Els seeks hat-trick by bonnie banks

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The Independent Online

Organisers of the Barclays Scottish Open here breathed a sigh of relief when Ernie Els eventually concluded that a competitive workout on the bonnie banks was the best way to prepare for St Andrews. The world No 3, tired and disappointed after failing to shine at the Masters or US Open, had contemplated having a break this week. Instead he will be seeking a third Scottish Open to add to those he won in 2000 and 2003.

Phil Mickelson, another of the eight top-20 players on the menu here, also had one eye on the Old Course. He entered the debate about the changes the Royal and Ancient have made - including moving five tees and bringing a variety of bunkers into play --and disagreed with those, like Tiger Woods, who have voiced scepticism.

"A lot of the holes are very difficult and challenging because the bunkers are now very strategically placed, so I think it has been very well done," said Mickelson, who spent a couple of days surveying the new-look Open set-up before heading west for this event.

"It's not tricked up," he added. "It's as fair as ever. It's really in great shape. I'm really impressed with the set-up. St Andrews just has a different feel than any course because you just feel the sense of history and the sense of golf being there." Never mind golf, Michelle Wie could conceivably be there. America's 15-year-old prodigy will today make her third start in a PGA Tour event, in the John Deere Classis in Illinois, an event with one Open place up for grabs for the leading non-exempt player. However, to make The Open, and history (by becoming the first woman in a men's major), Wie is likely to require a top-10 finish at least this week.

Her hopes are put in perspective by odds of 600-1 to win in Silvis, and the fact that no woman has even made the cut in a men's event in the modern era.

Making the cut here, where the prize pot is £2.4m and the winner takes home £400,000, is not something anyone should take for granted.

Those missing it last year included Mickelson, who will be pushed again this time by the likes of Els, Retief Goosen (the world No 5), Adam Scott (No 7), England's Luke Donald (No 14), Angel Cabrera (No 15), Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke (No 17) and Miguel Angel Jimenez (No 20).

Colin Montgomerie, Paul Lawrie and Sandy Lyle head up a 20-strong Scottish contingent, while the field also includes both next year's Ryder Cup captains, America's Tom Lehman and Welshman Ian Woosnam.

Thomas Levet of France, who stormed from seven strokes back to win on the Sunday last year, returns to defend. "It would be great to play more links courses," he said, when asked whether an inland warm-up was the best way to prepare for The Open. "But when you have a course as good as this, I wouldn't mind playing it every week."

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