Clever money should follow links lovers in open race

Such is the capricious nature of Sandwich that experience of the conditions will be crucial when deciding who to back.
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The Independent Online

This time last year, the world No 1, Tiger Woods, was widely backed at a staggering 7-4 to win his second Open Championship.

His current relative slump in form can be put into perspective by noting that the bookmakers are "only" offering 4-1 this year, but still make him the overwhelming favourite in the field of 156.

These are remarkably short odds. Unlike in the World Championship in snooker or tennis's Wimbledon, for example, where the winner has to win only a handful of head-to-head matches, Woods must beat every other player in the field. Nor does he have the benefit of a seeding system to facilitate his passage into the latter stages.

As its name suggests, the Open is just that. And with a total of around £5m staked on last year's championship at Muirfield, betting on Britain's most prestigious tournament has become big business.

Like the Grand National, its popularity with occasional gamblers is derived from the fact that rank outsiders can win. Take the Scotsman Paul Lawrie, at Carnoustie in 1999, who came through the qualifying competition and was available at around 150-1 prior to the event. Or the 1995 champion, America's John Daly at St Andrews. Despite having a major to his name and possessing a game ideally suited to the peculiar rigours of the Old Course, he was available at 66-1.

Ladbrokes's Balthazar Fabricius says his firm is expecting bets to increase by a third this year, largely because a Woods win is not seen as a formality. "It's definitely more competitive," he said. "We're taking a better spread of bets with a lot of punters going for each-way chances. When you're backing players at 66-1, you can make a good potential return."

It remains the case that an in-form Woods will win almost any given strokeplay tournament. But it also true that he has yet to come to terms with the unique challenges of the Open. Woods is obsessive about being in control and the capricious nature of seaside golf is not necessarily to his liking. His only Claret Jug to date came at a benign St Andrews in 2000, when he was at the peak of his powers. The home of golf, anyway, is an exception to most rules and certainly poses different challenges to other Open courses.

At 7,106 yards, Sandwich is not especially long. Several tee shots are blind and many of the fairways crumpled. Few of the par fours and fives are straight and pot bunkers decorate the angles of the dog-legs. Although not especially tight, nobody paying regular visits to the juicy rough can prosper.

So presuming Woods is not at his imperious best, and that on at least one of the four days the Kent coast is buffeted by winds, the eventual champion will need to be able to accept the occasional bad break and know when to attack.

Furthermore, the Open is an acquired taste, and few international players take to it immediately. So although recent form is a useful indicator, those who have done well in previous years are often well worth backing on an each-way basis.

Nick Price (50-1) and Fred Couples (100-1) are two that fit the bill. Zimbabwean Price is a past champion and is enjoying a fine season, including a top-10 at the US Open last month. Couples, meanwhile, has overcome the back problems that have dogged his career and has rediscovered the desire to win. He has a string of top-10 Open finishes to his name and revels in the opportunity to play creative shots around the greens. His unflappable nature is a real asset in a major where bogeys and birdies are often traded with regularity.

Nor can Bernhard Langer be discounted. The German has finished in the top five in each of the last three Opens to be held at Sandwich and, at 100-1, should offer interest well into the weekend.

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