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A new chapter for storied course

Just off the English Channel's gray beach that runs along the eastern edge of Royal St. George's golf course, there's a rutted pathway that follows the shore. It's only slightly more narrow than the paved road that winds nearby, threading around the scene of this week's Open Championship and into the adjacent town with its ivy-covered stone buildings.

The pathway was put there for Julius Caesar in 55 BC when he came rolling through these parts, invading the region long before Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton and Greg Norman did their own turns as conquerors on the heaving dunes at St. George's.

It's here that the Open Championship has returned for the 14th time this week, eight years after then-unknown Ben Curtis shocked everyone, including himself, by winning the Claret Jug. It is the first significant golf moment since Rory McIlroy's breakthrough victory at the U.S. Open last month, the seeming start of a new chapter in the game's evolving history.

This is not St. Andrews with its ghosts and gray walls. It's not Carnoustie with its menacing finish. It's not even the place where the sandwich was invented.

That happened centuries ago somewhere else, but the name stuck when John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich in 1762, slapped two pieces of bread around the meat he was noshing on so his fingers wouldn't be greasy while he gambled. Others started asking for their meat "like Sandwich" and lunch was created. Barbecue potato chips soon followed.

Royal St. George's is located about 15 miles north of Dover's famous white cliffs, which match the belts most golfers are wearing under their wind shirts here, and it comes fully outfitted with the necessities of an Open championship.

The forecast calls for spots of sun, periods of rain, enough wind to bend a flagstick and the extra spoonful of uncertainty that's as much a part of St. George's as the three cooling towers from the shuttered nuclear power plant located practically next door.

Like most Opens, the setting will dictate the storyline as much as the men trying to follow Louis Oosthuizen as champion golfer of the year.

It will be about the wind, which so far this week has blown heartily from three different directions, the fairways, which are as rumpled as an unmade bed, and the fortitude required to absorb the cruel bounces that are as likely to afflict a well-struck shot as an errant one.

"It's mentally frustrating out there," said Lee Westwood, who could set English hearts soaring if he were able to win in his homeland.

This is links golf, which means it is about imagination, preferably the good kind in which players can conjure up a handful of different ways to play the same shot, most often by keeping the ball close to the ground rather than trusting the wind to deliver it to the proper spot.

It's easy to go negative when more than your fair share of seemingly good shots end up in not-so-good places. Invisible dragons swat shots sideways and then the demons come calling on the psyche. They could sell tolerance in the carts that hawk ice cream and fish and chips around the course here.

St. George's had its reputation dinged eight years ago when Curtis won - and not just because the 396th-ranked player in the world beat the game's best.

The course set-up was something out of a Gothic novel with dungeons of inescapable fescue lining its dimpled fairways. The rough is fairer now, the product of a long dry spell more than the benevolence of the championship committee at the Royal & Ancient, and players are saying nice things about the place as if they're trying to get on karma's good side.

"I'm starting to appreciate the golf course now," Phil Mickelson said.

It's a place where it's easy to imagine 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, a Northern Irish child of links golf, adding to his major championship trophy collection.

The same goes for world No. 1 Luke Donald, former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell or Westwood. The challenge seems greater for American golfers, who've recently become allergic to major championships.

More than 2,000 years after Julius Caesar staked his claim to the area, it's someone else's turn this week.