|Tiger Woods' roller-coaster season could be back on the upswing at just the right time. (Getty Images)|
It is the third major championship of the year, and the oldest, and arguably the most fun. Yep, the British Open is upon us, and as the top golfers in the world try their hand at the wonderful Royal Lytham & St. Annes, we get a chance to bat around what to expect from this week in England.
The last time the Open was held here, a man named David Duval reigned supreme, but that storyline is long dead, and there are plenty of others set to be smacked around.
Allow Shane Bacon and Ryan Wilson to handle the Open with this week's installment of Alternate Shot.
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The past nine major champions have all been first-time winners, continuing the streak of complete unpredictability at the four big events of the year. Is it likely that the Open will produce a 10th first-time major winner, and if so, who is your pick to be that guy?
Bacon: The problem with picking someone that already has a major under his respective belt is that the list of top players that have done so is becoming surprisingly thin. The likes of Vijay Singh and Ernie Els aren't really threats anymore, and someone like Phil Mickelson sure doesn't seem like the type of guy to leave with the claret jug at any time in his career.
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I think the list of guys without majors seems as sexy, if not more, than the guys that have already won in the past, so I'm going with another first-time major winner. That list includes the likes of Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose, guys that definitely have the capability to bag a British. That said, my pick is Rickie Fowler. His game seems fit to play well at the Open, and if the weather continues to go south, as they're saying it will, I think he could hang around long enough to be in the final group on Sunday and sneak away with a major. A few months ago I would have never said this, but his play in 2012 has really been impressive, and it seems he's ready to join the recent trend of American major winners.
Wilson: Well, since I have Dustin Johnson winning the whole thing, I would say it's very likely. Of course, predicting who'll win a golf tournament is slightly less difficult than winning the Tour de France on a tricycle. That said, Johnson isn't the only guy in the field who would qualify as a first-time major winner. You like Fowler, which is certainly reasonable given how well he played at last year's Open Championship. (He gets extra Euro street cred for the facial hair that now has him looking like Johnny Depp, a longtime resident of France.)
Plus, this tournament has a long history of relatively obscure first-time winners -- Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton immediately come to mind, and Paul Lawrie before them. We say it every few years in the hopes that it'll eventually be true, but if someone like Fowler or Johnson -- young, charismatic and wildly talented -- can break through, maybe it'll generate interest in the sport beyond Tiger. First things first, though: Johnson has to quit hitting long irons OB while playing in the last group on Sunday with a chance to win a major.
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It wouldn't be golf talk if we didn't tackle Tiger Woods. The guy has had a rollercoaster season, but it seems any time he plays bad, like he did at the Greenbrier, he bounces back with a fantastic finish. After he withdrew at the Doral, he won the Arnold Palmer. After his missed the cut and a T-40 at the Players, he took home the Memorial. After his struggles at the U.S. Open, he won his next start at the AT&T. So does that trend continue at Lytham?
Bacon: Well, I picked Tiger Woods to win this week, so I'm obviously drinking the Kool-Aid.
Tiger's game is made for events like this week's Open. The course is going to be playing tough, the weather is going to be nasty and the entire 72 holes will be more about how you control your head game than how you control your irons (but also, a lot about the irons). I like Tiger this week because I think he's finally prepared to close a major championship, something that hasn't really been the case since Torrey Pines in 2008. His game has been incredible for stretches this year, and while it has been up-and-down depending on the week, three wins definitely speak a lot about where he's at right now.
The most important thing for Woods is getting off to a good start. If he can go out Thursday morning and post a 68 or 69, I think he is absolutely in contention on Sunday. If he struggles in his opening round, I think it'll be more of the same for Tiger at the majors as of late.
Wilson: Here's the thing about Tiger: It doesn't matter. Whether he's on pace to shoot 63 or if he's 6 over at the turn, I'm watching. And so is everybody else because he is golf. It sounds like an overstatement, but look at the ratings when he's in contention compared to when he's not playing in a tournament and you tell me.
That said, I'm with you: I think he'll play well. Yes, he called some of the rough at Royal Lytham "nearly unplayable" but defending champion Darren Clarke said the same thing and the British tabloids somehow missed that. The rough and the 206 bunkers might make Woods even more accurate off the tee. He has driven the ball extremely well this year but he'll have few opportunities to hit driver this week, which means his second shots will be coming from the fairway, even if that means longer clubs into the greens. If Tiger's going to get off to a good start, he'll have to do it in some dreadful conditions -- the early forecast is for temperatures in the 50s and plenty of rain on Thursday and Friday. Ten years ago, we all knew he was mentally tough enough to handle inclement weather. We'll find out shortly if he again trusts his game that much.
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As a viewer, is the Open more fun to watch when it's rainy, windy and nasty (as you sit at home in your chair), or would you rather it be sunny for the entire week and the caddies not have to struggle with their umbrellas?
Bacon: Oh man, I love watching the nasty weather ... from far away. I remember one of the first rounds I ever caddied at the Old Course at St. Andrews, my caddie bib (which was not waterproof, by the way) was so wet it actually soaked through my rain gear that I was wearing under it. Being a caddie at these events with bad weather is one of the toughest jobs in sports, but it sure is fun to watch guys have to play completely different, and unpredictable golf shots, when the winds are whipping on those dried out greens. I'm all for bad weather at the Open because I feel that's how it's supposed to be.
Wilson: As a viewer, I have one rule with Open Championship golf: The worse the conditions, the better. It's not that I'm a sadist, but from January until October these golfers play on the best-manicured courses on the planet. Greens roll true, bunkers aren't even a hazard and the fairways generally provide fantastic lies. I think it's OK if the world's top players experience a little adversity for a week once a year. Plus, it makes me feel better to know that, just like the rest of us, even these guys can struggle to break 90. So, yeah, in that sense, maybe I am a sadist.