of the fairways so difficult to hold from the tee. What marks out the Open, and this one in particular, is the necessity to think your way around the course more than merely blazing away with raw power. "The winner won't necessarily be the guy who plays the best golf, but the guy who manages his game the best," Padraig Harrington said.

That a variety of styles, and a number of ways of playing the course, could succeed here makes for an intriguing prospect. But while Woods strongly cautioned that this championship was about more than a battle between the world No 1 and his nearest challenger on the world rankings, the initial focus will be on whether they can get into contention.

Woods has not won any of the last four major championships, not a crime but an unusual state of affairs in the game over the last four years. The 27-year-old American made hesitant starts to both the Masters and the US Open, regrouped but then failed to contend when it mattered. His victory at the Western Open displayed his old authority and he has carried an air of determination with him to Kent.

"The press Tiger has been getting about not winning a major in a year is ridiculous," Els said. "But I think he's going to try to prove something this week." Mike Weir, the first-ever Canadian major winner, and Jim Furyk sneaked in to take the honours at the first two majors of the year.

"It looks like the other players are closing in on Tiger after the last two majors but then I'm sure Tiger is aware of that," Nick Faldo said. "He's going to make a big effort this week. He's the shotmaker at the moment. I'm sure he is enjoying it out there."

While Tiger has had to learn the browning links over the last four days, Els took a liking to the course 10 years ago, when he finished sixth. He scored under 70 in all four rounds, the first time the feat had been achieved in the Open, though it was matched, minutes later, by Norman.

The South African's victory at Loch Lomond last week took his tally to the year to five, compared to Tiger's four. At Muirfield last year, Els survived the third-round storm that did for Tiger to become the champion golfer of the year. His nerves in trying to win his first major for five years were evident as he almost collapsed on the final day before winning in a play-off. Now he is inspired by confronting the world No 1 in a major.

Woods and Els finished one-two in the US Open and the Open in 2000; but by the little matter of 15 and eight strokes. For Els to retain his title he would have match Tom Watson's feat of 20 years ago at Royal Birkdale. But it is 10 years since a former winner has triumphed again so Els and Woods have history with which to contend.

While the electrical activity brought an early end of the last day of practice, the Royal and Ancient were more concerned about the rain that accompanied the stormy weather. "Hopefully, it won't be enough to change the nature of the course as we see it now," said Peter Dawson, secretary of the R and A. "The players' impressions so far seem to be positive. They have all come to the UK to play links golf, and that's what they've got."

Opens here are usually accompanied by bellyaching from the players about the quirky nature of the links. But that most this time think it is fair, despite the fact that many of the fairways at modern driving distances can throw good drives into the rough, is a testament to the quality of the lay-out.

As Harrington, who, like his northern compatriot, Darren Clarke, grew up playing links golf, pointed out that a traditional links offers many alternative paths to the green. Those who go with the driver can expect to be playing out of the rough, while those who lay back to find the flatter parts of the fairway will still have the opportunity to run their approaches on to the greens from well short of the putting surfaces.

But whatever the strategy, the execution will have to be precise. "People might say the rough does not look very rough but it is difficult to get the ball close to the hole when you are not on the fairway," Nick Price said. Dawson called it "half-shot rough, rather than a one-shot rough".

Dawson added: "We will hear a lot about bounces this week. Good golfers who play this course regularly say the bounces are predictable when you get to know the course. Often a bad bounce is encountered by hitting the wrong club."

While most modern courses demand shots of a precise yardage, on a links the "feel" of a shot is as important. Colin Montgomerie, whose record in the Open is poor compared to his other achievements, said: "I've always been proud of the way I can hit a shot 178 yards, whatever the club. On a dry links it's not 178. It might be 160, or 165. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."

Those who are more comfortable on a links, however, worry less and imagine more. "Precise numbers go out the window on a links," said Woods. "It's more fun playing creative shots. It brings something to the game that modern design has gone away from." The forecast is for the breeze to be at its strongest today. If so, plodders need not apply. Step forward the plotters.

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