British Open 2014 Preview

Sergio Garcia is still searching for that major victory...
Sergio Garcia is still searching for that major victory...

One of the most iconic sporting events of the year gets underway on Thursday and Alex Johnson previews the event...

Sergio Garcia's fruitless quest for a major to date continues going into Hoylake.

The Open Championship returns to Royal Liverpool as the season's third major gets underway on Thursday morning.

On its previous visit eight years ago, Tiger Woods put on a course management clinic en route to the 11th of his 14 major titles to date.

In the midst of an English summer of soaring temperatures Hoylake was playing hard and fast, the ultimate test of links golf.

Woods pulled the driver from his bag on just one occasion across the four days as he came home with two shots to spare over the field.

Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington this week recalled how in '06 the fairways were running quicker than the greens in Liverpool.

This week will not produce anything quite as dramatic, with early reports suggesting comparatively lush fairways.

The rough remains treacherous - with any rain multiplying the potential for trouble amongst the wispy overgrown areas.

Small targets will demand accurate approach play and Hoylake offers no great relief for the game's long hitters.

Recent French Open winner Graeme McDowell talked this week of a course that 'forces you into little areas' from the tee.

Discipline will be a key factor. The leading contenders have offered the theory that Woods' strategy of eliminating the driver will simply not work this week.

Variation in putting the ball in play however ought to be a telling factor.

After three first-time major champions in 2013, this year, Bubba Watson at Augusta and Martin Kaymer at Pinehurst have struck a blow for those with experience of winning the biggest events in golf.

Phil Mickelson's Muirfield win last July represented the only previous winner to add to his collection.

There are standout candidates from both camps bringing ominous form to Hoylake, but who will be left holding the Claret Jug on Sunday evening.

Mickelson's win last time came on the back of claiming the Scottish Open the previous week.

After winning in Aberdeen last Sunday, Justin Rose is now the favourite starting out at Hoylake.

Having won his first major at the US Open last year, Rose endured something of a lean second half to the campaign.

The Englishman had been playing consistently well in 2014 without managing to get a win on the board.

Now, he finds himself chasing a hat-trick of tournaments wins after success at the Quicken Loans National on the PGA Tour last month and at Royal Aberdeen.

A T12 finish in the defence of his US Open preceded those wins, meaning Rose is right at the top of his game and he looks set to be a factor this week once more.

Three times in recent seasons, the eventual Open champion has arrived at the event already boasting winning form in the book for the season.

Using that filter, two European contenders leap from the page.

McDowell, US Open champion four years ago picked up a timely win in Paris at the beginning of this month.

The Irishman has been knocking on the door in 2014, with nine top-25 finishes already.

He threw away a glorious chance to win on home soil thanks largely to an uncharacteristically poor final-round putting display in June.

He showed his mental strength in bouncing back to win in France though, where his uncanny ability with the putter was back in harness.

Course form is also a checked box, an opening 66 giving McDowell the lead here eight years ago.

Now a proven tour winner and major champion, this could be his chance to join Watson and Kaymer in the multiples club.

Sergio Garcia's fruitless quest for a major to date continues going into Hoylake.

Second to Harrington at Carnoustie in 2007, the Spaniard will surely never get a better chance without crashing through the barrier.

At times troubled on the greens, Garcia this season has shown signs of his brilliant best - nowhere more so than his victory in Qatar in January.

After seven top-ten finishes at the Open - including last time at Hoylake - Garcia would be a supremely popular winner.

Kaymer has been the big-game hunter thus far in 2014.

The German laboured to victory late in the day at the Players Championship in May but then turned the US Open into a one-horse race less than a month later.

Should he arrive on Merseyside in the same vein of form, he will be a formidable force as he seeks to continue what he described this week as a summer of German success.

Others worth noting amongst those with wins on the board this season are two-time major winner Angel Cabrera, fresh from success at the Greenbrier Classic, and WGC Matchplay champion Jason Day.

The Aussie is viewed as a major champion in waiting by many experts although he admitted this week it may take time before he adjusts to British links golf and betters the tied 30th he posted three years ago.

What of the returning Tiger this week? Surgery meant Woods was absent at the season's opening two majors.

Unsurprisingly, he says anything other than first place will rank as a disappointment this week.

It cannot mask the fact that he is becoming ever more accustomed to dealing with such setbacks.

Following his Hoylake master class in '06, Woods either did not participate or missed the cut in three of the next five British Opens.

The pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' major tally has gone off course, but the American has been comfortably inside the top ten at this event in the last two years - without ever truly looking like winning a fourth Claret Jug.

Woods presents a conundrum for punters this week.

Out of form and with injury still a nagging worry, it will take a brave call to back him - and an even braver one to write him off.

The brilliance of Rory McIlroy cannot be questioned but his second round meltdown in Scotland last week must worry his fans.

The world number eight admitted the tendency to follow a sublime opening score with an error-strewn Friday is now 'in his head' and that must be a significant concern.

A course record on day one in Aberdeen was followed by a 78 - a whopping 14 shots worse off.

Weekend rounds of 68 and 67 still ensured a T14 finish but the ability to string together four solid rounds is taken on trust just now.

Since winning in Ireland last month Finn Mikko Ilonen has been touted as a potential dark horse for Hoylake.

Winner of the Amateur Championship at this venue in 2000, Ilonen recorded a top twenty in Scotland last week and only lost out to Garcia in a playoff in Qatar at the turn of the year.

Henrik Stenson chased home Mickelson a year ago - his third time placing at this event - and the Swede has been outside the top ten just once in six tournaments since Augusta in April.

Adam Scott hasn't been seen since finishing T9 at Pinehurst behind Kaymer but the world number one's recent major record suggests he will be in there pitching on the back nine come Sunday afternoon.

Scott will he hoping it is third time lucky at the Open after going so close in the most recent renewals.

The cast is assembled and the drama is assured. Four days of gripping major championship tension lie in store.

Strap yourself in for another blockbuster.

Alex Johnson,

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