Tiger back on the prowl

Others will try to intrude but the game's big two look likely to turn Hoylake into a private duel when The Open begins there this week

This week will be a fight for reputation, for bragging rights, for the future even. Here is the chance to prove to the golfing world you are indeed worthy of your mantle. But enough about Royal Liverpool Golf Club. What about Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods? If anything, their battle could be even more about legacy than that of the old jewel of the Wirral.

Quite simply, whichever of these golfing galacticos prevails next Sunday should be called "the best in the world", and if it is Mickelson even Woods would have to tip that rarely tipped hat of his (albeit temporarily).

Of course, there is always the chance that someone else will find it within themselves to gatecrash this most exclusive of parties, but now more than ever that appears unlikely. In truth, the Big Two have never looked so big.

Naturally, the rest will perceive weaknesses in the twin fortresses who have four of the last six majors within their walls, and the whisper on the loch at the Scottish Open last week was that with Tiger still in grief after his father's death and Mickelson still in torment after his US Open capitulation, this Open could be as open as any. But examine the facts and the golfers in question. Talk about wishful thinking.

Take Mickelson first, for that is where he has spent the major-ity of the previous three majors. He was but one par away from becoming only the third player to hold a triple crown, and if his will had conquered his faltering swing on that final tee at Winged Foot last month then all the talk would have been how Lefty won when not at his best, not how Lefty's worst did for him.

Granted, this is an eye-squinting par-five of an "if", although it is worth remembering how courageously he scrambled and how close his unique gameplan came to paying off once more. Mickelson stayed loyal to the good book he carries around, commanding him which clubs to take from which tees, and in the main he was right to.

Questions were raised by some, including Retief Goosen, as to whether the driver at the 18th was really advisable but, as Mickelson maintained, it would have been churlish to discard his painstakingly compiled notes then.

"They worked for me when I hit the driver on 18 at the US PGA and ended up making a birdie, they worked for me at the Masters and they would have worked at the US Open," he said. "Unfortunately I didn't execute the way I wanted to. But my notes have erased the doubt as to the decision-making: 'What club am I going to hit?'; 'What club should I hit?' I already know weeks in advance, and it will help me hit those shots and visualise those shots in practice before I show up at The Open."

Mickelson has been true to his word. The week after the US Open, Mickelson jumped on to a jet with Dave Pelz, his plotter in chief, to traverse the pond for a couple of eight-hour reconnaissance rounds. Any detail missed during those mapping marathons, when every option from every part of Hoylake was analysed, should have been picked up in the past few days. While Woods has been fishing in Ireland, Mickelson has been in Liverpool trying to atone for the one that got away.

"Pelz and I committed to a seven-term plan back in 2004," he explained. "So, through my age of 40, I'm going to prepare and do the drills he's come up with, practising the right way to get my best game out in these majors. That's why we're going to the site so early and scouting them. I don't know how many I'll win, if I've already won my last, but it won't be for the want of trying or preparing."

Inevitably, some are sceptical about this Mickelson revolution, although its effect surely ridicules their scorn. There were a few sniggers when he introduced his "two-driver" plan at Augusta, groans when this changed to "the four-wedges" trick at Winged Foot, and there will doubtless be sighs when his special weapon for Hoylake is uncovered. Seeing one of the most natural swings of all time being enacted on a hybrid club - a "rescue wood" to the hackers among us - is sure to raise the hackles of the traditionalists, but to Mickelson the choice will be straightforward enough. "I'm thinking of putting it in the bag because it hits the shots that the course requires," he said.

Woods would nod in agreement at such pragmatism, but then he is nodding at quite a lot of what his nemesis has been doing of late. It is ironic that just as Mickelson is posing the biggest threat to his hegemony, Woods is warming to him. For years, a decade even, the personal frostiness between the pair has been all too apparent as Woods looked on this supposed kindred talent as being essentially lazy and indifferent to getting the most out of his God-given. That no longer applies, and in many ways Woods will be glad to square up to the whole sum of Mickelson's parts rather than just a fraction of them.

At the US Open, Woods was unable to; the near 10-week absence was too much for even that competitive colossus to surmount. If his first missed cut in a major as a professional was inconceivable to many, then his comeback at the Western Open last Sunday was inevitable.

In Illinois, the rust could almost be seen falling off him as he stormed through to tie for second. He stopped short of announcing "I'm back", although his body language screamed it. "Yeah, it was fun to get my juices flowing again," Woods said on Friday. "Obviously, I haven't played much this year but I've put in a lot of time on the range with Hank Haney and I'm feeling more and more comfortable."

That augurs badly for 155 rivals, and that he is back on the road to being Tiger Woods again was revealed by his irresistible dig at Mickelson's meticulous preparations. "We play around the world and learn different golf courses in a day or two," he said. "It's part of playing golf. I honestly don't know anything about Royal Liverpool, but I'll play three or four practice rounds and that should be enough. People are making too big a deal out of the fact that the tournament hasn't been played there since 1967."

Hoylake itself would say amen to that. It yearns to be judged on what it is, not what it was. Should the winds blow it could be devilishly difficult; should it stay calm it might well be angelically easy. Its reputation seems in the lap of the gods. Tiger and, in particular, Mickelson will have no such excuse.

Hoylake of Old: Hilton starts the grand tradition

1897 HAROLD HILTON

The first Open to be contested at Hoylake was won by a member of the Royal Liverpool club. It was Harold Hilton's second Open victory - he also won in 1892 - and he was the second club member to become the Open champion, after John Ball in 1890.

1907 ARNAUD MASSY

Arnaud Massy, from Biarritz, became the first non-British winner of The Open. He named a daughter Hoylake in honour of his win over the mighty J H Taylor, who won the next Open at the Liverpool venue in 1913.

1930 BOBBY JONES

Following John Ball and Harold Hilton, Bobby Jones is the only other amateur to win The Open. He did so three times, including in his Grand Slam year of 1930. At the age of 28 the "greatest golfer the game has seen" promptly retired.

1956 PETER THOMSON

This is the 50th anniversary of the great Australian's third successive Open victory, something not achieved since 1882. Peter Thomson dominated in this era and won the title twice more. Third was Roberto de Vicenzo.

Andy Farrell

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