Epic setting for Woods' pursuit of history

Dominant American is overwhelming favourite to become youngest winner of all four majors on course providing 'ultimate challenge'

Not surprisingly for such a golfing town, whoever selects the films here at The New Picture House on North Street, just round the corner from Golf Place, got it about right. On show this week are
Chicken Run,
The Miracle Maker and
Mission: Impossible 2. Tiger Woods and his supporting cast could be starring in a medley of all three at the 129th Open Championship.

Not surprisingly for such a golfing town, whoever selects the films here at The New Picture House on North Street, just round the corner from Golf Place, got it about right. On show this week are Chicken Run, The Miracle Maker and Mission: Impossible 2. Tiger Woods and his supporting cast could be starring in a medley of all three at the 129th Open Championship.

A parade of past champions over four holes of the Old Course yesterday afternoon was just the "B" feature, though the unique gathering, from 88-year-old Sam Snead to last year's winner, Paul Lawrie, provided a memorable occasion. The nostalgiafest done with, the epic that will stretch over these four days has much to live up to.

The stage could not be finer, or more different from the regular Tour fare or even last year's Open. Carnoustie and the rough has been left behind. The Old Course is a traditional fast-running links, the grass only just still green, just as the Royal and Ancient asked the Links Trust for two years ago.

"I am as comfortable here today," Hugh Campbell, chairman of the Championship Committee, said, "as I was uncomfortable at this time a year ago." Record crowds, surpassing the 208,000 whoattended here 10 years ago, are expected.

No one has more of a sense of occasion than Woods. However, the world No 1 is also the best prepared at shutting out the distractions. He will be ready for business at 9.30 this morning, exactly the tee-time he might have chosen. Woods arrived at Pebble Beach last month determined to play his best, led from the first morning and won the 100th US Open by 15 strokes, the greatest winning margin in 140 years of major championships.

Claiming the Millennium Open at St Andrews has also tickled the Tiger's fancy. Victory this week would make him only the fifth player to win each of the four major championships and, at 24, the youngest.

Whether he can attain such a peak again so soon will be fascinating. He won the Masters in 1997 by 12 strokes but could not be less concerned by the margin, just the winning. "It doesn't matter whether it's 15 strokes or one, it's just the same," he said.

Can Woods be beaten? "Of course he's beatable," said Darren Clarke, who did just that in the final of the World Matchplay in San Diego. "Tiger is the favourite anywhere he goes because he is the best player, but every week is a new week," Jesper Parnevik said. "Tiger wants his last leg of the slam, but I'm just as determined to stop him and I'm sure a lot of other guys are too."

The weather, as always here, will play a vital part. So far the sun has shone, continuing to bake the fairways, and there has been enough breeze to make the players think. "The forecast is for winds of 10 to 15 mph," Campbell said. "On my wish list we would like winds of 15 to 20 mph."

With everyone seeing their drives running massive distances, Woods's length may not be such an advantage. His control will. Flirting with the danger - heather, bushes and pot bunkers - gives the easier line in for the second shots. The hole locations will be tucked away in the most awkward spots.

There are two key strategies this week: staying out of the bunkers (Nick Faldo found only one when he won in 1990) and carefully weighting 50 and 60-foot putts (John Daly did not three-putt in his 1995 triumph). Woods's superior shot-making may offer him more birdie chances than anyone else but should he find himself in a pot bunker he could be as helpless as anyone else.

All 112 bunkers have been revetted, making the sides almost vertical. Yesterday morning, following comments from the players, every bunker was raked to try and prevent balls being buried under the lips. "Never have I seen more severe bunkers in my life," Hal Sutton said. "They've created the ultimate challenge."

Sutton emphasised the changes players will have to make this week and why the leaderboard is likely to be dominated by flair players such as Woods, the Spanish pair of Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Parnevik, although the Swede has a hip injury.

"It is going to take a game with a lot of feel and imagination to win," Sutton said. "All the American players have found that a lob wedge does you very little good on this course. The second thing is we usually rely heavily on yardage books, but they don't do you a lot of good either. I discarded the lob wedge but will carry the yardage book just as a little security factor."

Unless Faldo can continue his revival and sneak into contention, Clarke, Lee Westwood (winner of his last two tournaments) and Colin Montgomerie will carry the home hopes. But it was Lawrie who attended the Past Champions' Dinner on Tuesday night. The Scot injured his left wrist when he was hit by a youngster at a clinic on Tuesday morning but played 16 holes in the morning before the Champions' Challenge. "It was lucky he hit my watch," Lawrie said. "The swelling went down overnight but I am having regular ice treatment. I've not had a twinge. It's perfect."

Lawrie added: "This is a great place to defend an Open title. It's obviously a huge event and there are going to be huge crowds. I had a whale of a time at the Champions' Dinner. All the old boys were up telling stories. It brought it home what it means to everyone to be the Open champion."

FOUR OUTSIDERS TO FOLLOW AT ST ANDREWS

DARREN CLARKE

Northern Ireland, 31

Current European No 1 after his victory over Tiger Woods in the Anderson Consulting World Matchplay at the start of the year. Also won the English Open in June. Runner-up to Justin Leonard at Royal Troon in 1997, when conditions were also hard and fast. Tied for 31st at St Andrews in 1995. Spent two days last week practising at Sunningdale with Butch Harmon, Woods' coach. World ranking: 13

CARLOS FRANCO

Paraguay, 35

One of six brothers who became golf professionals after learning to play barefoot. Only reached the US Tour last year but has won three times, retaining his Compaq Classic title in New Orleans in April. Rarely practises but sometimes has to resort to putting with his driver. Twice equalled the record of 65 over the lengthened Old Course during the Alfred Dunhill Cup.

World ranking: 20

SERGIO GARCIA

Spain, 20

With the Old Course playing as a true links conditions could not be more different from Carnoustie where El Niño finished dead last at 30 over. Led Spain to the Alfred Dunhill Cup title last October, showing he has all the imagination required to master the course, although is suspect in strong winds. Leapt into gallery's affections by chasing Woods home at the USPGA last year.

World ranking: 15

PHIL MICKELSON

United States, 30

Naturally right-handed but learned the game the other way round as a mirror image of his father's swing. Practised legendary short game around a green built in their back garden. Has won three times this year but record in the Open is poor, 24th in 1997 his best. But coped with similar conditions at Pinehurst last year in finishing runner-up to Payne Stewart in the US Open.

World ranking: 7

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