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Troon awaits the Tiger's roar

Only a couple of months ago golf was meant to have ceased being a competitive sport. The only man in the game at Augusta was a Tiger. Woods, winner of the US Masters by a record 12 strokes, had turned it into a one-dimensional game in which massive and uninhibited hitting was all that mattered.

But here we are, at Royal Troon, under overcast skies and with the vagaries of the British seaside breeze to contend, and the 126th Open Championship could not be more fascinatingly poised. You do not need to have been sniffing the ozone to realise that with all the leading players feeling confident about their games, this Open could be a classic.

Whether Woods appears with his `A' game is only one of the questions to be resolved by Sunday evening. Colin Montgomerie at his home course, Tom Lehman, who would rather like to continue looking at the silver claret jug in the privacy of his home, and Ernie Els, the winner of a thrilling US Open only a month ago, are also serious contenders. The number of players just bubbling under the top bracket are too numerous to mention, but include such names as Greg Norman and Nick Faldo.

"Every man and his dog is here this week and it looks like everybody is playing well," said Els. "It's going to be exciting tomorrow morning to see how the guys shape up. Who's going to come out fighting?"

"What would be really exciting would be for all the guys who are supposedly in good form to still be in good form on Sunday," added Lehman. "This really doesn't happen very often."

Woods set off for his last practice round at 7.30 yesterday morning, watched by no more than two dozen people. Not for long, though, and definitely not when he tees off at lunchtime today. "The people here are just waiting to embrace him," said Lehman. "He has a great opportunity for many, many years to be a real favourite here. If he embraces the fans, he will be a huge hit."

Lehman added: "Tiger is mentally very strong. I don't see a lot ruffling his feathers. He has a great head on his shoulders." Woods will have to use it for Lehman had this warning: "You just can't bomb it all over the ranch and expect to play as usual."

Troon will offer both a severe test, and the opportunity for those on top of their games to score well. The fairways are narrow and the rough treacherous in places, but the fairways and greens are soft and holding. The wind will be the key factor and is expected to switch to the prevailing direction - helping on the shorter front nine, against on the fearsome back half.

"If the wind continues to blow, it is going to take a lot of solid ball- striking to get round this course," said Lehman. "I think that is to my advantage." But also to his main challengers.

"We'll find a guy winning this week with a lot of imagination, who can keep his game and his shot-making under control," said Els. "The course is going to play really long. The rough is up, especially on the back nine. I think it's going to take a lot of patience, a lot of courage and all of the rest of the stuff that comes with trying to win a major championship."

Montgomerie is still trying to find out what exactly all that stuff is. In 1989, he failed to qualify, but the following year here came the "best result of my life" when he married a Troon lass. Eimear Montgomerie was a waitress at the 1982 Open, and served Linda Watson a gin and tonic as husband Tom won. Each bitter defeat for Monty has added a new layer of maturity and he is the popular vote of the other players.

His local knowledge of Troon is needed to counteract the fact that links golf does not come naturally to him. This style of golf is an art form in itself, something Lehman, who is playing in only his fourth Open, has come to appreciate. "It seems like there are some guys who just have a knack for playing links golf," he said, mentioning Peter Thomson's run of four wins and three second between 1952 and 1958, Watson's five wins in nine years and Faldo's record of finishing outside the top 20 only four times in 21 Opens. "You have to have the right game, but you also have to have the right mindset," Lehman added.

Though Woods has been backed down to 6-1, in the spread betting market Sporting Index report punters buying the 21-year-old to finish worse than 19th. Els and Lehman are fancied to do better than 17th and 18th respectively, but Faldo also has attracted the buying market. The three-times champion's preparation would have been low key but for the public row with his club manufacturers at Loch Lomond, and further published comments about his disenchantment with the European Tour.

Faldo, who hits 40 on Friday, is in the unusual situation of not only not being the favourite but not even being the fancied Briton. He has switched to the putter with which he won the 1989 and 1990 US Masters and the 1990 Open and is detecting stirrings in his game which has flickered only briefly this year at the LA Open in February. But when he said: "I am sure there will be a few other guys who sneak in there as well [as the top players]", he was thinking of himself.

Though Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 champion, has decided to play after all, Dean Robertson, the Scottish pro who was the first alternate, will tee up anyway as the Japanese player Toshimitsu Izawa withdrew with an injured finger. Though fairy-tales like the Australian, or the equally beleaguered Seve Ballesteros, might be too fanciful, Jose Maria Olazabal could provide a heart-warming story away from the mainstream. Otherwise, will Tigermania or Montymania prevail? Let the fun begin.

Ken Jones on Ian Baker-Finch, page 31

Guy Hodgson on Tom Watson, Tee-off times, page 30