There are majors, and then there's the major that strikes a universal golfer chord: the one that's played across the pond. Whether your best shot ever was a chip-in for bird after camping all night in the parking lot of Bethpage Black or a hole-in-one putt through the clown windmill at a mini-golf course in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., no golf nut on this side of the ocean can ever come away from a few days of watching coastal-links golf without being re-reminded that the heart -- and un-commercial innocence -- of the game is forever to be found lying on some patch of windy acreage over in the land where the game began.
If you need further proof that the British Open is the paramount major in golf, consider that over here we have to call it "The U.S. Open," and over there, they can just call it "The Open." That title refers not only to the field of players, but to the U.K.'s great-wide-open layouts: linked to the shore, with salt in the air flavoring the whole course, where a fairway wood from 265 can bounce, then bounce again, then roll right onto the green as the gallery erupts... or, as might often be the case, trickle into a bunker so deep that it could withstand a nearby nuclear blast.
So, let us count the ways that the lovely and ancient Royal Liverpool layout will historically lure us this weekend, starting with how poetic a word "Liverpudlian" is. This ancient club lies 11 miles from the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played 392 times. (Rock 'n roll factoids: In the summer of 1967, when Roberto DeVicenzo took the trophy at Royal Liverpool, the band had just released an album about a sergeant named Pepper. And the ferry across the Mersey from Liverpool -- to reach the town of Hoylake on the Wirrane Peninsula, where the course, which bears the town's name, lies -- first ran in 1150 A.D., but as music trivia goes, "Ferry Cross The Mersey" was the only good song Gerry and the Pacemakers ever released. You can look it up.)
But now, heading into the 154th version of the tournament, let's cleave to the golf storylines. Though you wouldn't want to put serious bucks on him -- even at 25-to-1 odds -- no story about a major in which Tiger Woods is playing should begin with discussion of anyone but Eldrick himself. So question No. 1, as we head into what promises to be an intriguing Open Championship, is: Can Woods claim a little late-career traction on the course where he last held the Claret Jug in 2006?
For Mr. Woods, the dream of passing Jack in majors is getting a tad tenuous. But wouldn't this seem to be the perfect cosmic-convergence place to begin a dramatic final act to the most spectacular career in the history of the sport? Or will the weight of all the psychological and physical detritus of the six years since he last won a major prove to be too much to overcome?
I'm betting on the latter -- and not only because of what the golfing fraternity has been saying about Woods of late. (Curtis Strange said, "If he goes to Hoylake saying, 'I'm here to win and that's the only thing,' that would be him telling a lie to himself." And Justin Rose said, "I would say for him to compete at the Quicken Loans was a step too early.") It's telling that they're saying anything at all. When Rose -- a proven champion, but hardly an icon -- feels free to comment on Tiger, then the field clearly no longer feels Eldrick to be omnipotent.
Remember pre-apocalypse -- before the angry wife, the fire hydrant and the inopportune voicemails recorded by opportunistic women -- when no peer would say "boo" about the man, knowing that he was invigorating their sport? Those are days long past. He is no longer feared. Which means that, at long last, he is finally, simply, a player.
Then, in the case of Justin Rose, why should he worry about Tiger? Rose not only won his last start, he has finished in the top five of three of his last five tournaments. He has every chance of winning this one. Some oddsmakers have him at the top. Consider him a favorite. He may be less-than-entrancing, storyline-wise, but he'll be there.
Based purely on odds, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott probably deserve the next serious mentions. But it's probably more appropriate to address the chances of the defending champion. If Phil Mickelson won this tournament last year, then -- at least mentally -- he ought to be able to do it again. Can the increasingly-less-"champion-of-the-people"-ish Mickelson claim a consecutive Open and vault himself into the all-time top 10? Or will he once again manage to prove that, as a golfer, he ultimately made a better investor?
Again, I'm betting on the latter. This year, despite having successfully dodged the questions of the SEC, Phil's head doesn't seem to be even remotely in the game. Five missed cuts? And really, was it all that wise for The Eternal Underdog to brag to The Scotsman that the highlight of his year with The Jug was the night he and some friends used it to down a bottle of '90 Romanee Conti worth $40,000? Dude, don't you kind of wonder what that sounds like to some of your peers on the tour who have to double up in a Motel 6 on the west side of town as they try and make the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open?
As to Mr. McIlroy: Having hit a remarkable 436-yard drive en route to a 64 in the opening round of the Scottish Open last week (that would be four football fields and then some, and it wasn't even on the moon), but then giving it all up on Day Two (owing to what he subsequently termed "my second-round thing"), he should probably be considered a serious contender this weekend -- unless you consider that, in seven Opens, he has finished in the top 10 once. He admitted on Monday, "I guess when... you play the majority of your golf in the U.S., you start to neglect some of the shots you might need in conditions like this... I don't think I've evolved that much as a links player."
Scott could take it easily, if the planets are in alignment. Els, the links king, is clearly a contender too -- if no one is threatening from behind, wherein he has to summon some mental toughness. Lee Westwood, who has finished in the top five of two of the last four, is always a factor in this one. And Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who met his wife at the University of South Carolina, is possible -- but sort of, you know, hard to care about.
At something like 20-to-1, how could you not want to lay a few dimes on Martin Kaymer of Dusseldorf -- the native of the country that just took a certain other athletic tournament in dramatic fashion? Of late, Kaymer is playing some of the best golf in the world. He has won the Players and the U.S. Open in the last two months or so, in steely and efficient fashion. The highlight of Kaymer's international competition experience is the putt that won the Ryder in 2012 for his home continent. And in 2010, long before he rose to the sport's forefront, he tied for seventh in The Open. The next year, he tied for 12th. Now cresting in his game -- and carrying the flag of the football team that just giddily conquered the world -- Kaymer has to be considered a most serious contender.
The most loveable favorites -- as is always the case when a tournament is played Over There, and the true golfist wants the game to belong to Everyman -- are the two Angels. Angel Cabrera, the lovable chain-smoker, is coming off a victory two weeks ago in North Carolina. He's on his game, and when Cabrera is on his game, he can win anything. Then there's Miguel Angel Jiminez, the Spanish guy whose every moment on a golf course seems to say: "My friend, I am here to have fun, and enjoy life, and please, do not consider me an athlete. I am simply hitting golf balls while I enjoy my cigars until I can drink the next bottle of rioja." Last year, M.A.J. was in the Open Championship lead after 36. The year before, he finished in the top 10. How can you not like a guy for whom golf seems a distant priority, way behind red wine?
Prediction-wise, of course, it'd be folly to actually presume to name a possible winner of The Open. After all, when was the last you heard from 2010 Open winner Louis Oosthuizen? The last 20 majors have been won by 17 different golfers. In the NFL, which may soon be minting money instead of the U.S. Treasury, this is called "parity." Will the PGA know how to turn this state of equality to its advantage? Only time will tell. But this week, it has time on its side: an ancient course, an ancient game, an ancient continent and a spectacular field.