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Simmering Storylines for the Season's Third Major
Can Phil Mickelson win?
Shockingly, given Mickelson's creativity and brilliant wedge play, the Open Championship is historically his weakest major. He has contended only twice and missed the cut last year at Royal Lytham. But his Scottish Open win this past weekend demonstrates a newfound appreciation for links golf. "I used to hate it and now I love it," he said. He's also expressing an intriguing level of confidence in his putting stroke. "I am really optimistic about this week and going forward because I'm starting to putt as well as I ever have," he said. "… You've seen me try the belly putter, you've seen me try different grips, and finally I believe I have kind of found the secret to my own putting." He's leaving the driver out of the bag this week; we'll see if that's a smart play or typical Mickelson over-thinking.
Is Rory McIlroy distracted by girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki?
NBC analyst Johnny Miller sure seems to think so. And Sir Nick Faldo jumped on the bandwagon this week, advising Rory to concentrate on golf while is window of greatness is open. But McIlroy is not taking the criticism lying down, firing this withering counterattack in a news conference: "I saw what he said, and he said I should be at the course 9 to 5. I actually was on the range at 6:15 and got out of the gym at 6:15, actually a 12-hour day compared to his nine-hour day. It is what it is, and Nick should know how hard this game is at times. And he's been in our position before. And he should know how much work that we all do put into it." Of course, the proof's in the results, and Rory's results have been lacking. But a win this week would do a lot to shut up the critics.
Which Graeme McDowell will show up this week?
McDowell's roller-coaster ride defies comprehension. How’s this for feast or famine: McDowell’s last eight appearances on the PGA and European Tours include three wins and five missed cuts (two of which came at The Masters and U.S. Open). So which Graeme will show up at Muirfield? He thinks he knows: "I still have the links game — the wind game — inside me and I will be relying on that at Muirfield. Links golf is in my blood and I feel like I slip back into that mode easily." If the wind blows, watch out for McDowell.
Muirfield: easy or hard?
The course historically produces worthy champions: Els, Faldo (twice), Watson, Trevino, Nicklaus and Player are the last seven winners at the storied venue. Nicklaus liked the course so much that he named his home course in Ohio in its honor. But as for its degree of difficulty? The fact that the players are trying to outdo each other in calling the layout "fair" would seem to indicate that they feel that low scores are there for the taking. Watch the conditions. If the wind blows, the course's circuitous layout makes changing breezes hard to gauge. Remember — Tiger Woods shot 81 at Muirfield in a gale-force wind in 2002.
Who'll kiss the Claret Jug?
There's no shortage of viable candidates: Mickelson's hot; Ernie Els is playing well heading into his title defense; McDowell's in his comfort zone; Justin Rose and Adam Scott have their breakthrough majors and will be loose and confident.
But we're going with Tiger Woods. Noted golf psychologist Bob Rotella thinks Woods is showing signs of "panic" that he'll never regain his major mojo. But we think he's cornered and angry that no one seems to fear him any more. And it's not like has hasn't been close; since his last major win in 2008, he has seven top-six finishes in majors, including a T3 at last year's Open Championship. "I think it's just a shot here and there," he said. "It's making a key up-and-down here or getting a good bounce here, capitalizing on an opportunity." We think that opportunity will knock this week.