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July 14, 2010 6:10 AM

Golf's Greatest Stage Awaits Another Worthy Victor

astandrews.jpgWith apologies to the bow-ties at the United States Golf Association, the green-jackets at Augusta, and the well-intentioned invisibles at the PGA of America, the game of golf offers no better stage than an Open Championship played on The Old Course at St. Andrews.

It's where the game was born, where purists simply have to play, and where champions feel they must win.

Now cruising along in its formative years after its birth in the mid-16th century, St. Andrews stands as golf's mecca, and epicenter.

It will host its 28th Open Championship starting Thursday. If you can watch only one tournament all year, you'll do no better than this one.

The Old Course and all its charm, nuances and complexities has been written about in so many beautiful ways by so many venerable writers over the decades that rather than hack my way through some unworthy describer, I'll take a crack at a quick anecdote instead:

I'd been writing about the game for a number of years, and playing it long before that, when I made my first trip to the town in the late-summer of 1992. After driving several hours north through the beautiful patchwork of gold-and-green hills that sit hard along the North Sea, we finally arrived at St. Andrews on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

Thirty seconds or so after tossing our suitcases in the corner of the hotel room, I bounded out to get my first look at the hallowed grounds I'd seen and read so much about.

Five minutes later, I stopped dead in my tracks, and quickly scooped my jaw off the sidewalk.

Instead, of coming upon something resembling golfing royalty, I found myself staring at a nifty, garden-variety park.

There were picnic blankets spread about the meandering beach-side tundra; dogs scampering here and there doing their business; lovers cuddling; kites rippling in the breeze ...

No, I hadn't somehow missed my mark. It seems golf's most prized jewel doubles as a seaside park for the townspeople of St. Andrews. Golf at The Old Course takes Sundays off. How else do you live to be 500?

I won't go as far as to say that unless you have won at St. Andrews you aren't a truly great champion, because that would eliminate the likes of six-time Open winner Harry Vardon, five-time Open champ Tom Watson and four-time winner Walter Hagen. It would also take out Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Lee Trevino -- great players all.

I will say that when you combine the course and the stakes, there is no tournament that a golfer would rather have than this one.
Win the Open at St. Andrews, and no matter what comes before or after is a very nice accompaniment.

Since the first Open was played on The Old Course in 1873, five-time winner J.H. Taylor, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, five-time winner Peter Thomson, four-time winner Bobby Locke, Jack Nicklaus (twice), Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, and Tiger Woods (twice), have raised the Claret Jug at golf's home.

In fact, the last seven winners at the Old Course have been Nicklaus (1970, 1978), Ballesteros (1984), Faldo (1990), John Daly (1995), and Tiger Woods, who won the last two in 2000 and 2005.

You'll notice there's not a dud among that group.

And before you scream that Daly tarnishes the fab foursome of Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo and Woods, I'd remind you that off-course recklessness aside, Daly remains one of the greatest examples of power and finesse the game has ever seen. I'm betting Woods is only too happy to let him off the hook for his rowdy and rude misbehavior.

So if the old gal anoints only great talents, who will wear the game's most coveted crown come Sunday?

I'll say it will come from the very good-to-great foursome of Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els, and Tiger Woods. Probably the four best players of recent times.

We'll eliminate Woods because his game is too unstable right now. St. Andrews' bunkers are penal, and all those wayward drives he's been belting all over the lot are bound to land him in a very, very bad spot or two over the weekend. Not this time, Tiger.

Mickelson has every shot needed to win at The Old Course, but for some reason the guy struggles mightily in the wind. It makes no sense, and despite being golf's true magician, his record in the Open is awful. Cheers, Phil.

Els has an Open title, and nobody would like to win one at St. Andrews more than Ernie. But Els has proven to be an undependable closer in majors over the last decade or so, and just can't be trusted down the stretch here. Sorry, Ernie.

Which leaves Harrington ...
Paddy has won two of the last three Opens, and seems a good bet for at least one more before his winning days are behind him. An Open title Sunday will give him four majors, and lift him higher yet toward true greatness.

It just seems like Harrington and The Old Course are meant for each other right about now.

Enjoy the show.

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