The Open 2014: Tiger returns as McIlroy and Rose eye glory
A revamped course and the return of Tiger, what to expect from the 143rd Open Championship...
After an eight-year hiatus the Open Championship returns to the Wirral this week and with 49 of the world's top 50 players scheduled to tee-off at Royal Liverpool, this year's tournament is already shaping-up to be a classic.
With Phil Mickelson looking to retain his title, Justin Rose going for a third consecutive tournament win and Tiger Woods returning for his first major of the year, the 143rd Open is teeming with possibilities – but what should we expect from the tournament?
The Royal Liverpool – or Hoylake as it's usually known – is the second-oldest links course in England and although its Par 72 should be conducive to lower scoring, players should be under no illusions about the test they'll face this week.
On paper the course should play a little easier than previous Open venues, and Tiger Woods' winning score of 18-under in 2006 is a good marker for the 156 players who comprise this year's field.
It should be noted, however, that Woods only missed one green during his final round eight years ago, and with 82 bunkers lining the 7,312 yard course, errant shots will be punished. Speaking earlier this week, Rory McIlroy told Sky Sports that "avoiding bunkers" and "putting it on the fairway" would be crucial.
Just as they did eight years ago, players will tee off on the 17th and finish on the 16th. The opening hole, a 458-yard Par 4, has already been labelled the "the hardest opener on the Open rota" by R&A chief executive Peter Dawson.
However, the course has also undergone a number of changes since it last hosted the event in 2006 and five greens have been altered in preparation for this year's tournament. The course will also play 54-yards longer than it did eight years ago.
After a dismal 2013 Rory McIlroy looks back to his best, despite his off-course problems and should be in contention come the weekend. The Northern Irishman has performed well at the majority of tournaments he's played this year and notable finishes include a tie for eighth at The Masters and sixth-place finish at The Players. McIlroy also won the PGA Championship in May and fired a sizzling opening-round 64 at last week's Scottish Open. Provided this form continues there's no reason he can't collect his third major title on Merseyside.
McIlroy isn't the only Briton eyeing the famous Claret Jug. Justin Rose is the man in form and a win is a realistic prospect. No Englishman has won the Open Championship since Nick Faldo in 1992, but the omens are good this year with Rose coming off the back of an impressive win at the Scottish Open, just as Mickelson did in 2013 before winning at Muirfield. With two wins in his last two tournaments and a host of top ten finishes to boot, Rose has been one of 2014's most consistent players. Fellow Brits Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are all in with a chance too.
Another European poised to mount a challenge on the Wirral Peninsula is the resurgent Martin Kaymer, who bagged The Players Championship in May and shredded the field as he won the US Open by eight shots last month. The set-up at Pinehurst No.2, where the course ran firm and fast, resembled Royal Liverpool, and the world number 12 doesn't expect Hoylake "to be much different" from the scene of his US Open triumph. Kaymer's victory at Pinehurst was perfect preparation for the week ahead and there's little doubt his tee-to-green precision, coupled with his unflappable German temperament, make him a strong contender for the Claret Jug.
Swede Henrik Stenson, is also tipped to contend, extending a sensational run of Open form that includes two ties for third and a second place finish in the last six years. Stenson's major record is formidable; he hasn't missed the cut at a major since 2011 and comes into this year's Open in a rich vein of form with five top tens in his last six tournaments. The presence of four par fives at Hoylake is also likely to play into the hands of the big-hitting world number two.
Stenson is unlikely to be the only big-hitter to feature this week. Australian Adam Scott has gone from strength to strength since claiming his first major title in Augusta last year. His Open record is impressive and he has finished inside the top three in his last two outings. His final round collapse at Royal Lytham & St Annes two years ago, when he was four ahead with four to play, is also likely to serve as an incentive this week.
And then there's Tiger Woods. His return to the major championship scene has, predictably, attracted plenty of comment. Sidelined with injury for the Masters and the US Open, the former world number one has only played four times this year, and given his lengthy lay-off many are questioning his ability to mount a challenge at Hoylake. The Daily Telegraph says he is "barely recognisable" from the player of 2006, but should not be written off. Golf.com says Woods will be driven on by past success at the Wirral and no-one should discount a top-ten finish.