British Open might be dry, dry again

Tiger Woods used his driver once to win in 2006 at Hoylake, the last time the Open was played there

Much has changed in golf since they last played the British Open at Royal Liverpool here in 2006.

Or has it?

If you can harken back, that's the year where rainy, stormy, chilly western England wasn't rainy, stormy and chilly. It was none of the above.

Temperatures actually reached into the 90s and the ground was so hard and dry it made it like golfing on an airplane runway. A 450-yard hole was a three-iron off the tee and an eight-iron in. Drivers gathered dust in the players' bags.

Tiger Woods shot 18 under par, won the tournament — his third British Open title and his 11th major overall — and used his driver once, on the 16th hole in his first round.

The memorable picture from that day was Woods tapping in on the final hole to finish with his 67, then locking in an embrace with his caddie, Stevie Williams. He was sharing his emotions with somebody presumed to best understand how he felt at the moment of his first major victory since his father, Earl, had died. That was two months earlier.

Woods and Phil Mickelson had been the big stories coming into that '06 Hoylake British Open.

Woods, then 30, was always the big story in those days before a major, because he won most of them. Mickelson, then 36, brought with him more than the normal buzz because he had blown the previous major, the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, after leading going into the final hole and trying one of his shots over a concession tent, off the Mercedes in the parking lot and through the clown's mouth.

When it didn't work, Mickelson, to his credit, summed up his thought process for that shot by saying, "I can't believe what an idiot I am."

That helped writers at Hoylake that year with an excellent column angle. The winner of the previous British Open at Hoylake, 39 years before in 1967, had been Argentina's Roberto De Vicenzo, who once had a memorable postmortem of his own performance. The year after he won at Hoylake, he also signed a wrong card after the final round of the Masters, costing him a spot in a playoff. When he realized what he had done, he said, in broken English, "What a stupid I am."

Going into that British Open in '06, Woods and Mickelson were Nos. 1 and 2 in the world.

So let's look at Hoylake 2014, which will begin on the seaside course Thursday, and see how much things have changed.

The big stories going in are … well, Woods and Mickelson.

Woods is just back from serious back surgery, has played one event as a warmup and didn't make the cut. He has won 14 majors, was once a shoo-in to breeze past Jack Nicklaus' record 18, and now hasn't won one since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

Sadly, his repeated failure in major events he once owned has become almost as big a story as his successes.

Mickelson? He's the defending champion.

Last year, on a magical final day at Muirfield, in a major that was supposedly well out of his comfort zone of softer fairways and more accepting greens, Mickelson won.

He hasn't been playing great this year. Far from it. But he is Phil Mickelson and, with him, even at 44, anything can happen. In '06, he finished with a 70 and was 22nd.

And the weather?

The Metcheck weather service in the United Kingdom has projected four days of nearly zero precipitation. The first two days are all sunshine and the next two are partly cloudy, with temperatures staying around 70 degrees.

If Tiger hits irons 300 yards off the tees and the weather stays hot and dry, this might not be so much a golf tournament as Groundhog Day.

The course, where the likes of Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, as well as De Vicenzo and Woods, have won British titles, will play at 7,312 yards, a normal par 72. Some of the bunkers have been taken out, but there are still 82 left to contend with, and they are the classic British pot bunkers that can turn players, even the best pros, into blubbering messes.

There is always the chance that a long-lost horseshoe or saddle will surface in one of those bunkers, because Royal Liverpool shared the grounds with a race track years ago.

The three closing holes are designed for a dramatic Sunday finish, because they are all long and difficult, but two are risk-reward par-fives. No. 16 plays 577 yards. The par-four No. 17 plays 458 and No. 18 plays 551 — possible eagle range in dry and fast conditions.

In addition, officials of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club indicated recently that the opening hole, a par-four of 458 yards that has been redone, with lots of steep falloffs around the green, is now, in their estimation, "the hardest opening hole on the rota."

That's the British Open rotation, for those keeping score at home.

England's Justin Rose, winner of the 2013 U.S. Open, will get a lot of lead-in attention, as will this year's U.S. Open winner, German Martin Kaymer. Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy will be among the favorites, as will recent two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson.

One thing certainly won't repeat itself. There won't be any hugs shared by Woods and Williams. They have split.

But then, Williams hasn't just drifted away. He now caddies for Adam Scott, No. 1 in the world and certainly among the favorites here.

Maybe, eight years later, there's another victory hug at Hoylake coming for Williams, after all.

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