Smyth leads Irish charge as Couples plots defence
IF Des Smyth has time to chat between shots in today's opening round of the British Senior Open championship at Royal Birkdale, he only has to mention the name 'Greg Norman' to get a lively response from his playing partners.
Smyth (60) tees off alongside two men who gave Greg Norman nightmares in their 'regular' career – Bob Tway and Larry Mize.
Tway shocked Norman by holing out from a greenside bunker when the odds were against him to deny the Aussie in the 1986 PGA Championship.
Mize eclipsed both the 'Great White Shark' and Seve Ballesteros, winning a play-off for the 1987 Masters by pitching in from over 40 yards off the green.
Norman isn't playing at Birkdale this week, but the field is stellar, with former Major winners, including holder Fred Couples and former Senior Open champions Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson involved.
Couples hopes to become the first player to successfully defend this championship since Christy O'Connor Jnr recorded back-to-back wins in 1999 and 2000.
O'Connor Jnr joins fellow former Ryder Cup heroes Des Smyth, Eamonn Darcy and Philip Walton in the field. Other Irish competitors are Denis O'Sullivan and Zimbabwe native Mark McNulty, who has Irish citizenship.
Of the Irish contingent Smyth is the most likely to be competitive this week, but Couples has greater ambitions.
The 53-year-old finished a credible tied 32nd at The British Open proper last week at Muirfield and has headed south to take on his peers with the aim of emulating his success of last year at Turnberry.
But in these last few days he has been forced to re-acclimatise himself to "normal" golf.
"Last week was like concrete," Couples said. "Every shot you hit rolled forever. I don't think many of us have played golf like that before. Here, it's rained, it's pretty green, the greens are receptive, so it's pretty different.
"I think we're going to try to fly the ball onto the greens and stop them, which is unlike last week, and I'll have to mentally get it out of my mind that I was hitting eight-irons from 210 yards. Now I'm going to be hitting five and six irons."
Couples tees it up at 1.50 alongside Colin Montgomerie and Mark O'Meara, who won the 1998 Open Championship at Birkdale.
O'Meara has been awarded honourary membership of Birkdale and was clearly emotional when talking about the Lancashire links.
However, with strong winds forecast, he is not expecting much romance. Indeed, O'Meara, who shot a 67 in the first round of the British Open, believes the veterans' version could be an even more severe test.
"It's going to be just as demanding, if not even tougher, to be honest with you, especially if it blows," O'Meara said. "I've played it in really severe conditions before. You just have to be very patient and sometimes par is a very good score."
The course is set up less than 100 yards shorter than when Padraig Harrington won the British Open there in 2008.
Kenny Perry, who has won the last two senior Majors, is skipping the event, leaving Couples as favourite. And although Montgomerie will inevitably command headlines, there will be plenty of focus on Langer as well as Watson.
On the US PGA tour, Graeme McDowell is the only Irishman in action at the Canadian Open at the Glen Abbey GC in Oakville, Ontario, which starts today.
Senior Open Championship
Live, Sky Sports 1, 11.30 & 4.0
Live Sky sports 3, 8.0