Purple patch puts Westwood on the trail of Claret Jug

Two missing Americans will not dim the Championship's lustre as holder Harrington prepares to defy weariness and bad weather

The American's absence from Royal Birkdale this week should have sent a shiver down the golfing spine and prompted a collective glug from the hip flask to shield the game from a horrifying reality.

No, not that of Tiger Woods, but that of Kenny Perry. The former will be back fitter and richer before the Open knows it. The latter, meanwhile, will probably never come back now. And yet he will still continue to become fatter and richer.

Perry, the world No 20 and one of the world's form players, has decided to forsake this week's Open Championship for some nothing event in Milwaukee, and the fact that he feels perfectly comfortable in doing so means that there is either a) something awfully wrong with the sport or b) something awfully right with Milwaukee. At the risk of upsetting the Wisconsin WI, we will opt for a) and shake our heads at a sport where ambition is in danger of being dwarfed by greenbacks.

The 47-year-old – for whom time may, just may, be running out – says it is because he wants to qualify for the Ryder Cup and does not wish to let down the tournament organisers of The US Bank Championship. Kenny, you've all but qualified for the Ryder Cup already and, although this might not be the time to be upsetting any US bankers, worry not about letting down anyone in pursuit of what surely once was your dream. It's my mother-in-law's 60th next week, and she understands that I have to go to the Open.

Still, his loss might just prove somebody's gain; we will never know. Although if you listen to some "experts", whoever prevails this week does not, in fact, have that much to gain, as his achievement will be cheapened to the point of worthlessness. Notice to Planet Earth: Tiger does not win every Open Championship he tees it up in. In fact, he does not win half of the Opens he tees it up in. Not even a third. Three Claret Jugs in 11 professional attempts is a remarkable haul by anyone's standards, but the likelihood is that the world No 1 would not have triumphed even if his knee had not decided to issue its timely reminder of mortality. Particularly when one considers Woods' driving fallibility and then takes a pained peek at the wet and windy forecast.

Of course, we should never query Tiger's ability to conquer any odds, especially after the US Open at Torrey Pines and all that winning-on-one-leg malarkey. Neither should his importance to golf ever be questioned, and TV ratings will inevitably drop this week (although the Liverpudlians had such a party at Hoylake two years ago that it would be no surprise to witness a record attendance). Yet if ever there was the ideal time for one of the supreme talents to step up and say "Remember me? Its not all about him", it is now. This could yet be the making of a champion,not the faking of a champion.

Sergio Garcia must be deemed the most probable to shine through in this Spanish summer. The 28-year-old's game appears so solid at present that it seems so very simple. If he putts, he wins. End of.

Naturally there will be those who disagree, not least Phil Mickelson. As someone who has collected three majors in the past four seasons – and spent the majority of one of those in agony with a wrist injury – Mickelson should be more put out than anybody by all the hysterical Tiger wailing. But the fact is, and the stats scream, that Mickelson is kitted out for an Open Championship like John Daly is for a Sobriety Championship. Fifteen visits, two top 20s, one top 10. That's not form; that's a millstone.

It is this unsuitability that makes Mickelson's attitude such a blessed contrast to that of Perry. The Californian had a few of his mammoth sessions with his coach, Dave Pelz, at Birkdale at the beginning of last week, and he clearly likes this eminently fair test and believes he is at last discovering the secret of links golf. It will click one day, but maybe next Sunday is too soon. And, whatever Lefty claims, he would far rather do it to the backing sound of Tiger's gnashing teeth anyway.

So where else to look? Some understandably begin their search and promptly end it with Ernie Els. Old Theodore's record in the Open is indeed absurd. In the eight years of this century he has finished in the top five six times. Els has had some problems with his family life and continues to put in the overtime with Butch Harmon, and for these reasons my money will no doubt be scuppering the hopes of another candidate. But plenty of emotional energy will still be invested in the big South African.

As it will be in Padraig Harrington. If ever there is a courtesy manual written on how a champion should act, then the Irishman's past 12 months should be the subject matter. Or then again perhaps not. Harrington has taken himself to the very brink of exhaustion in satisfying each and every request for his time. He will carry on doing so right up until the first round.

This evening he will take the Claret Jug – yes, still full of his son's ladybirds – to Hesketh Golf Club to show the youngsters competing in the Junior Open, and will then be subjected to yet another lengthy Q&A session. And to think that yesterday he was still battling in the downpours of his "warm-up" tournament and, at the same time, giving so much credence to the lowly Irish PGA Championship. He is a fool to himself, is our Padraig. But what a credit he is to his profession.

The fear must be that the sentimental baggage will weigh down Harrington, just as itmight Justin Rose as he returns to the scene of his teenaged fairytale. Rose is probably not putting well enough regardless,and the bulk of hard-bitten British focus should duly fall on Lee Westwood.

It seems that every time he pierces turf with peg nowadays Westwood is a contender, and the confidence garnered from his third-place finish at the US Open will surely work as much in his favour as all those hours around the green with Mark Roe.

"This is the first Open which I'm going into believing I haven't a weakness in my game," he said last week. Westwood is the bet; Els, Harrington and Rose are the hopes; Perry is the letdown.

Who will lead after each round? By James Corrigan

First Round: Graeme McDowell

What is it about the Irish and being the last to go to bed but the first to rise? Year after year we have seen one of their number grab the first-day headlines. McDowell has done so himself; at the 2005 Championship at St Andrews when he revealed technical advice from some random bloke in a bar had put him right. Well, every star alignment points to the Ulsterman bursting out of the blocks again. His swing is not much to look at - even at 10.30pm inthe pub - but the strike is consistent and recently the putter has been red-hot. "G-Mac" will hang around up there, too.

Second Round: Paul Casey

A major championship wouldn't be a major championship without the Englishman throwing in onespectacular round that has every informed observer cooing and every mug punter splashing out the hard-earned. The problem is, Casey invariably then proceeds to throw in a shocker that negates all the good work and leaves his admirers banging cranium against concrete. So just enjoy it when it happens; the perfectly struck irons, the high ball flight, the can't-miss putting, the little waggle with his head as he watches yet another shot zero in on the flag. When he's like this, Casey is the best sight in the game.

Third Round: Andres Romero

In the rush to admonish poor Sergio everyone forgets that at Carnoustie last year there was another golfer who failed to close out the Open. With two holes to go, the young Argentinian was two clear and on the brink of winning the second major for his country in succession after Angel Cabrera's success in the US Open. But then he thinned his approach into the burnand in there it hit the stone wall and took a 50-metre diversion out of bounds. Thereafter we could concentrate on Harrington and Garcia. Romero has a taste for this links lark, though. He's a natural Open competitor who may not so readily hit the wall again.

Fourth Round: Boo Weekley

"I ain't heard of no Claret Jug. The only jug I know is the one my Mama keeps the milk in." So Weekley, the most wonderfully unreconstructed sportsman in existence, will accept the trophy, and so journalists the world over will weep for joy. Boo's stories are alreadylegend: how he was knocked out by an orang-utan; how he had to wrestle alligators on his granddaddy's porch; how he'd never heard of St Andrews, "the home of golf". But it takes a wise man to play the fool and an even wiser one to play golf as brilliantly as this unashamed redneck. He's a major champion in waiting. Please, let it be in Britain. We need more Boo.

Watch the Open at Royal Birkdale liveon BBC2 from 9am on Thursday

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