Hoylake preparing to witness another great 'duel in the sun'

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The Independent Online

Ian Poulter has been sporting a pair of trousers here these last few days with a giant question mark emblazoned down either leg. It has not been as daft as it has looked; indeed, it has been rather clever. For if this week on the Wirral will be remembered for anything it will surely be the huge questions it has to answer. Can Tiger Woods put the death of Earl, his father and mentor, behind him? Can Phil Mickelson put the nightmare of Winged Foot behind him? Can Europe put 27 barren majors behind it? Can Hoylake put 39 years in the wilderness behind it? And, neatly summed up, can they all defend their honour?

The first and most likely "you're too damned right he can" is Tiger and the turning of the page into a brave new chapter of unprecedented success. While practice often makes prescience anything but perfect, the one-off has seemingly returned to his unique being.

At last month's US Open - where legend already has him missing his first major cut as a professional - Tiger looked a shadow of his former self. Here he has appeared the total embodiment again. If personal perceptions of body language are any form guide at all, then the bookmakers' quotes of 6-1 - the highest he has been at the outset of an Open since 1998 - could just precipitate the costliest handout since Colin Montgomerie's divorce.

But tellingly there are even enough doubts in his own camp to hold off the stampede to the Tote counters. Nobody in Team Woods - especially the protagonist himself - is paying the slightest credence to the theory that, without Earl, the brilliant son can never be the brilliant son again, but his inevitable rustiness, which showed when he returned from a near 10-week absence at the US Open, is still most definitely a concern.

Strangely, they believe this to be manifesting itself most malevolently in his putting stroke and fear this could derail the charge for an 11th major, that would put him alongside Walter Hagen in the roll of honour and leave an open fairway in his chase for Jack Nicklaus' magic figure of 18 majors.

The other strings to his bow are certainly taut enough, as the fact that he did not even bother to come to the course yesterday surely proves. In his four practice rounds, Woods has plotted a path around this sunbaked links using nothing but irons, although on a few of the driveable par fours he will find the urge to let "the big dog eat" difficult to keep on the leash.

Everybody had been assuming that Nick Faldo's face would be on that Nike ball if and when the big swing is unfurled, but now that today's warring playing partners have so publically made up, Woods' focus of evil intent can be concentrated solely on Mickelson. The world No 1 would like nothing better than to assist the world No 2 in his cooling down from the hot streak that has brought him two Ws and one runner-up finish in his last three majors. Incentive has never been so expressively characterised for Woods as in that victorious grin of his nemesis.

It was the Californian's tears at the US Open which remain most pertinently in the mind's eye. He was a par away from becoming only the third man in history to hold a triple crown of majors, but his faltering game eventually gave and a widely held suspicion is that it gave so drastically that it may not be possible to repair it in a month. But that is forgetting at least three factors: namely his preparation, his talent and his desire to lift a claret jug.

Nobody will know the vagaries of this mischievous layout as thoroughly as Mickelson - he had played 72 holes by Sunday, an entire tournament before most had even turned up - and nobody has a better short game around the drying greens to locate holeside. And while it is unarguable that he has not been at his most commanding this season - he has, in reality, played well "only" twice; at the Masters and the week before it - the word from his coterie is that the genius has been relocated and that it has been his will that led the search party.

"My record hasn't been what I wanted it to be up to the Open," said Mickelson, who has only finished in the top 10 twice in the 13 renewals he has contested. "And I wanted to have those extra days to really work hard and see if I could bring my best out this week.

"You know, it wasn't until 2004 that I really learnt to play links golf: that was the first year I knew how to hit the ball low and control those shots. And I ended up missing the play-off by a shot. I think that until you win a major you're never 100 per cent sure you're going to. And until I break through and win this great Championship, I'll never know for sure I'm going to."

If Mickelson is not sure, then what on earth does that make the continent of Europe? Paul Lawrie, the last European to win at Carnoustie in 1999 and all that ... how depressing. But talk to what is undoubtedly the richest crop of home hopes in the last seven years and the overwhelming sense among them that the jinx-breaker is nigh. Whether it is nigh enough to happen here, however, is dubious, as each of the main candidates has his flaws. Colin Montgomerie, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia will probably not hole enough putts; David Howell will, but how many just for par?

As the course is shortening with every sun ray, Jose Maria Olazabal may have the loudest squeak. "One of us will do it this week - definitely," said Poulter (pictured, far left) without a trace of a blush.

But then maybe he was merely reflecting the optimism that is burning as strongly as the ultraviolet here. In the months leading up to its first Open since 1967, Royal Liverpool Golf Club was apparently paranoid that its precious jewel was about to be roughed up by big hitters who would make the return look ill- advised.

Now, with the flat, calm conditions and the rough sizzled to mere strands, the club is resigned to an extremely low score - perhaps even a record one - shaming their leader board come Sunday evening. "Who cares?" they are saying, "so long as it's exciting."

