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A quirky course, a wide-open Open

Everybody’s thinking the same thing these days:

Who won the British Open last year?

It was gap-toothed Louis Oosthuizen – Shrek to his friends – at St. Andrews in a championship (we Americans call it the British Open, but its official name is the Open Championship) that had its drama blown away by 50-mph winds during the event.

Barely a month since Rory McIlroy’s transcendent performance in the U.S. Open, the year’s third major championship will begin Thursday in England without Tiger Woods but with the promise of plenty of television shots of the nearby North Sea, questions about the state of U.S. golf and a sense of unpredictability.

Where is it?

It’s at Royal St. George’s, about 70 miles east of London in Sandwich, not far from the white cliffs of Dover.

It’s a links course that doesn’t have the reputation as some of the more famous Open courses. Historians don’t get breathless talking about Royal St. George’s the way they do about the Old Course at St. Andrews or Muirfield, both in Scotland, or even Hoylake in England.

“From a history standpoint and the romantic part of playing Open Championships, it’s one of the least romantic and has the least history compared to the St. Andrews and the Troons and the Birkdales,” ESPN analyst Andy North said.

The word that comes to mind in describing this year’s venue is quirky, and you can take that any way you wish. It has fairways cluttered with bumps and humps and the usual assortment of nasty bunkers, including one on the par-4 fourth hole that’s deeper than some oceans.

When the Open was last played at St. George’s, in 2003, Ben Curtis – ranked 396th in the world and unrecognizable to almost anyone outside his immediate family – won.

It doesn’t get much quirkier than that.

Can an American win?

Sure. It’s bound to happen eventually in a major.

The question is which American is the best hope and that’s where the picture turns as gray as the North Sea in winter.

Who are the three best U.S. players right now?

Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker and Nick Watney?

No wonder Ladbroke’s betting shops aren’t expecting a run on Americans this week.

Until Phil Mickelson proves he can play links golf, he can’t be listed among the favorites. Ditto Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan.

Rory redux?

It starts with Rory McIlroy, for sure. Whether it ends there remains to be seen.

After his brilliant performance in the U.S. Open and his various moments – glorious and otherwise – in other majors during the past 12 months, McIlroy will be the dominant figure when play begins. He’s obviously comfortable on links courses, having grown up around some of the best in Northern Ireland, and he seems comfortable with his place in the game.

“It looks like he enjoys the center stage,” ESPN analyst Curtis Strange said. “He certainly has every bit of the game to go ahead and play well this week. Winning is another story all together. But to play well and be part of the story, I expect him to be there.”

Is it about luck or skill?

That question tends to surface at Royal St. George’s, where fine shots can wind up in bad places and lousy shots can be rewarded. That is – at least in large measure – part of the charm and nature of links golf. It is, truly, a different game than one played in the United States. Links golf requires more imagination, often keeping the ball on the ground rather than in the air.

There might be, however, more uncertainty at St. George’s, thereby requiring an extra dollop of patience in players who will be forced, one time or another, to accept a genuinely bad – and undeserved – bounce.

It has been noted often during recent weeks that Jack Nicklaus said Open courses get progressively worse the farther south they’re located. Royal St. George’s is the southernmost course on the championship rotation.

With precious little rain having fallen on the course the past two months, it’s expected to be extremely firm and fast, adding to the potential pandemonium.

And if not Rory?

It’s getting a bit redundant, but if Lee Westwood is going to win a major this seems as good a chance as any.

World No. 1 Luke Donald should be a factor, especially at a course where length isn’t the critical issue. Graeme McDowell also might be part of the mix.

Jason Day has finished second in both majors this year. Ian Poulter loves the stage, though his game has been flat. Adam Scott is intriguing.

And don’t forget Sergio Garcia. He’s been easy to forget for a while, but don’t be shocked if he’s a factor.

Quirky things happen at Royal St. George’s.

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