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Field wide open, so smart money is in pocket

The Open Championship these days is an all singing, all dancing affair.

Ernie Els and Adam Scott, two of the perennial contenders at the Open, share a laugh at practice yesterday. Picture: Getty Sport
Ernie Els and Adam Scott, two of the perennial contenders at the Open, share a laugh at practice yesterday. Picture: Getty Sport

There's more technology here than you can shake a stick at. And even those shoogling sticks are hi-tech. You had to chortle, then, when the switched on chiefs of the Royal & Ancient began extolling the virtues of their "groundbreaking Wi-Fi network" just moments after a ham-fisted workman had thundered a spade through a fibre optic cable and brought the whole media centre to its knees. For a spell, communications consisted of mime and frantic smoke signals. The modern world eh?

It was all happening on the eve of the 143rd Open. Back in 2006, a parched, sun-baked, dusty Hoylake resembled a yellow brick road and Tiger Woods was the golfing wizard at the end of it. Eight years on, this same stretch of linksland looks as green as the face of the Wicked Witch of the West. Hoylake, this historic site where the great Bobby Jones won the second leg of his grand slam back in 1930, will continue to provide a wicked test, of course. Only six of the holes are tucked in the dunes and it offers little protection from the varying winds that as been breezing in from a' the airts. With plenty of bunkers dug in around the 290-yard mark, a disciplined approach off the tee will, as ever, be a useful strategy. Brains more than brawn will help bring home the bounty.

"Breezy, sunny conditions is what we'd like to see," said Peter Dawson, the R&A's chief executive. That was certainly not the case yesterday as the rain came thundering down for a spell and softened up a course that had been firming up nicely after good stint of dry, pleasant weather. There was talk of some monumental summer storm whipping in over the weekend but Peter Unsworth, the championship chairman, was a tad more upbeat. "The forecast we have received is certainly not as bad as it was two days ago," he said, as he quietly pleaded for some assistance from that formidable alliance of Mother Nature and the golfing gods.

Predictions tend to be a fool's errand, no more so than in this predictably unpredictable pursuit. In these times of great strength in depth, there are more fancied runners and riders than a meeting at nearby Aintree. In that sense, it is easier to stick with the form horses, even though the question of 'betting' among players and caddies brought a sombre response from the diligent Dawson.

"This whole business of keeping sport clean in terms of betting is something we are following very closely because it's just a killer to sport to think any outcomes might have been predetermined," he said. "I don't think that is applying in golf but we have to vigilant."

Betting slips are being tossed in at a furious rate. Justin Rose here, Rory McIlroy there, maybe a Phil Mickelson or a Graeme McDowell somewhere. There is, of course, plenty of smart money - all above board, mind you - being stuck on Adam Scott. His credentials are considerable. When he finished eighth at Hoylake back in 2006, it was, at that time, the Aussie's best finish in a major championship.

Since then, he has become a truly major player. Having tossed the 2012 Open away when he bogeyed his closing four holes at Royal Lytham, the 34-year-old finally got the monkey off his back and a green jacket on his shoulders when he found redemption with victory in the Masters a year ago. With 11 top-15 finishes in his last 14 major appearances, Scott is now a hardy perennial in the upper echelons

A keek at Henrik Stenson's recent record on the global scene would suggest that the highly effective Swede is ready to barge his way into the winners circle. His last four events have panned out like this; he shared seventh in the BMW PGA Championship, finished fifth in the Nordea Masters, tied fourth in the US Open and was beaten in a play-off at the BMW International Open.

It looks like a countdown to glory and, having had a trio of top-three placings in his last five Open campaigns, the 38-year-old could finally deliver the first major victory for a male golfer from Scandinavia.

Tiger Woods, meanwhile, is looking for his first major win since 2008, but given the physical trauma that has ravaged his increasingly creaking body in recent months and his glaring lack of competitive sharpness, a fourth Claret Jug triumph here would be a quite miraculous accomplishment.

The old idiom 'horses for courses' is often tossed around in the build-up to majors as the past records of the players on certain layouts are feverishly leafed through like a frantic Christmas shopper going through the Argos catalogue near closing time.

Back in 2006, Sergio Garcia illuminated the race for the Claret Jug at Hoylake with a 65 in round three which put him in a final day pairing with Woods. Decked out in canary yellow, though, the young Spaniard barely mustered a cheep and slithered out of the running.

Still without a major victory, Garcia remains a fine links competitor - he's had seven top-10 finishes in his last 13 Opens - and the annual question 'can he do it this year?' continues to be asked.

Other dab hands in this neck of the woods include the two-time Open champion Ernie Els, who was third here in 2006, while those lurking in the shadows of the outsiders include the in-form Finn, Mikko Illonen, who won the Amateur Championship at Hoylake in 2000, finished tied-16th when he returned to the Open eight years ago and has pitched up here in fine fettle having won the Irish Open recently.

The last time Jordan Spieth was in the north west of England was as a 14-year-old during the Junior Open just up the coast at Hesketh in 2008. He returns to this corner of the country as the rising star of a thrusting new American generation.

Runner-up in April's Masters, the 20-year-old is a young man on a mission. "I wouldn't be part of it if I didn't think I was going to win - there wouldn't be much point, right?" he said.

There are plenty on that similar mission. In Open season, the 143rd championship is, well, wide open.

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