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Woods overwhelming favourite as The Open returns to Muirfield

Woods overwhelming favourite as The Open returns to Muirfield

Having reclaimed the No. 1 ranking and winning four times this year on the PGA Tour, Woods is expected to end his Major drought.

Gullane, Scotland: Let's see if we've got this straight about Muirfield. It's a fair test. There are no surprises. And it's just plain "neat," as Tiger Woods kept saying over and over Tuesday. If you've come looking for startling revelations at this British Open, time to move on. Nothing to see here.

The cliches have been flowing freely as the golfers prepare for the third major of the year, no one daring to say anything that could be construed as the least bit controversial. Golfers, as a general rule, are a bit buttoned-down to begin with, but this week they seem especially reluctant to open up or express the least bit of discontent.

That figures to change on Wednesday, when the Royal & Ancient, the tournament organiser, will surely get grilled on Muirfield's male-only membership policy - especially in light of Augusta National handing out green jackets to females for the first time at the home of the Masters.

But no one who'll actually hit a shot this week has been willing to take sides on the issue. "I don't make the policies here," Woods said. "I'm not a member, so I'm not going to speak for the club."

But if you want to ask the players about the course itself, they'll gladly dole out the accolades. Again and again and again. "Bad golf gets punished and good golf gets rewarded," Graeme McDowell said. "I think it's a very fair golf course. I like it a lot."

Or this, from Phil Mickelson, "It's very comfortable for me off some of the tees, getting the ball in play, as well as around the greens. I like it a lot."

Anything to add, Brandt Snedeker? "It's always a special week, especially here at Muirfield. The golf course is fantastic. It's unlike any British I've played in before, where the ball is bouncing everywhere. It's really firm and fast. The course is in fantastic shape. The greens are some of the best I've seen."

Maybe if the wind picks up, or some freakish storm sweeps over the course - as it did in 2002, the last time the Open was here - those opinions will take a turn. But, at the moment, it's nothing but a lovefest.

"Each and every hole is a little bit different," defending champion Ernie Els said. "There's left to rights, right to lefts and it all happens out there. Every links shot that you can imagine, you're going to play it this week."

Just don't bother asking about what happens at the club the other 51 weeks of the year.

Nick Faldo, who has won two of his Open titles at Muirfield, seemed to sum up the feelings for everyone carrying a club when the question was posed to him about the male-only membership. He threw back his head and let out an audible sigh before delivering an answer that quickly brought an end to any thoughts of a meaningful discussion.

"That's for the club to decide," he said bluntly.

The weather hasn't been an issue at all - warm and sunny through the practice rounds, with nary a hint of rain. The course is more yellow than green, a product of the largely dry conditions, certainly nothing like it was the last time the Open came to Muirfield.

Back in 2002, during the third round, the weather suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse. The temperature plummeted. The winds howled. The rains pounded those unfortunate enough to be out on the course, a group that included Woods.

His hopes of a Grand Slam were washed away by an 81, which remains his highest score as a professional. That's a part of the Muirfield history he would prefer to forget.

"That was the worst I've ever played in," Woods said. "No one was prepared for it. There was a slight chance of maybe a shower. Obviously the forecast was very wrong on that. So none of us were prepared clothing-wise. A lot of guys just had golf shirts and a rain jacket, and that was it. That was all they had. I think that's one of the biggest things. The wind chill was in the 30s. The umbrella became useless, because the wind was blowing so hard, you couldn't control the umbrella. It was just a cold, cold day."

As always, Woods comes into a major championship as the overwhelming favourite, having reclaimed the world's No. 1 ranking and already having won four times this year on the PGA Tour.

But the feeling of invincibility is no longer there, wiped out by the longest major drought of his career. Woods hasn't won one of golf's Big Four since his 14th career title at the 2008 US Open. Since then, he's gone through embarrassing revelations about his personal life, a divorce, a swing change and a series of nagging injuries - the latest of which is a strained left elbow that sidelined him for the past month.

Woods insists his elbow is fine, but it's no longer a given - or even necessarily expected by a lot of people - that he'll be hoisting the claret jug as the sun slowly sets on Sunday evening.

Eighteen golfers have divvied up the last 20 major titles. Woods is not among them. He still has a good shot at breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors, but it no longer looks like a lock at age 37.

"I feel very good about my game," Woods insisted. "I feel very, very good going into major championships. I've had a pretty good year this year so far - won four times. Even though I haven't won a major championship in five years, I've been there in a bunch of them where I've had chances. I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I'll get some."

Yep, everything is hunky-dory at this British Open. Let's see if it stays this way.

first published:July 17, 2013, 14:07 IST