TURNBERRY, Scotland - Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington are dominating the headlines leading up to the 138th British Open at Turnberry, just as they did before the Masters in April and the U.S. Open in June.
They have been skunked in the majors so far in 2009, but Harrington is bidding to become the fifth player since 1860 to win three straight Opens, and Woods is seeking his 15th major victory, which would put him equal again with tennis counterpart Roger Federer (and three behind Jack Nicklaus's record 18).
Woods is hardly displeased with his three-win season so far, returning as he is from an eight-month break necessitated by major surgery on his left knee.
"To sit here and say I was going to have three wins halfway through the year," he said, "if anyone would have looked at my situation, they would have said, 'You might be reaching a little bit.'"
Paul Casey, the third-ranked player in the world, has never won a major. But with the absence of No. 2 Phil Mickelson, who is with his wife, Amy, as she battles breast cancer, Casey seems the next logical suspect to win this week. The Englishman is coming off his best result in the Open, a T7 last year, and like Woods has won three times already in '09.
"It's exciting to be the second-highest-ranked guy here," Casey said. "It means that — it doesn't really mean anything. I mean, it is what it is."
Tiger couldn't have said it better.
Then there's Martin Kaymer, 24, the German wunderkind who is coming off back-to-back Ws on the Euro Tour. He joins Anthony Kim and Rory McIlroy in the race to become to first major winner among the new kids on the tee box.
Here are the other big storylines, questions and simmering feuds heading into the year's third major:
• Will Turnberry suit Woods? The last time the course hosted an Open was 1994, so not even Tiger knows quite what to expect when he joins England's Lee Westwood and Japanese teen-ager Ryo Ishikawa on the first tee at 9:09 a.m. local time (4:09 Eastern) Thursday.
You may read that Turnberry has "pedigree," which basically means there are no fluke winners. Past champions include ball-striking machines Greg Norman (1986), Nick Price (1994) and Tom Watson (1977). That would seem to bode well for Woods.
But conventional wisdom has it that because of the thick rough (there's been plenty of rain here) and plentiful pot bunkers, the sometimes-wild Woods will have to dust off his game plan for winning the 2006 Open at Hoylake, where he hit driver only once all week. Whether or not he puts the plan into effect will depend on the weather. (More on that later.)
• Will David Duval, 37, inspire another wave of stories proclaiming he's back? The former No. 1 tied for second place at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black last month, his first top-10 anywhere since 2002.
He was in contention at the 2008 British Open until a third-round 83, one of many indications that he is still chasing the consistency that defined his game a decade ago. Up to 145th in the ranking from 882nd last month, Duval shot 75-66 to miss the cut in his last start, at last week's John Deere Classic. He will tee off with Nick Dougherty and Adam Scott at 7:25 a.m. local time Thursday.
• Can Greg Norman, 54, repeat his remarkable performance of last year? He was the story of the week at Royal Birkdale before fading with a 77 on Sunday for a T3 finish. And he's won here before.
"He was out at our club the other day, and he had a huge basket of balls," longtime friend and former CBS golf producer/director Frank Chirkinian said recently. "He hit balls for three or four hours. He really is into going back and trying to make some sort of a definitive mark again."
• Will the rift between formerly great Scots Sandy Lyle and Colin Montgomerie ever die? All week it's towered over Turnberry like Ailsa Craig, the 1,114-foot high volcanic rock/bird sanctuary.
Who cheated? Lyle says Monty did when he incorrectly placed his ball after an overnight rain delay at the 2005 Indonesian Open. Lyle dredged up the incident in Tuesday's Daily Mirror, then made the situation worse when he called a press conference Tuesday to say Monty was really a swell guy even though he cheated that one time and just look at the videotape and by the way the incident will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Who's bitter? On Wednesday, European Tour chief executive George O'Grady issued a statement saying the tournament committee considers the "Jakarta situation" in the past and, "The Tour fully understands Sandy Lyle's disappointment at not being elected captain (of Europe's 2010 Ryder Cup team, as Montgomerie was) but deeply regrets his comments, which are considered wholly inappropriate and ill-timed."
On the plus side, they're selling newspapers.
• Is Harrington playing possum? Like a good college football coach, he's again dismissed his chances as not good. But unlike last year, when he came into the Open with a sore wrist, Harrington comes into this week with a fragile psyche. In the midst of a swing change, he has missed his last five cuts on the PGA and European Tours.
"The one thing I know is that if I get in position I can win," he said. "That's the nice thing. Others can get there, but they won't win. Can I get into position is what's in doubt."
• What will the weather do? The perennial lead story at any Open, the weather looks better so far than it was at the waterlogged U.S. Open.
The Thursday forecast calls for sunny spells and "a 40% chance of a few showers."
The wind is expected to kick up to 15-20 mph, with gusts of up to 25, on Friday.
Saturday brings another slight chance (20%) of rain, while Sunday is expected to bring more wind and "sunny intervals and a few scattered showers."
• Can Tom Watson, 59, channel enough magic from the 1977 'Duel in the Sun' at Turnberry to make the cut? Can he beat Bubba Watson? (Jack Nicklaus, who shot 65-66 to Watson's 65-65 on the weekend that year, no longer plays competitively.)
• What will Sergio do next? Slow greens lessen the damage from his spotty putting, which is one reason why he finished T5, T5 and 2 in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 British Opens, respectively.
"The course is looking great — very, very nice, thick rough, so big premium on driving the ball well this week," said Garcia, one of the game's best drivers. "If you can manage to do that then the course is not too tough from there."
• Who is England's best golfer? This is one of those provincial stories like the Lyle/Monty spat, but at least for the moment you could argue in favor of Casey, Ian Poulter or Lee Westwood.
Poulter finished second last year, making clutch shots when it appeared the Open was in the balance. (Harrington's later heroics made Poulter's moot.)
Westwood, 36, also seeks his first major title. He lost a playoff to Kaymer at the French Open two weeks ago, and shot 66-64 in the middle two rounds on the way to a T8 at last week's Scottish Open.
"I played with Westwood last week, and he wasn't feeling 100% on Thursday," Poulter said. "Then he came out the following day and seriously could have shot 58, 59."
• Will Lucas Glover do it again? He won at Bethpage by having his best driving week ever, and could hit a lot of fairways again this week. But expecting Glover to back up his Bethpage breakthrough seems unrealistic. He's not taken a week off since, and his best British Open finish in three starts is a T27. At the very least he'll be among good company. He tees off with Ernie Els and the red-hot Kaymer at 12:58 p.m. Thursday.