Sport Golf

Thursday 18 September 2014

Henrik Stenson holding all the aces at British Open

Woods out to rekindle golden memories but Swede can seal Open deal after near-misses

Karl MacGinty

Published 17/07/2014 | 02:30

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Tiger Woods on the practice ground at Hoylake yesterday

Hoylake is on the Wirral peninsula, not in Liverpool. It's Deeside, not Merseyside, but the accent's near enough the same.

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Certainly one can think of no other Major championship venue where you'd hear countless people, one after another, warmly greet one of the world's greatest golfers as he passes with, "good luck Tiger-lad".

It's been good, too, to see the usually aloof Woods respond with a nod and a quiet word of thanks.

Padraig Harrington equates playing golf at the British Open in Hoylake to performing in front of the Anfield Kop or, in an effort to be perfectly, politically correct, the Gwladys Street end at Goodison Park.

"There's a slightly Irish influence in it," he says of the friendly lilt which makes this historic place more Hoylake and a little less Royal Liverpool Golf Club – and not just during Open championship week

"When somebody with a strong Liverpudlian accent is cheering you on, it's nice, it really is," added Harrington. "I suppose they like the Irish in Liverpool, that's it."

EMOTIONAL

Yet Woods feels a special emotional bond with the locals, forged when he won the Open here in 2006 and collapsed into the arms of his then caddie Steve Williams on the 18th green, sobbing with joy and grief.

His father Earl had passed away two months earlier and Woods had paid homage to his memory by retaining the Claret Jug with one of the most brilliantly executed strategic victories in Major championship history.

"It's eight years on and my life has certainly changed a lot since then," Tiger says. "That was a very emotional week. I'd pressed pretty hard at Augusta that year, trying to win it because it was the last time my dad was ever going to see me play a Major championship.

"Then I didn't play well at the US Open, missed the cut there miserably, came here and just felt at peace. I really, really played well. On Sunday I felt so calm out there, it was surreal. The only other times everything was working like that was at the 1997 Masters in Augusta and the US and Open championships in 2000."

Life also changed utterly for Darren Clarke that summer. Like Harrington, he missed the cut at Hoylake, the Ulsterman's final tournament before his wife Heather succumbed to breast cancer the following month.

So, this, too, is a week of remembrance for Clarke. "I look back at tough times in my life off the golf course with more fond memories than bad ones," he said.

"I think if you ask anybody the same question, they'd respond in the same way as myself. As time goes by you look back with good memories.

He counts himself very fortunate in the interim "to meet and marry Alison. She's a wonderful lady and I've got a second chance with meeting Alison.

"That's not taking away from Heather whatsoever. She was my first wife. My kids are doing well. Of course they miss their mum, but they get on great with Alison and she gets on great with them, they love her to bits. I feel very fortunate."

Like two-time Open champion Harrington, Clarke has endured more trials than triumph on the golf course since taking the Claret Jug home to Portrush from Royal St George's in 2011 and, despite his reputation as one of the world's leading men on the links, few fancy him for victory on Sunday.

Sadly, the same applies to Tiger. In 2006, he won on only his third appearance in three months since the Masters but his final warm-up, a second place finish at the Western Open a fortnight earlier, was infinitely more convincing than his rust-bucket missed cut at Congressional two weeks ago.

After undergoing back surgery at the end of March, Woods is in perfect shape physically, but it'd take a miracle for the new Tiger, the golfer whose aura of invincibility has vanished in six turbulent years since his last Major victory at the 2008 US Open, to regain the match sharpness necessary to win this weekend.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson must also be counted out after six miserable months in which he missed the cut at the Masters, was let down by his short game and putting at Pinehurst, a course that offered him a glorious opportunity to end his drought at the US Open, and has not registered a top-10 finish anywhere since sharing second with Rory McIlroy in Abu Dhabi last January.

Appropriately enough, given our relative proximity to the Mersey, the 'Fab Four' of world golf – Martin Kaymer, Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson – are all here, though Rory McIlroy or Graeme McDowell could do an Elvis and leave this quartet all shook up on Sunday.

There are many others who will fancy their chances on an intrinsically fair links lined by mostly playable rough, including Sergio Garcia – who wore canary yellow and was devoured by the big cat when they played in the final group here in 2006 – the in-form Angel Cabrera and a couple of Irish dark horses, Shane Lowry and Michael Hoey.

Yet McDowell, whose recent French Open victory stirred memories of his success at Celtic Manor in the run-up to the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, is accurate enough off the tee and chipping and putting with so much confidence, he may have to honour his pledge to "cut off his left arm" should he win the Claret Jug on Sunday.

As rain bucketed down on Hoylake yesterday afternoon, however, the prospects soared of McIlroy saving him the trouble by becoming the youngest winner at the Open since Tiger in 2000. Just as Woods did here eight years ago, the Holywood native, one of the hottest drivers in golf, could absolutely clean up on the par-fives.

First, McIlroy must overcome his Friday phobia. The draw has been kind to him. By the time he sets out tomorrow lunchtime, the wind is forecast to drop and the going should still be yielding after overnight rain.

Yet Stenson (38), runner-up to Mickelson last year, is in such good tune with his three-wood and irons at the moment that he's believed likely to emerge on Sunday as the Lennon to Rose's McCartney and land Sweden's first Major title.

THE BRITISH OPEN, LIVE, SETANTA IRL/BBC2, 9.00am

Irish Independent

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