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Archive for Monday, July 17, 2006

This year’s British Open all about recovery

How will Woods, Mickelson respond? And where has Els been?

July 17, 2006

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Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus shared a private moment three years ago in South Africa during the Presidents Cup, a time for them to swap stories about winning majors, dealing with scrutiny and staying on top in the face of constantly evolving competition.

"The one thing he told me was to make sure I was always part of the conversation," Woods said.

The conversation is crowded headed into the British Open.

Only it's not about rivals, but recovery.

How does Woods respond to missing the cut for the first time in a major? How long will Phil Mickelson be haunted by memories of his unseemly collapse at the U.S. Open that kept him from the threshold of the Grand Slam?

And has anyone heard from Ernie Els lately?

Woods is the defending champion, although that might not carry much weight at Royal Liverpool, which is steeped in as much mystery as history. It will be the first time the Hoylake links has hosted the British Open since 1967, before nine of the top 10 players in the world were born.

Woods, who has never even seen pictures of the place, is somewhat of an enigma himself this year.

He looked unbeatable at the start of the year, winning playoffs at Torrey Pines and Dubai in consecutive weeks, and holding off a strong field at Doral. But the death of his father led to a nine-week layoff after the Masters, and Woods is trying to regain sharpness.

He has played only 10 tournaments this year; the fewest he ever had played before the British Open was 13.

"This year has just been a difficult and different year. That's just the way it is," Woods said before the Western Open, where he tied for second. "But from here to the rest of the year, I'm playing in quite a few events, so I'll be back in the swing of things."

Jim Furyk had to sit out four months in 2004 with wrist surgery, making his return at the U.S. Open. He knows what it takes to get tournament sharp, and he knows plenty about Woods' game.

"The best way to get your game sharp is to be under competitive pressure," Furyk said. "I understand it's tough to come back from a layoff, and I suspect that very shortly his game will be back in very good form."

Mickelson tried to get back on his bike quickly.

Having won the PGA Championship last August and the Masters in April, he was on the verge of joining Woods as the only players in the last 50 years to win three consecutive majors. He had a two-shot lead with three holes to play, and still had one shot to spare on the 18th tee, until perhaps the biggest blunder of his career.

Starting with a wild drive, it took him five shots just to reach the green, giving him a double bogey and his first blown major.

Mickelson was at Hoylake a week later, anxious to put his follies behind him.

"I've got two more (majors) this year," Mickelson said. "I'm playing too well, and I've got a system of preparation that has been helping me play some of my best golf. And right now, I'm excited about the chances at Hoylake."

In his first tournament back, Mickelson opened with a 67 and then failed to break par the rest of the week at the Western. But a regular PGA Tour event is no place to judge the magnitude of a hangover, and the British Open might not be a true measure, either.

Mickelson has only one top 10 in golf's oldest championship, that one coming in 2004 when he was dominant in the majors, finishing a combined five shots out of the lead.

At least Woods and Mickelson can fall back on trophies.

They are Nos. 1 and 2 in the world by a margin that is slowly setting them apart from the rest of the field. The rest of the Big Five are sliding, and Els now has fallen to No. 8.

The Big Easy, like Mickelson, went to Hoylake a few weeks before the British Open to get familiar with the links course that features relatively flat greens, a comparatively small number of bunkers and 10 holes that have out-of-bounds.

But the frustration is setting in. When he was driving the ball well, his irons were off. When he was hitting his irons pure, his driving was off. And now that he has his driving and iron play in good order, he can't make a putt.

Els has gone 15 majors without winning, the longest streak among that elite group of Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen.

"We all know golf can be a funny game - unpredictable, too," Els said. "You only need one good round and you can be right back where you want to be, playing your best golf again. Like all sports, it's a lot to do with confidence."

Combined, this has created a sprint to the finish for season-ending awards.

The British Open also presents a chance for Europeans to end their drought in the majors - 27 straight without a victory.

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