After three formal days of practice rounds at Royal Troon for the 133rd British Open, every man in Thursday's starting field of 156 no doubt has formulated the proper blueprint for success at this legendary links off the Firth of Clyde: Make bunches of birdies going out with the prevailing northwest breezes at your back, and hold on for dear life into the wind on the inward nine.
That was the game plan employed here in 1997 by Open champion Justin Leonard, who was 12 under par over four days on the front, and even par on the back nine. His 272 total also was reflective of how the entire field played the course. Seven years ago, when Leonard came from five behind after 54 holes to shoot 65 on the final Sunday, the front side played three shots easier than the back throughout the tournament.
"The whole course is 100 percent dependent on the weather," said Tiger Woods, who will attempt to end his run of eight straight majors without a victory. "If that wind blows, it becomes quite a challenge. Your numbers and the clubs you hit off the tees and the approach shots are just completely different."
Though he had a decent showing two weeks ago at the Western Open, Woods is still searching for the swing that allowed him to win seven titles over 11 majors in a three-year span that began in 1999. He has already admitted that knee surgery in December 2002 has had an impact on his practice routine and may also have led to subtle changes in his mechanics.
He will never say that his inconsistent ball-striking also may be a result of his ruptured relationship two years ago with long-time swing coach Butch Harmon. Though the two talked after the U.S. Open to clear the air, there is no sign that Harmon will re-enter the Woods camp.
Woods is not even the favorite here in the betting shops, with Ernie Els the 7 to 1 choice and Woods getting 8 to 1 odds.
Woods, as always, insists that the pressure of expectations will have no bearing on how well he plays. Knowing that his swing has produced lots of scatter-shot driving left and right, he also admitted he would prefer that the wind is "definitely blowing . . . It forces you to hit different golf shots and be more creative and work the golf ball."
Woods is also dealing with a different mind-set than his main challengers.
"Four or five years ago, we were kind of in another league," said Els, second to Phil Mickelson at the Masters and tied for ninth three weeks ago at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. "Where Tiger was and where he is now, I mean we're in different worlds now. A lot of the players feel we can compete with him now at the highest level.
"Right in the middle of the Tiger Storm, in the eye of the storm, whenever he teed it up I felt he was going to shoot a 67 or something better. In majors, normal tour events, any event, that's the way I felt. That's how good he was. It was difficult for not only myself but other players to really believe that you could go out there and play your game and that would be good enough. Right now, it's different . . . I think we're on a level playing field right now, and maybe Tiger has come back to the field a little bit."
Several other prominent players are expected to be factors on this 7,175-yard par 71 course that includes six par 4s on the back nine that measure 430 yards or more, including the brutally difficult 490-yard No. 11 played into the wind and 483-yard 15th. The course also features the longest hole on any British Open course, the 601-yard No. 6 that is still reachable in two shots when it plays downwind, as well as the shortest, the 123-yard No. 8 known as the Postage Stamp hole, protected by five deep pot bunkers all around.
Mickelson, the Masters champion and runner-up to Retief Goosen at Shinnecock, has come to Scotland brimming with confidence despite a poor record in this event. He has never cracked the top 10 in 11 Open appearances, and only two of his last 23 rounds were in the 60s. Still, he said this week, his Masters victory and the way he has prepared for the last two majors give him hope he can have similar success this week.
"This event especially emphasizes trajectory and spin control," he said. "It's firmer here and it takes some getting used to. I've enjoyed the opportunity to come in and play the golf course and try to learn where balls will roll and end up. It's something that I probably should have done in the past but didn't really know how to prepare the best for. I think I'm a little more prepared this week."
Goosen has a far better record in this tournament than Mickelson, with a tie for 13th, a tie for eighth and a tie for 10th in his last three appearances. This week, he's come in well-rested and feeling a bit unbeatable after back-to-back wins at the U.S. Open and the Smurfit European Open in Ireland. He took last week off, and played only once.
"You don't want to get too confident at these type of events," Goosen said. "You know that, yeah, maybe you're playing well, but this golf course and this type of golf, it can turn around very quickly. The course is really tough. Going the first nine holes, you feel you can drive every par four, and coming back, you can't reach it. It's going to be tough."