Soft conditions open up Royal Liverpool for attack

Receptive course makes low scoring on par fives crucial to British Open success

Darren Clarke and  Rory McIlroy have a laugh  after their practice round yesterday before the 143rd Open Championship tees off today at Royal Liverpool. Photograph:  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy have a laugh after their practice round yesterday before the 143rd Open Championship tees off today at Royal Liverpool. Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Thu, Jul 17, 2014, 01:00

The stars will align for someone, as they always do. And as the final practice day here yesterday for this 143rd British Open was played out under grey skies and heavy downpours, which only served to add further lushness to a links already bereft of firmness, those traditionalists who would prefer ugly bounces off bone-hard fairways will possibly feel short-changed.

In truth, the softer conditions – far removed from the parched fairways of 2006, when Royal Liverpool last staged the championship – have opened up matters considerably.

Sure, players will still be required to use their imagination; yet, the lushness of the links, with balls less likely to take a kick into the rough and greens more receptive, could likely make for a gentler examination. Perhaps the wind will provide a helping hand in the course’s defence mechanism.

The sub-plots heading into this oldest Major of them all are varied but all hold peculiar intrigue. How will Tiger Woods, who missed the Masters and the US Open following back surgery, fare? Can an out-of-sorts Phil Mickelson rediscover the magic that won him a Claret Jug a year ago? What of Martin Kaymer, the US Open champion, continuing Germany’s magical summer of sport? Or Rory McIlroy’s quest to show that links golf is not an alien form of the game for him?

Questions, questions . . . and the answers ultimately only delivered by finding a game-plan and a mindset that will get the ball into a tin cup in as few strokes as possible.

The old hit it, find it, hit it again philosophy is one that must carry with it a strategic game-plan and patience, as important as any club.

The greening of the links compared to the brown and yellow hues of 2006 will mean players can use drivers more frequently this time.

More aggressive

Eight years ago, Woods dipped into his bag for a driver only once in 72 holes. “I’ll hit the driver four or five times (a round),” claimed McIlroy, of a more aggressive approach which has been made possible by the softer course conditions.

“On some downwind holes there’s a chance to hit it over some bunkers (with driver) and I’ll try and do that and take advantage of driving the ball well. (But) I’ll be trying to stay out of the bunkers, they’re an instant penalty,” said world number one Adam Scott.

The key for potential champions will be to take advantage of the four par fives – the fifth, 10th, 16th and 18th – which offer genuine birdie opportunities. When he won here in 2006, admittedly on a hardened links where he plotted his way around with precision, Woods was 14-under on his play of the par fives.

“The par fives are going to be crucial . . . you want to try and make as many birdies as you can on those holes,” said McIlroy, a sentiment shared by Justin Rose – winner of his last two events, the National on the US Tour and last week’s Scottish Open – who remarked, “if you take care of the par fives you’ll do relatively well.”

Henrik Stenson, seeking to become the first Swede to win a Major, said: “The most important thing is to get the ball in play off the tee (on the par fives), so you can at least have a second shot. If you’re hacking out (of rough) or you’re in a bunker, you know you’re going to scramble for par.”

Gorse bushes

Ian Poulter offered his own opinion of how to play the par fives, not always starting with a driver. “You can open up the par fives very easily if you can hit driver, it just depends whether you’re prepared to take on gorse bushes down the left-hand side, bunkers down the right-hand side on a couple . . . so they will be a factor to good scoring. You just have to have a good game-plan and stick with it and don’t do anything silly.”

Easier said than done, of course. And the flip side for players taking advantage of the par fives – driver or no driver in hand – is the four par threes are all tough and the par fours offer stiffer challenges.

For sure, the Irish contingent are – virtually to a man – upbeat about mounting a challenge: Graeme McDowell is coming off the back of a win in the French Open. Shane Lowry demonstrated his well-being with a top-five finish in the Scottish Open. McIlroy put together three great-to-good rounds in Aberdeen and one bad one.

Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Michael Hoey have of course all won career titles on links terrain. And Paul Dunne, on a nine-week run of events, will be chasing the silver medal as leading amateur. All to play for, for all of them.

As McDowell observed, “it’s a very balanced golf course. Placement off the tee and great iron play are keys here this week.” Which sounds like his kind of course. Time will tell.

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