Thursday, Jul 18, 2002
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GULLANE, Scotland, July 17. The possibility of a complete sweep of this year's four major championships by Tiger Woods is the intriguing sub-plot for the 131st British Open, which starts at Muirfield on Thursday.
The 26-year-old American is already halfway towards completing the first professional Grand Slam of all four majors in a calendar year, following his triumphs at the U.S. Masters in April and at last month's U.S. Open.
But Muirfield this week will provide his biggest test so far as he chases his ninth career major and his eighth in 12 starts.
Public expectation of a calendar Grand Slam is heightening, the pressures on Woods are increasing and the British Open is arguably the most difficult of all four majors to win, with its unpredictable weather and the vagaries of bounce in links-course golf.
``The golf course is playing very difficult now,'' the World No. 1 said after his third practice round at a damp and overcast Muirfield in as many days on Tuesday. ``It's probably the softest I've seen in an Open championship with the fairways this lush but the rough is up and you've got to keep it in play in order to shoot some good numbers.''
If anyone can prevail this week, though, it is Woods. He began the year as a 50-1 shot to complete a calendar Grand Slam and his odds were cut to 4-1 by British bookmaker William Hill after his U.S. Open victory at Bethpage Black.
The same bookmaker has priced him as a red-hot 13-8 favourite to win at Muirfield come Sunday. He had never seen the Scottish links course before this week but had not played Bethpage until shortly before this year's U.S. Open. Of current golfers he is by some distance the most thorough and disciplined in his preparation for a particular event on a particular course.
But Woods, who cruised to victory by eight shots in the 2000 British Open at St Andrews, gave his rivals a glimmer of hope on Tuesday by saying his game was not up to the remarkable standard he produced during 2000, when he won the last three majors of the year.
``This year hasn't been quite as good, although I've played well in the major championships,'' he said. ``That's what I wanted to do and I've been able to do that. ``I haven't hit the ball as close to the flags as consistently as I did in 2000. I was probably a little more aggressive because I felt a little better about hitting the ball close.''
Muirfield, which is staging its 15th British Open this week, has been lengthened by 64 yards since Nick Faldo's 1992 victory and the layout now measures 7,034 yards.
The par-three 13th has been extended from 159 to 191 yards while the par-three fourth hole has also been extended from 180 to 213 yards.
Bunkers remain one of the course's trademark features and they are difficult to avoid. There are 148 of them and most are fairly small with steep faces.
Defending champion David Duval, who will be hoping his return to links-course golf can revive his game after several months in the doldrums, believes Woods can be beaten this week.
``I think there are other players as talented as Tiger,'' said the Florida-based professional who has made only nine cuts from 16 U.S. Tour events this year. ``But I think he is mechanically sound as anybody, he works as hard as anybody and outthinks a lot of people. On the other hand, he didn't win at Lytham last year and he didn't win at Southern Hills (which staged the 2001 U.S. Open).
``I think, if Tiger Woods is playing his best and if other players are playing their best, then I don't think there's as big a difference as everyone seems to think there is. ``I can win because I've done it before, because I have it in me and I know I have it in me.''
Duval is one of several likely challengers this week to the grand slam hopes of Woods.
World number three Ernie Els, who tied for fifth at the 1992 British Open, is sure to be a factor while Americans Justin Leonard, the 1997 winner at Royal Troon, and Jim Furyk both tend to perform well at the British Open.
Spaniards Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal, Irishman Padraig Harrington, Germany's Bernhard Langer, Britons Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and three-times champion Nick Faldo, 1994 winner Nick Price of Zimbabwe and 2001 U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen are all quite capable of challenging strongly.
World No. 2 Phil Mickelson has run Woods the closest in the first two majors of the year but he has never produced his best golf at the British Open, with a highest finish of tied for 11th at St Andrews in 2000. Reuters
Facts and figures
Event: 131st British Open golf championship.
Dates: July 18-21.
Defending champion: David Duval.
Length: 7,034 yards (6,401 meters).
Format: 72 holes (18 daily) stroke play.
Playoff, if necessary: Four holes, stroke play.
Purse: £3.8 million ($5.3 million)
Winner's share: £700,000 ($980,000).
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