Sir Nick Faldo yesterday made a prediction which will excite all of those British golf fans who remember him as the last home Open winner at the Home of Golf. "Something is going to happen this week," said the 1990 champion. "I would think a British winner is a probable."
A probable? At Tiger's place? That is some statement, considering the fact that the world No 1 has won the last two majors held on the Old Course by a combined margin of 13 shots. But then, when Justin Rose tees off alongside Woods in the 9.09am grouping today, there will be only one golfer with the recent victories to claim the intimidation factor. Rose has won two of his last three events; Woods has lost every event he has entered in 2010. There is so much to indicate that only the bookmakers have Tiger Woods as the clear favourite to make history and win his third St Andrews Open.
Of course, Woods can never be written off at the course he calls "my favourite on earth", regardless of the state of either his life or his game. Yet the temptation is to read the forecasts and do just that. Yesterday the rain, the wind, the fog and the cold forced the cancellation of the Champions Challenge. In the opinion of a few experts here, similar conditions will ruin the champion's challenge. The champion who is Woods has yet to won an Open in anything other than breathless conditions, even when he has gone in on form.
He is certainly not that now, as shown by his decision to employ a new putter for the first time in 12 years. There are two things a pro must do to prevail at St Andrews. The first is to stay out of the bunkers. The second is to avoid the three-putts on the huge greens. While Woods has so emphatically proved he has everything required to achieve both these aims, does he still possess what it takes for the mental test? After everything he has been through? Just one of the question marks which will accompany the most ridiculed sportsman on the planet.
That is why good judges such as Faldo are finding it so irresistible to look elsewhere. And as the tents blew and the fires raged here last night, there was little else to do but analyse the field's chances. This Wednesday was supposed to be all about the celebrations of the Open's 150th anniversary, about watching the heroes of now and yesteryear reliving their glories on their four-hole exhibition. As it turned out the weather stole the show. It has ever been thus on the links.
The Met Office is saying the conditions will be changeable, that the gusts and winds will cause their intermittent havoc. Today it is forecast to start off calm and become progressively worse all day. Tomorrow the opposite is forecast. If that is accurate then it will herald a right-half, wrong-half draw scenario. Those like Woods, Rose, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington will be the beneficiaries of nature's lottery. Those like Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Graeme McDowell will see their tickets whipped away in the gale. That's the Open for you. Nobody said it is always fair.
The perceived shame is that it has been calm in the last two stagings here, when the magic of St Andrews was witnessed in all of Woods' uninterrupted magnificence. Instead, what Tiger and Co will be presented with this time is what the locals call the real St Andrews. The Old Course will reveal it still has its own teeth, after all. With the extended Road Hole looking more menacing than for many a decade and with so many of the other holes suddenly assuming their imposing quality, this could turn into a war of survival. Just like it was at Carnoustie three years ago, just like it was at Birkdale two years ago. Padraig Harrington was the last golfer standing on both of those occasions and at the very least the Irishman must have a squeak of a third Claret Jug from four. The word is the Irishman has never been so confident.
But then, neither has Rory McIlroy, a young tyro who has so plainly been inspired by the breakthrough of his best friend McDowell at last month's US Open. The 21-year-old has played eight competitive rounds at St Andrews – and broken 70 each time. When one also factors in his outrageous 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship in North Carolina two months ago, it is easy to understand how and why he has been backed down to second favouritism.
Yet Faldo's money is staying rather closer to home. "Rosey might be a very obvious first choice," said the six-times major winner. "He's played very well in the last month, seems to have found something in the game, in his mind, in everything. And Lee is very solid tee to green, which St Andrews is all about. They would be my main choices, but there are others well up there in the rankings who have the game."
He was thinking of Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Luke Donald, all members of the world's top 10. Never has England gone into a major, as Westwood, puts is "so mob-handed" and not since Faldo's day has the expectation soared so high. McDowell has shown them the way and each one believes he now has the impetus to follow. Woods is struggling, Mickelson is unsuited to links and there is a gap to America's next generation of winners. This is it. The time to grab British golfing glory at British golf's most glorious venue of all.
