The challenge facing Tiger Woods in the defence of his Open Championship crown could not be more different from his runaway victory at St Andrews last year. For once, the world No 1 cannot expect everything to go his own way as the 130th edition of the game's oldest tournament starts here today.
But while Woods quietly put the finishing touches to his preparations with another crack-of-dawn practice round, he avoided the drama that involved one of his main rivals. Sergio Garcia rushed to Blackpool Victoria Hospital to console one of his entourage, Carlos Rodriguez, who required an operation on his ankle after it was crushed by a buggy outside the main door of the clubhouse.
Later the young Spaniard had the indignity of being fined an undisclosed amount for the second time in two months by the European Tour for criticising the greens at Loch Lomond on Sunday. How the turmoil will affect Garcia remains to be seen, but he is one of a group of players who are hoping to prevent Woods turning the event into an annual procession.
Although the American's brilliance could swiftly undermine the theory, the prevailing conditions this week should make this year's event far tighter. David Duval, who got closer to the champion than anyone else before Woods eased away to win by eight strokes, the biggest Open triumph for 87 years, could not believe both Lytham, as it is set up this week, and St Andrews fall under the description "links".
"They are completely different beasts," Duval said. While on the fast-running Old Course, the bunkers can be flown by the big hitters, here there is a sand trap for any shot from any part of the course. The weather has played its part, too, with the rough at its most severe.
"The challenges are uniquely different," Woods said. "Last year the fairways were faster than the greens. I was putting 40 yards off the fairway. Here, the fairways are softer and wider because of that but the rough will be even more penal if it is wet.
"But I don't care if a course is short or long, whether it, quote 'sets up for me' or not," added Tiger. "If you are playing well, you are going to score well, whether the course is brutally hard or incredibly easy."
After becoming the first player ever to hold all four major titles at one time when he took the Masters in April, Woods had to hand over the US Open trophy to Retief Goosen last month. The South African's victory may have reminded Tiger's rivals he cannot possibly win every time, but Woods has looked far sharper in practice here than he did from Thursday to Sunday in Tulsa.
Butch Harmon, his coach, is once again making extravagant claims and though his pupil often makes them stand up, Woods knows better than to take notice. He said: "I've come to an understanding that whatever anyone says, whether it is friends of mine or the press writing good things or bad things, none of it matters. There is not a single comment that has ever hit a shot for me." Harmon also works with Darren Clarke and has good things to say about the Irishman. Of all the British players, Clarke has the best credentials when it comes to links golf and he is in fine form after winning the European Open.
Clarke could not put any more pressure on himself at a major championship than in trying to win on home soil in Ireland and the win at the K Club could be even more significant for his career than his 36-hole victory over Woods in the final of the World Matchplay at La Costa last year.
"Right now I feel as comfortable as I have ever felt before a major," Clarke said. He has lost two stones on a diet and working on his flexibility with stretching exercises. While Lee Westwood, the European No 1, has been completely out of sorts and Colin Montgomerie is hoping his appalling Open record might improve now the pressure is off, Clarke might be about to deliver an emphatic rebuttal to Tony Jacklin's criticisms that the leading British players do not possess enough desire.
"I can assure you that, out of 10, my desire is 15 or 20 or whatever," Clarke said. "I do want to win a major. I am not out here to win tournaments and have a nice time. I want to win majors." Clarke learned his golf at Royal Portrush, which hosted its only Open fifty years ago, and one of his first memories of the Open was watching Seve Ballesteros win at Lytham in 1979. "I remember Seve hitting it out of the car park here," he said.
"I was 11 and had just taken the game up. I took to links golf straight away. It is what we are known for in Ireland, and we have some of the best courses, so I grew up playing a lot of links golf. Straight away I was more imaginative, not just hitting it up in the air and landing it beside the flag and spinning it back. I enjoyed bouncing it off a bank or whatever is in front of you or hitting a four-iron from 150 yards."
Clarke is prepared to hit anything from a driver to a six-iron off the tees on the driving holes depending on the wind. Padraig Harrington, Clarke's countryman, who has been steadily improving without converting his consistent play into Tour victories, talks about throwing out his usual distance calculations and going entirely on feel.
One intriguing aspect of the week is that pragmatists such as Duval, Goosen, whose confidence could not be higher, and Tom Lehman, the winner here five years ago, should have as good a chance as flair players like the world No 2, Phil Mickelson, Jesper Parnevik and Garcia.
The last time Garcia, still only 21, was fined, he went out and won his next event. It was the Colonial tournament and was his breakthrough victory in the States. After collapsing on the last day at the US Open, he won the next week at the Buick Classic to become one of the few multiple winners on the US Tour other than Woods this season.
Garcia's latest fine came after derogatory comments about the Scottish Open. The putting surfaces were relaid during the winter and suffered due to the torrential rain during the week before becoming crusty and baked out on the last day. Garcia implied his putting stroke might not recover in time for this weekend but the Tour decided his comments were "unacceptable in relation to the excellent facilities at Loch Lomond."
In May, Garcia was fined a record £5,000 for a "serious breach" after an incident in the Greg Norman Holden International in February. Garcia took a wrong drop during the third round and reacted angrily when John Paramor, the Tour's chief referee, adjudged a two-shot penalty. He lashed out with a wedge at a tree and a buggy.
After losing a play-off to Aaron Baddeley the next day, Garcia, who talked of having to play by "Paramor's rules", said: "Someone did not want me to win and they did it."
Ernie Els and Bernhard Langer should tee up after treatment on their back problems, but Greg Norman last night withdrew to return to America for the funeral of a close friend.
As opposed to Carnoustie two years ago, the set-up of the course appears to have drawn universal praise as tough but fair. Much will depend, as is only right at the seaside, on the weather, with an improving forecast today and tomorrow potentially being the best of the week.
Unless the high winds of the last two days die down overnight, the morning starters may get the worst of the draw. Woods is among them, but, even though he is the player least in need of a lucky break, it is amazing how often calm descends when he walks on to the first tee.Reuse content