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142nd British Open Championship Preview

5:12 PM, Jul 12, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The British Open, like no other major championship, can see scores vary by a dozen shots depending on the weather.

This year's host course, Muirfield, is a prime example of how the fickle weather in the British Isles can change the course of the tournament. Muirfield last hosted the British Open in 2002, and in the third round, the weather conditions varied depending on when golfers teed off.

Players like Sergio Garcia, who teed off early, played in near perfect conditions. Then players near the lead, like Tiger Woods, battled wind and rain that sent scores soaring.

Woods was the prime example. He struggled to an 81, the worst score of his professional career, in the cold and rainy conditions.

With the drastic weather change, Garcia's early 71 helped him soar into third place. Woods, meanwhile, tumbled from a share of ninth to a tie for 67th. Woods rebounded with a 65 in the final round, but that only got him back to even-par for the championship.

He finished six strokes out of the playoff, and that was the end of his Grand Slam dream. Earlier that year, Woods had won the Masters by three over Retief Goosen and the U.S. Open at Bethpage by three over Phil Mickelson. Woods has won three Open Championship titles, two of which were at St. Andrews, by a combined 13 strokes.

Garcia closed with a 69 in 2002 to miss the playoff by two strokes.

In that 2002 playoff, four players battled for the claret jug. Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Ernie Els all finished at 6-under par.

Elkington and Appleby were eliminated after the four holes as they went 1- over par in that span. That left it to Levet and Els.

Levet had birdied the second playoff hole, but bogeyed the fourth to tie Els at even-par 16 for the four holes. The duo returned to the 18th tee again and Levet found a fairway bunker off the tee.

The mistake led to a bogey, but Els didn't make it easy on himself. He found a greenside bunker with his approach, but blasted within five feet and drained the par-saving putt for his third major championship title.

Els returns to Muirfield with a double title defense on the line. He was last to win at that course, and he won last year's title thanks to some great play by him and by some poor play by Adam Scott.

Scott led after the first round, but dipped one back at the halfway point. The Australian carded a 2-under 68 in round three to take a 4-stroke lead into the final round.

On the final day at Royal Lytham, Scott went 2-over par for the front nine to let players like Graeme McDowell, Woods and second-round leader Brandt Snedeker back into it.

Those three all fell off the pace and couldn't take advantage of Scott's slide. Els, playing two groups ahead of Scott, birdied the 12th to get back to even-par for his round.

Els then birdied the 14th and 18th to get in at minus-7. Scott had also birdied No. 14, but stumbled down the stretch. He struggled to three straight bogeys from the 15th to fall into a share of the lead.

Scott's drive at 18 found sand and he blasted out sideways. His third stopped eight feet from the hole, but he failed to convert the par putt to give Els the crown.

No one was sure how Scott would react to blowing his best chance at winning his first major, but he came back with a playoff win over Angel Cabrera at the Masters earlier this year.

The U.S. Open returned to Merion Golf Club's East Course for the first time since 1981 and Justin Rose walked off with the title. He was the 11th first- time major champion in the last 13 majors.

Rose was two back to start the final round, and battled to an even-par 70 to win his first major. Mickelson, again, coughed up the lead in the final round as he shot 74 in the final round to end two back.

Unlike the play heading into the U.S. Open, there are far fewer players at the peak of their games entering the season's third major championship. Rose, whose best British Open finish came as a teenager in 1998, has to be counted among the favorites.

The only two players ahead of Rose in the world rankings -- Woods and Rory McIlroy -- are struggling right now. Woods played in pain caused by an elbow injury at Merion and hasn't played since.

There is no telling where his game will be. The same can be said for McIlroy, who has missed the cut in two of his last four starts and hasn't cracked the top 40 in the other two events.

Els was carrying momentum into the British Open with three top-10s in his last four starts, including a win at the BMW International Open, but he missed the cut by two at the Scottish Open.

Muirfield is hosting the Open Championship for the 16th time. There is one main theme of the former champions - Hall of Famers. Thirteen of the previous 15 winners of the Open Championship at Muirfield are in the Hall of Fame.

The list of winners is quite distinguished with the likes of Els, Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Walter Hagen among the Hall of Famers that have conquered Muirfield.

The last five winners have been in their early-to-mid 30s. When Faldo won for a second time at Muirfield, he was 36, and was the second-oldest winner at Muirfield. Sir Henry Cotton was 41, and the oldest winner at Muirfield, when he won the 1948 title.

If you used just the qualifications for the last set of winners at Muirfield, the favorite this week would come from a select group.

Of course, being a British Open champion is a select group by itself.

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