"We all want a major," said Casey. "We want something like Graeme McDowell achieved at Pebble Beach and we're all capable of doing that. It's a question of doing it, a question of holding your nerves. It's the pressure of coming down the stretch, not making mistakes and keeping your head on your shoulders. If there's a place to win an Open it's definitely at St Andrews."
The men to salvage England's sporting summer? Five contenders for the Claret Jug
Justin Rose (Age: 29, World Ranking: 16)
The hottest player in the world has an outstanding chance. Proved as a 17-year-old amateur how much he loves the links and it will be a surprise if he doesn't figure. But will playing with Tiger be too much of a distraction?
Lee Westwood (Age: 37, WR: 3)
Missed play-off by a shot at Turnberry last year, just like he did at the US Open in 2008. When his runner-up placing at The Masters in April is factored in, his chance becomes clear. Is carrying a calf injury, however.
Luke Donald (Age: 32, WR: 7)
Dreadful record in the Open up until his fifth-place finish last year. Donald has enjoyed a fine season so far and his chance should not be discounted. Not the longest, but believes his game can prevail around the Old Course.
Ian Poulter (Age: 34, WR: 8)
Finished 11th here in 2005 and was disgusted to do so after so many missed chances. Golf's most improved player is almost unrecognisable now (apart from the trousers). His short-game will suit St Andrews.
Paul Casey (Age: 32, WR: 10)
Links golf continues to baffle England's biggest talent and his best chance of winning a major obviously lies elsewhere. On his day, however, Casey is capable of anything and if the mood grabs him he could do it.
Guide to Day One of The Open
Today Mostly dry, with sunny spells in a morning featuring light winds. Heavy showers will arrive in the afternoon and the winds will rise to 15mph with gusts of 22mph. Maximum: 19C. Minimum: 11C.
Tomorrow Heavy rain in the morning will eventually dissipate. The winds will be 15mph with gusts of up to 35mph. Maximum: 15C. Minimum: 10C.
Saturday Patchy rain all day, with winds of 25mph, gusting to 35mph. Maximum: 17C. Minimum: 11C.
Sunday Starting to brighten up, although showers will remain. Winds of 15mph, gusting to 25mph. Maximum: 21C. Min temp: 15C.
Selected tee-off times
Today and tomorrow (GB and Irl unless stated):
07.36 & 12.47 N Faldo, M Laird, S Kjeldsen (Den)
07.47 & 12.58 D Duval (US), R McGowan, T Immelman (SA)
08.09 & 13.20 R Allenby (Aus), N Watney (US), O Wilson
08.20 & 13.31 L Glover (US), R McIlroy, Tim Clark (SA)
08.42 & 13.53 I Poulter, E Els (SA), S Cink (US)
08.58 & 14.09 Y Ikeda (Japan), S O'Hair (US), R Fisher
09.09 & 14.20 T Woods (US), J Rose, C Villegas (Col)
09.20 & 14.31 P Harrington, Ryo Ishikawa (Japan), T Watson (US)
13.53 & 08.42 G McDowell, J Furyk (US), Geoff Ogilvy (Aus)
14.09 & 08.58 S Stricker (US), H Fujita (Japan), S Garcia (Sp)
14.20 & 09.09 C Montgomerie, P Mickelson (US), R Goosen (SA)
14.31 & 09.20 E Molinari (It), R Davies, J Leonard (US)
14.42 & 09.31 Z Johnson (US), M Kaymer (Ger), E Chun (S Kor)
16.10 & 10.59 G Day (US), J Cunliffe (SA), T Hatton
Tiger Woods 7-1
Rory McIlroy 16-1
Phil Mickelson 20-1
Lee Westwood 20-1
Ernie Els 20-1
Justin Rose 25-1
Padraig Harrington 33-1
Ian Poulter 33-1
Graeme McDowell 40-1
Martin Kaymer 40-1
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