And amen to that. With this neglected golfing hot spot in hype overdrive they really do have nothing to lose. "It obviously depends on the wind conditions," said Peter Dawson, the chairman, proving that the feel-good factor has even spread to the Royal and Ancient. "But we don't particularly mind what the winner shoots - most of the most memorable Championships have been low-scoring."

No doubt Dawson had in mind the "Duel in the Sun" of 1977 and it was indeed possible to find parallels between the greatest Open of all and this one, however tenuous. There were fire warnings in that cauldron just as there are here, and although the world's two finest at that time were at the very top of the games, form can turn around in a moment in golf.

So whisper it: this just could be the Turnberry of the new century, with Tiger as Jack and Phil as Tom. In fact, go ahead and scream it. Fate might just listen and find it all too irresistible.

Today's first-round tee-off times

* (GB or Irl unless stated; all times BST)

06.30 S Elkington (Aus), P Hedblom (Swe), J Kelly (US)

06.41 B Lane, B Andrade (US), M Fraser (Aus)

06.52 S K Ho (S Kor), M Ilonen (Fin), J Senden (Aus)

07.03 M Calcavecchia (US), A Cabrera (Arg), K Ferrie

07.14 B Dredge, B Curtis (US), K J Choi (S Kor)

07.25 N Fasth (Swe), T Herron (US), M Hensby (Aus)

07.36 P Casey, S Garcia (Sp), F Couples (US)

07.47 M Weir (Can), L Westwood, S Verplank (US)

07.58 *E Molinari (It), E Els (SA), L Donald

08.09 J Furyk (US), R Pampling (Aus), G Owen

08.20 V Singh (Fiji), D Howell, Z Johnson (US)

08.31 S Dodd, T Hamilton (US), R Allenby (Aus)

08.42 B Langer (Ger), K Perry (US), P Lawrie

08.58 C Montgomerie, J Daly (US), S Appleby (Aus)

09.09 P Harrington, A Oberholser (US), N O'Hern (Aus)

09.20 P Mickelson (US), D Clarke, Y Imano (Japan)

09.31 I Poulter, S Micheel (US), S Ballesteros (Sp)

09.42 T Muto (Japan), P Broadhurst, B Bryant (US)

09.53 P Price, T Lehman (US), J B Holmes (US)

10.04 A Wall, S O'Hair (US), T Ichihara (Japan)

10.15 T Pernice Jnr (US), W Abery (SA), J Payne

10.26 B Quigley (US), M Wright (Aus), W Bladon

10.37 L Slattery, S Kapur (Ind), V Taylor (US)

10.48 T Aiken (SA), S Kjeldsen (Den), A Marshall

10.59 A Bland (Aus), A Romero (Arg), A Frayne

11.10 N Ludwell, B Bunny (Aus), M Pilkington

11.41 R Beem (US), T Wiratchant (Thai), S Drummond

11.52 F Funk (US), S Lyle, R Sabbatini (SA)

12.03 S Dyson, M O'Meara (US), C Schwartzel (SA)

12.14 R Rock, J Maggert (US), J Lyle (Aus)

12.25 T Purdy (US), M Goggin (Aus), *M Thorp (Nor)

12.36 R Green (Aus), J J Henry (US), J Donaldson

12.47 R Karlsson (Swe), B Jobe (US), J Bickerton

12.58 L Glover (US), P Lonard (Aus), G McDowell

13.09 N Dougherty, M Campbell (NZ), M A Jimenez (Sp)

13.20 G Ogilvy (Aus), C Pettersson (Swe), C DiMarco (US)

13.31 J M Olazabal (Sp), A Baddeley (Aus), C Campbell (US)

13.42 A Scott (Aus), H Stenson (Swe), J Guerrier (Fr)

13.53 S Ames (Can), B Crane (US), K Fukabori (Japan)

14.09 S Katayama (Japan), T Woods (US), N Faldo

14.20 D Duval (US), P McGinley, H Tanihara (Japan)

14.31 T Bjorn (Den), A Buckle (Aus), D Love III (US)

14.42 R Goosen (SA), T Watson (US), G Fernandez-Castano (Sp)

14.53 T Clark (SA), S Cink (US), J Edfors (Swe)

15.04 L Oosthuizen (SA), B Wetterich (US), S Khan

15.15 S Wakefield, B Hughes (Aus), B van Pelt (US)

15.26 D Dennison, B Rumford (Aus), R Sterne (SA)

15.37 J Sluman (US), D Smail (NZ), M Brier (Aut)

15.48 U Park (Aus), C Rodiles (Sp), H Mahan (US)

15.59 G Day, B Vaughan (US), M Ruiz (Par)

16.10 G Lockerbie, J Bevan, W Perske (Aus)

16.21 S Little, R Wellington (SA), D Parris

* denotes amateur


Warm, with a high of 26C. Some cloud, with thundery showers possible.

TV times

Live: BBC 2, 09.00-19.15

Highlights: BBC 2, 19.15-20.00