Troon lies in wait as the game's high-flyers prepare for take-off

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Just for the record, the player ranked 396th in the world - the position occupied this time last year by Ben Curtis - is Rolf Muntz, who failed to qualify for the 133rd Open Championship. The Dutchman's name will certainly not be engraved on the claret jug on Sunday evening, and another surprise winner must be unlikely.

Just for the record, the player ranked 396th in the world - the position occupied this time last year by Ben Curtis - is Rolf Muntz, who failed to qualify for the 133rd Open Championship. The Dutchman's name will certainly not be engraved on the claret jug on Sunday evening, and another surprise winner must be unlikely.

Instead, the third major championship of the year should take its place alongside the two thrilling duels that have already taken place this season. Phil Mickelson pipped Ernie Els at the Masters while Retief Goosen edged out Mickelson in the US Open.

The only problem looks to be working out which of the established stars will be contending on Sunday. This is partly because of the small margins that currently cover the world's leading practitioners, and partly due to that most unpredictable of beasts, the British weather.

For the first time that anyone can remember Tiger Woods will not start a major as the clear favourite, with Els so popular that one punter stands to win £500,000 should the South African claim a second Open title. Els won at Muirfield in 2002, Woods at St Andrews four years ago. No one since Greg Norman in 1993 has got their name on the claret jug more than once and it is about time that either Els or Woods halted the trend.

A wounded Tiger is one to beware of, as long as the world No 1 can avoid the bogeys and worse that have infected his game over the last few months. Els suffered contrasting disappointments at the last two majors, playing brilliantly but forced into second place at Augusta, and crashing to an 80 in the final round of the US Open. Revenge is due.

Mickelson, a more composed player in the majors this year, must overcome a poor Open record that has never seen him finish in the top 10. But, as at Augusta and Shinnecock Hills, the left-hander's preparations have been extensive and he will bring a new dimension to the Open leaderboard if he can gain a foothold upon it.

The supporting cast is, of course, also strong, but the links of Royal Troon may turn out to be the star rather than the villain of the piece - the villain's role being the one fulfilled so notoriously by Shinnecock Hills at the US Open.

It would be easy to define Troon as not being quite as atmospheric as the Old Course, not quite as picturesque as Turnberry, or not quite as majestic as Muirfield. But that would be to do a disservice to an honest, unpretentious layout that should test the best players in the world.

"It is a very fair, good test of golf on a tough course," said the South African Els. "The rough is not terrible, you can get the ball out, and that makes it more exciting."

Padraig Harrington went further. "I would suggest this is the fairest course on the Open rota," he said. "You don't attach 'fair' to links courses. Golf was not designed back then to be fair. It was designed as a game of mental fortitude.

"But here you do not get too many bounces off the fairway and I think it will suit everybody. It's not a course that suits long hitters or short hitters. Most people going out there will feel it is a course we can all play."

An extreme set-up has been avoided, partly because of the dry spring, which thinned out the rough, and partly because the Ayrshire coast has one of the more changeable weather patterns. "I watched the forecast on the television and they basically said we were going to have all four seasons every day," said Curtis, who won last year in blistering sunshine in Kent.

Rain on Tuesday night meant the Royal and Ancient did not water the course as planned. "It was beginning to get a bit fiery, and if there had been no rain before Sunday we would have been in some difficulty," said the R & A secretary, Peter Dawson. "The rain was not unwelcome. It gives us the chance to prepare the course as we would wish."

"The course was a little softer, but not in a way that you can start flying the ball to the green," Thomas Bjorn reported after his practice round. "The wind was a little trickier but you can't fault the course."

It is the players who adapted to the shifting conditions that will prevail. The title of the club history tells the story, "The Breezy Links o'Troon". Either the wind is helping on the shorter outward half and against on the gruesome way home, or it flips to the other direction to make the front nine harder and the back nine only marginally easier.

"The club motto," said Colin Montgomerie, who is a club member, "is tam arte quam marte, which, if you know your Latin, means 'You bloody well better be three under at the turn or you are in trouble'."

"When the wind blows the course becomes quite a challenge," said Woods. "Your lines and yardages and the clubs you hit are completely different." Despite his relatively poor form, Woods was keen for the sterner test. "It rewards the guys who are striking the ball best and forces you to be creative."

Montgomerie leads the home challenge in that he can walk to the first tee from his father's house, but Lee Westwood, the Dunhill Links winner, could be the better bet.

As for the player nearest to the 396th mark on the world rankings, that is the 1985 champion, Sandy Lyle.

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