SANDWICH, England This year, more than any other, England expects an Open winner.
No Englishman has won the claret jug since Nick Faldo in 1992, but as the 140th championship returns to the south of England, the home country can boast the World's No. 1 and No. 2 golfers.
Luke Donald and Lee Westwood have earned the right to be lorded at Royal St George's. They are the home favorites, mobbed by thousands of patriotic fans desperate to cheer on a long overdue English champion. And with Tiger Woods hobbling at home in Orlando, they should revel in the attention ...
... That's what would've happened if Rory McIlroy hadn't done what he did last month at Congressional. The Englishmen were forced to play bridesmaids to the 22-year-old Northern Irishman. On Tuesday afternoon there were seats aplenty in the press conferences for Westwood and Donald. But for McIlroy it was standing room only. Such was the rush of bums off seats on the announcement of his arrival, that just for a moment a rumor circulated that The R&A's catering corps was handing out free beer tokens in the media dining area.
All the talk in the golfing world is of McIlroy, U.S. Open champion and the sport's newly anointed superstar. And all this Hollywood attention heaped on the young man from Holywood is perfect for his English rivals.
Westwood had the look of someone who had only recently stopped rubbing the sleep from his eyes after a long nap. The 38-year-old World No. 2 is a wily ol' coyote of a campaigner skilled in the art of sporting psychological warfare.
In fact there are two Lee Westwoods. Sometimes the cocksure bully turns up with a swagger that says, "I'm the man." But this week he's wearing his "Do I look bothered?" face. Oh, he's bothered all right. He would just rather have everyone (and that includes McIlroy) believe that he doesn't really fancy his chances.
It's all smoke and mirrors.
Rest assured he wants this Open championship. And he wants it bad. You get the impression that Westwood is delighted to be under the radar, happy to see how McIlroy deals with being under the white-hot spotlight for the first time. Westwood's body language? Quietly confident. Actually, not that quiet.
"My form is right where I'd like it to be," he said.
Westwood finished runner-up to Louis Oosthuizen last year at St. Andrews, and third in 2009 at Turnberry behind Tom Watson and champion Stewart Cink. He is desperate to finally stand on the top step of the podium.
"It would mean everything to me," he said. "It's named after St. George. You can't get much more English than that. It's obviously being played in England, which only happenes every now and then, and it's the biggest championship in the world as far as I'm concerned."
He won here twice as an amateur in the early 1990s, so there's already good karma for him in Kent.
But as the clock is ticking on Westwood's career as he strives for that elusive first major (he is 0 and 53), the last person he wants to hear criticism from is Colin Montgomerie. The Scot has majored in major near-misses yet had the nerve to suggest recently that Westwood is getting close to his sell-by date. The words "pot" and "kettle" spring to mind.
"Yeah, I played with him last week," Westwood said, "and wound him up about that. It depends how physically able you are and I'm obviously a finely tuned athlete that can go on well into my forties," he said laughing.
"People would have said I was coming into my prime 10 years [ago]," he said. "And then I dropped to 270th in the world so what's the point in guessing whether you're in your prime or not."
The Englishman unquestionably in his prime is the 33-year-old Donald. The World No. 1 arrived at Royal St. George's as the Scottish Open champion, his third high-profile victory of the year, and on a run of 16 top-10s in his last 18 events.
While Westwood likes to play mind games, with Donald, what you see is what you get. He speaks like he plays in a low key, metronomic fashion. But his results have become spectacular after years of underachievement. All that's missing is what everyone keeps asking: Where's that major?
"I really don't think the world ranking has anything to do with my mindset about winning a major," Donald said.
"I've always wanted to win a major since growing up watching my idols Faldo and Seve."
Under normal circumstances, an English No. 1 coming to the Open in England would be buried beneath a frenzy of expectation from fans and the media. But normal service has been suspended for a while at least by the emergence of McIlroy as golf's new Elvis, just as Woods has left the building.
"Rory is at the forefront of a lot of people's minds and rightly so," Donald said. "He was impressive in the U.S. Open and winning majors is a big deal, and he did it in great fashion. I'm sure a lot of the attention is on him and maybe a little more of the pressure as well."
He imagined briefly what it would be like to come down the stretch on Sunday going head-to-head with Westwood.
"I would love to be in that situation," he said. "I'm not sure who would have the most pressure on them. We'd be very cordial, but there wouldn't be much chitchat."
England expects, but it might not get. A Northern Irishman might have something to say about that.