Irish stars face arena of mental toughness at the Open
HOPES of the British Open Championship ever returning to the island of Ireland were effectively snuffed out by the ever-so-polite gentlemen of the Royal and Ancient at Lytham yesterday.
Depressingly, the R&A's annual eve-of-championship briefing was dominated by gloomy weather forecasts; the outside chance of some of Lytham's 206 bunkers being flooded... and myriad reasons why Royal Portrush will not return to The Open rota any time soon.
As the 141st Open today swings into action within view of the iconic Blackpool Tower, responsibility for breathing life back into this issue rests once again with the men who pushed Portrush so high up the agenda in the first place.
The feats of Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and defending Open champion Darren Clarke in the Major championship arena underpinned the immense success of the recent Irish Open at Portrush, making it easier for politicians and public alike to support the venture.
Considering Ireland's 60 barren years at the Majors following Fred Daly's Open victory at Hoylake in 1947, the past five seasons have been nothing short of miraculous.
Prior to Harrington's remarkable back-to-back wins at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale in 2007 and 2008, nobody in their right mind would have imagined Irish golfers lifting the Claret Jug three times in five years.
Yet that's what happened at Royal St George's last July when Clarke, then 42, became the oldest Open champion since Roberto Di Vicenzo in 1967.
The Ulsterman had gone close a couple of times at The Open, including a fighting third place behind David Duval at Lytham in 2001. However, the pressure of performing up to his own lofty expectations in his most cherished tournament often made Clarke as skittish and self-damaging as a highly strung thoroughbred in a horsebox.
Seeing him perform with such serenity through 72 holes at Sandwich offered persuasive evidence that anything's now possible for Irish golfers at the Majors.
Harrington not quite major winner of old
ANALYSIS of Ireland's prospects inevitably begin with Harrington.
Top-10 finishes at April's Masters and last month's US Open helped restore the ring of confidence so badly dissipated by Harrington's four-year drought on the US and European Tours since winning his third Major title in 13 months at the 2008 US PGA.
Harrington (40) has been swinging sweetly since linking up with English swing coach Pete Cowen last summer while, in recent weeks, his faith in his putting has been restored, which is absolutely critical for the Dubliner.
Asked this week if it felt as if the Major contender of old was back, Harrington smiled and said: "Yeah, I suppose so, though to be honest I didn't think he went away.
"I'm in good form and my game is in a good enough place. So this week it's all about managing where my head is at going into the tournament... and that's the way you want to be entering a Major."
Especially this week.
Lytham, with its 206 menacing bunkers strategically placed to cause maximum discomfort, is the most mentally challenging course on The Open rota before even a puff of wind blows. Those who stray offline also risk landing in patches of jungle rough, though suggestions that the set-up is in any way unfair are well wide of the mark.
Still, Lytham is a potential head-wrecker and Harrington's recent sally, albeit heartening, does not offer irrefutable proof that he's ready (just yet) to win a fourth Major title.
McDowell, who compared playing Lytham to a 72-hole game of chess and revels in a stiff mental challenge, may be a step or two ahead of Harrington in the pecking order this week.
Clarke, after a frustrating year trying to live up to the moniker 'Open Champion' on the golf course, should feel some release after handing back the Claret Jug on Monday.
Rare duel in store if Tiger and rory on song
RORY McILROY must be placed in the uber-category at the Majors. Never mind all that hot-headed nonsense he spouted after a frustrating weekend at last July's Open in Sandwich... McIlroy has all the shots he needs to play in high wind or dead calm at the seaside. Especially on a Lytham links he's known and enjoyed since boyhood.
He and Tiger Woods are the only two players in this championship who have the cast-iron potential to romp away with the Claret Jug next Sunday should they perform to the peak of their ability.
Woods has already underlined the potency of his golf game by winning three times on the US Tour this year, at Bay Hill, Muirfield Village and Congressional.
He flopped at The Masters and, after a superb first 36 holes at the US Open, Tiger's challenge simply expired over the weekend at Olympic. One suspects the only ingredient missing was the sense of entitlement Woods used have on the greens.
That's the final piece which stands between Tiger and complete rehabilitation. Should he find it this week, Woods will win his 15th Major title and, remarkably, return to world No 1.
Unless, of course, McIlroy (23) recovers his pomp and full confidence after his recent form blip and, just as importantly, manages to curb for 72 holes an aggressive nature which would land him in deep trouble here.
Should both play up to their own expectations (and get that rub of the green necessary at The Open), it could well lead to a rip-roaring head-to-head to rival Tom Watson's 'Duel in the Sun' with Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977.
Classy field may leave first-timers in cold
TOM WATSON. Now there's a name to conjure with if the sea breezes rise.
This 62-year-old won the most recent of his five Claret Jugs at Birkdale in 1983 but endorsed his reputation as one of the greatest wind players in golf three years ago at Turnberry, only losing to Stewart Cink in a play-off.
Okay, Watson's not going to contend this weekend, but the stature and ball-striking calibre of the men crowned champion in 10 previous Opens at Lytham suggests the run of nine consecutive first-time winners at the Majors may end on Sunday.
Phil Mickelson's share of second place with Dustin Johnson at Sandwich offered telling evidence that the Californian has at last got to grips with the vagaries of links golf and putting on slow greens and may be ready to fill the third leg of his career Grand Slam.
Yet the left-hander has looked so jaded and out of sorts in recent times, one looks instead to his young compatriot Rickie Fowler (23) as America's leading challenger.
Fowler recovered from a nightmare start on his Open debut at St Andrews in 2010 to play the final 54 holes in an unrivalled 10-under and outplayed McIlroy in Saturday's tempest at St George's, where he tied fifth.
Don't forget Ben Curtis (35) the 2003 Open Champion who broke his long victory drought in this year's Valero Texas Open.
One remains unconvinced by the credentials of World No 1 Luke Donald on a course where pinpoint driving is key. Or Lee Westwood, whose short game seems to seize up on Sunday afternoon at the Majors.
The Englishman possibly best equipped to satisfy the home crowd on this mind-addling links is 2008 Birkdale runner-up Ian Poulter.
However, Louis Oosthuizen, who romped to victory at the 2010 Open at St Andrews gets my vote. This son of the South African soil is farming tough and unflappable, qualities he'll surely rely on over the next four days.
The British Open,
Live, BBC2/Setanta Ireland, 9.0