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The Open 2018: The favourites to master golf’s biggest challenge

Welcome to the 147th Open Championship, a tournament that might be regarded as golf’s last redoubt against the march of time, against the advance of technology, against the desire to make the game perfect, against balls that fly 300 yards through the air, against clubs that minimise the bad shot, that protect against human frailty.

The sun has baked the Angus coast dry. Carnoustie is the colour of a digestive biscuit.

The ball will run forever, but not necessarily under the command of the golfer. Links golf is uniquely a test of patience and forbearance. In these conditions, it fries the most mellow of brains.

This is how Tom Watson, a five-time winner of the Open Championship, viewed events when he arrived in Scotland to contest golf’s oldest major for the first time at Carnoustie in 1975.

Watson pitched up at the course with fellow Americans Hubert Green and John Mahaffey for an early sighter. They were intercepted in the car park by R&A secretary Keith McKenzie who informed them the course was in use by qualifiers and not available for practice. Off to nearby Monifieth they went spewing incredulity.

Matters did not improve at Monifieth.

“The first tee shot, I hit a drive right down the middle of the fairway and lost the ball. It hit a side slope and bounded off somewhere way off line,” Watson said.

“I played golf the American way. I hit the ball high through the air and I expected the ball to stop. On links golf courses it didn't stop. I had to go back to my childhood and play the roll. When you play the roll and these bad bounces come about you have to learn how to deal with them.”

Watson learned quickly. By the week’s end he was a major champion for the first time. He didn’t love it any more than he did at the start of the week, but he understood it better.

It would, he said, be another six years, by which time he was a three-time champion, before the penny really dropped.

"We went to Ireland first and played Ballybunion, which I fell in love with from the beginning, and we played Troon and Prestwick back-to-back," Watson said.

“Then we went up to play Royal Dornoch and, man, I just love that course. We went out and played in driving rain - just four of us, me and Sandy (USGA president Sandy Tatum) and the two caddies.

"That's when I had the epiphany - this is the way golf should be played. If you hit the ball solidly you can hit the ball the right distance and that's the key, get it flag high if you can and put it where you must put it.”

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That, ladies and gentlemen, is the secret of links golf. Oh, and don’t beat yourself up when the course spits out your best stuff, as it surely will at some point simply because that is the nature of things.

You might recall how Rory McIlroy tore an impotent strip off Royal St George’s seven years ago after a Saturday spent going backwards in a hooley ripping off the English Channel. McIlroy told the world he was not a fan of tournaments that were influenced so much by the weather adding, “there’s no point changing your game for one week a year.”

He has since modified his position, and after winning three years later at Royal Liverpool, he appreciates the Open’s charms as much as the next golfer. Interestingly, McIlroy attributed his success at Hoylake to his second at the second hole on the first day, a stiffed approach leading to a tap-in birdie. After missing a short one to break par at the first, he was up and running en route to an opening 66.

Arguably more than any other golfer in the field McIlroy needs a fast start. He is the Mike Tyson of golf. Once he gets on top, it’s over.

His first major victory at the US Open in 2011 was won by eight shots. His second, the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, was won by...eight shots. Though he’s had only one win in 22 months McIlroy will always start among the favourites.

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His one victory in this driest of spells came at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, a week after missing the cut, so read nothing into his modest form coming into Carnoustie.

As he remarked after another average performance at the Irish Open, if the putts drop he wins. He needed only 24 in shooting down Bay Hill for a final round 64, and only 100 that week. The golfer that makes only 100 putts at Carnoustie wins a Claret Jug.

McIlroy bows only to Dustin Johnson in the betting. Johnson went close in 2011 before falling away on the back nine on Sunday under the weight of Darren Clarke’s mastery of the wind.

You would not know looking at his whiskered chops whether he has hit a good or a bad shot, which is just the temperament required around the links.

Rickie Fowler’s supremacy when paired with McIlroy during Saturday’s Royal St George’s tempest - they set out on level par, Fowler finished six shots better after a 68 - earns him the respect of the bookmakers, despite his form on the PGA Tour justifying scant interest.

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Justin Rose announced himself at the 1998 Open at Birkdale, chipping in at the last. With a win and two top-tens in his last three events, no-one has better form.

Rose has twice come close to adding to his one major victory at the 2013 US Open, chasing Jordan Spieth and Sergio Garcia home at the Masters. A victory here would close the career circle given his entrance as a teenage amateur. And that’s how he sees it.

“The Claret Jug would be such a defining moment in my career. It would almost be a full circle event and tie up the loose ends. I haven't really had a lot of great chances in the Open since 1998. I have had a few but 1998 was my best ever Open finish (tied 4th) so it would be nice to remedy that.

“I feel like I'm at a great point in my career now where the icing is on the cake but we're looking for a little bit of cherry and decoration and sprinkles or whatever from this point on.

"It's been a great 20 years, obviously, but I really feel like there's an opportunity now for me to make it something special. But missing, obviously, an Open Championship, I'd love to be a multiple major winner. An Open would be amazing.”

146th Open Championship - Second Round

Of the usual suspects filling in behind the four already mentioned, defending champion Jordan Spieth has lost his greatest asset, his putting stroke, and the relentless heat has temporarily gone from Justin Thomas’s game.

More positively Jason Day is increasingly persuasive and like Rose, Garcia has history at this event and at this course. It was here in his first major as a pro that he missed the cut dead last on 30 over par and cried on his mother’s shoulder.

Eight years later Garcia opened with a 65 to lead by two, extended the lead to three in the third round before losing out to Padraig Harrington, who he led by six at the start of the final day, in a play-off.

If these names are the obvious choices, such is the capacity of a baked links to throw up a random winner, it is impossible to argue the case for any with certainty.

So I’ll throw a name at you to close. Tiger Woods. Remember him?

He has won the Claret Jug three times, and his last event finished fourth at the Quicken Loans National earlier this month. I’d say that makes him nailed on, wouldn’t you?

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