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The Open Championship - Golf comes home for a week

By Tony Dear,

Having made the short hop across the Irish Sea after a week's fishing with Marko, Tiger Woods will rise early on the morning of Monday, July 12th, and no doubt open the curtains to a gray and uninviting sky. After breakfasting on bacon, eggs, fried bread, toast and tea, he will jump into a courtesy car and make the short drive to Royal Troon Golf Club, venue for the 133rd Open Championship. There, he will head out for his customary early-bird practice round and re-acquaint himself with golf in its most uncontaminated form.

In place of the dolled up parkland track he sees every other week on the PGA Tour with its redundant water hazards, cosmetic bunkers and Stepford conditioning, he'll find a seemingly fallow landscape of wheat-colored grass, imposing dunes and sand traps so deep and masculine they still do the job they were designed to do 120 years ago.

After driving the first green and making mincemeat of the course's innocuous opening stretch, Woods will once again come face to face with the tiny eighth hole, the 123-yard "Postage Stamp" at which his dreams of victory in 1997 came unstuck with a triple bogey six in the final round. Without recourse to a putting surface shaved so low it requires water every 10 minutes to prevent it from catching fire (and other spurious course conditions that often render many great U.S. Open venues unplayable), this seemingly harmless mite will again cause this most precise of ball-strikers a severe headache - as all the great holes do.

By now though, Tiger will be in his element, adjusting to the peculiar demands of the course by manufacturing knockdown iron shots, running the ball up to the hole and playing pinball off some of the larger mounds.

He will play every shot in his extensive repertoire plus several more he dreams up on the spot. The high, arrow-straight drive and high, arrow-straight approach - the only shots that seem to work at the U.S. Open - will serve him well, of course. But to lift the Claret Jug, he'll also need flair, imagination and, yes, a wee bit of good fortune.

Watching him will be a throng of fans who really know their golf. For many, the auld Scottish pastime won't simply be the hobby of choice, but rather a way of life, their raison d'etre. They will follow Woods and other favorites come rain or shine and know the names of all the players, even the late qualifier from that tiny island with the unpronounceable name in the South Pacific.

At the end of play, the masses will filter into the Anchorage Hotel, the Caddy Shack and the town center's seven other watering holes for a few bevvies and to discuss Tiger's form, Daly's weight and Baddeley's trousers. The usually quiet fishing port will hum with talk of golf and fans from around the world will clink glasses in celebration of their love for the game.

Come Sunday, every golf fan from Troon to Trinidad, from Ayrshire to Ayers Rock will either be glued to their TV sets or roaming the Old Course itself anticipating who will win "the game's best major," as Greg Norman referred to it in his 1993 winner's speech, and thus become the Champion Golfer for 2004.

The last five winners at Troon have all been American and, with the strength of the game as potent as it is in the United States at present, the chances of another American win are high. If what Tiger has been working on for the last goodness knows how long actually bears fruit, then he will surely figure prominently in the final shake-up. It will be interesting to see what effect the improvements Phil Mickelson has made to his game will have at a windswept, seaside links - his record at the Open certainly needs improvement - and many of the locals fancy Jerry Kelly and Chad Campbell's chances.

Whatever happens though, 10,000 fans will cheer their heroes up the 72nd hole and when the sun goes down on another installment of golf's World Fair, the winner will sip champagne from the Jug knowing he has joined the all-time greats of the game.and Ben Curtis.

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