132nd British Open Championship Preview

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The oldest championship in the world gets underway on Thursday at the 132nd British Open Championship where the top players in the game return to their proverbial roots across the pond. The mood entering this year's Open Championship differs completely from the hype it was receiving last year. In 2002, had done the improbable winning the first two legs of the single season grand slam, a feat that had not been accomplished since Jack Nicklaus won both the Masters and the U.S. Open in 1972. So far in 2003 it's been a different story. While Woods has four victories to his name, none have come at a major. This year's majors have been won by first-timers, albeit players who were edging closer and closer to cracking the upper echelon of the golfing world. became the first Canadian to ever win a major at the Masters with a brilliant performance. Later on at Olympia Fields, was masterful in capturing his first major at the U.S. Open. So what's going to happen this week at Royal St. George's? And don't give me Andrew Coltart. Like all the courses in the rotation at the British Open, Royal St. George's has a tremendous amount of history behind it. The course first hosted the championship in 1894 in Sandwich, England, marking the first time the Open was held outside of Scotland. Situated on the southeast coast of England, the seaside links has been the site of 12 previous Open Championships. John H. Taylor won the first championship at St. George's, its original name, in 1894. In 1899 it was Harry Vardon, who later went on to capture the championship at the very same venue, now Royal St. George's, in 1911. Walter Hagen became the first American to with the British Open, and he did so twice (1922 and 1928). Harry Cotton took the event in 1934 and in 1938 it was Reg Whitcombe. Then there was a break. The British Open did not return to Royal St. George's until 1981 when Bill Rogers was the victor. In 1985, Sandy Lyle became the first Briton to win the Open in 16 years and Greg Norman was the benefactor of a closing 64 to capture the title in 1993. Now, 10 years later, the course is set to host the Open again. Royal St. George's carries the same undulating fairways, greens tightly guarded by sand traps, and of course the unpredictability of the English weather. So who is best prepared to win this week? How about the defending champion? survived a late blunder in the final round last year at Muirfield and held on to win his first British Open after a four-man playoff. The South African was on fire to start 2003, winning the first two events on the PGA Tour before he added a pair of European Tour titles soon after. Els' early run sparked talks of a duel between the South African and Woods. However, neither were factors at the Masters or the U.S. Open. But the South African, despite winning four times around the world earlier in the year, had tailed off somewhat. Some of this can be attributed to his dispute with a punching bag, but Els finally regained the winning touch this past Sunday when he completed a wire-to-wire victory at the Scottish Open. Els will try to become the first player to win back-to-back British Opens since did so in 1982 and 1983. Els certainly has the game to successfully defend, but no player has ever won the Scottish Open and British Open is successive weeks. Then there's Woods, who like Els, has won his last start. Woods is coming off a victory at the Western Open two weeks ago, and the top player in the game brushed away any talks of a slump with a dominating performance. So Woods has yet to win a major in 2003. The last time he failed to win any of the first two legs of the grand slam was 1999. Woods had trouble last year at Muirfield, and when the storms came through on Saturday, he walked away with an 81, his worst round as a professional. Through this "slump" Woods was in this spring, he was hesitant to use driver off the tee when some thought he should have. Several fairways at Royal St. George's will prove difficult to hold, but Woods should find his way around the links and no matter what. He will contend. Also, should Woods win, he would join Nicklaus as the only players to win the career grand slam twice. Furyk has missed the cut at the British Open the last two years, but he did finish in the top-10 from 1997 to 1999. Never mind that, he's having a career year. For a short while, Furyk was taking on the label of "best golfer to never win a major." That didn't last long. Weir has been ridiculous this year with three victories, including his major triumph at Augusta, and he's been close in his last three events. Weir finished third at The Memorial, tied for third at the U.S. Open and shared third at the Western Open. Some other names that should be considered are and , who have three victories each in 2003, as well as . And on the other side of the pond there are guys like Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Justin Rose and Paul Casey. Then there's . Mickelson, who has had trouble at the British Open throughout his career, headed over to the old country last week and battled hard to make the cut at the Scottish Open. Lefty was in good spirits, however, but how realistic is it to think he will break through this week? Another veteran who has a little less time to win his first major than Mickelson is Colin Montgomerie. However, the Scot's best finish at the British Open was a tie for eighth in 1994, but, as with Mickelson, anything could happen. So who will it be? Who will finally achieve what has long been coming, or who will further solidify his place in golf history? My guess would be someone from the former: Darren Clarke. Clarke is in somewhat of a dry spell right now, with his last victory coming at the English Open in 2002. He has been close to snapping that streak this year, and his putting is starting to come around. Clarke opened strong at the Masters this year and has contended at the British Open before. Clarke has the game to survive the challenges of Royal St. George's, and if he can sink his putts the Ulsterman could add his name to the prestigious list of Open champions.

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