We're diving into the unknown.
The 141st British Open will not feature normal links conditions. Instead of firm and fast, Lytham is soft and wet. The rough growing at the base of the fescue is thick and ferocious, like something out of a 1980s U.S. Open.
(Instant prediction: A big-name player will make a big-ugly number Thursday when his ball rolls into the jungle that's just off the fairways.)
Royal St. George's, the quirky, bouncy links on England's southeast coast that hosted last year's Open, is one of the rare links that plays better when it's soft. The crazy bounces are reduced, and it's a fairer test.
In contrast, Lytham will play more like American target golf this week. Maneuvering through and around its treacherous array of 206 bunkers should be easier if the fairways aren't as firm and tee shots aren't careering madly down them like cars on the nearby M55 motorway.
So it'll be easier? No, because the rough and the fescue sound like they're going to be virtually unplayable in places. That makes this Open shape up more like the 1999 fiasco at Carnoustie, where the only thing as absurd as the length of the rough was the narrow width of the fairways.
We haven't seen Lytham play like this for a while. It was hot, dry and dusty when Tom Lehman won in 1996. It was mostly dry in 2001 when David Duval won, although cool at times. This week's conditions make the Open loom as something of a mystery.
Here are three things we know for sure:
1. Lytham's five finishing holes are brutal.
2. You can't win at Lytham unless you stay out of the bunkers. (Parking lots are OK, however, as Seve Ballesteros once proved.)
3. Starting off with a par 3 isn't nearly as easy as you might think.
After that, it's all going to be guesswork. So let the guessing begin.
The Fab Five: Men who can win
Tiger Woods. He's striking the ball superbly and brimming with confidence. That's not unusual. Woods typically does a brilliant job of thinking his way around British links. He's not afraid to leave his driver in the bag if he has to, although for a few years, he seemed like he was afraid to pull the driver out. The iron-off-the-tee strategy worked well at Royal Liverpool, where he avoided the dangerous fairway pot bunkers even though it meant he played longer irons into the green. He was the best iron player in the game at that point, and the best shotmaker. He hasn't forgotten how to work the ball, and that makes him one of the favorites every time he tees it up, no matter what you think of him.
I agree with Alan Shipnuck's astute observation in our British Open preview: because of the strategy involved, the British Open now gives Tiger his best chance to win a major. If you're in an office pool, take Tiger first. The only downsides: His short game hasn't been up to his usual standards, and Open greens are usually on the slow side. Tiger putts his best when greens are fast.
Lee Westwood. Yeah, yeah, I know. I've pretty much sworn off picking Westwood to win a major. He's got a little bit of a Zorba the Greek putting stroke — Never on Sunday. But the often remedial speeds of Open greens help smooth over the weakest part of Westwood's game. His ballstriking should dissect Lytham like he's taking apart a frog in a high school biology lab. Crappy weather? Who's a better mudder than Westwood. He grew up playing in the slop, and did he ever stop smiling when he was sopping wet during the Ryder Cups in Ireland and Wales? I don't think so. He's a good man in poor conditions. And he prepped himself to make 2012 a "Now or Never" kind of year. The Open would be his best chance at making it Now.
Louis Oosthuizen. We forgot about Louis after his runaway win at St. Andrews in 2010. He won big in big wind, so we know he can play in weather. And we know he does well on big stages. If not for Bubba Watson's sensational wedge in the playoff, King Louis might have won the Masters. He's also got an even-keeled personality that lets him deal with adversity and pressure well. The guy was the first in Masters history to make a double eagle on the second hole at Augusta National. He can win an Open… again.
Adam Scott. Although it went into the books as an un-official victory, Scott won the 2006 Northern Trust Open after it was shortened to 36 holes because of heavy rain. Like Westwood, putting is Scott's Achilles heel, so slower greens could help. But this isn't a scientific pick. No, the famously major-less Scott is on this list for the simple reason that I awoke from a dream a few weeks ago in which he won the British Open. He's got a great swing, we've always expected great things from him and he's entering the prime of his career in his 30s. Maybe it's finally his time.
Zach Johnson. Go ahead and chuckle, but this guy is quietly having a heck of a career. Only Tiger, Mickelson and Stricker have more wins than Johnson since 2007. He's coming off a John Deere Classic victory in which he swung as well as he has at any time in his career, and his putter got hot. Rarely do guys win the week before the Open and then win the Open itself. The last man who did it was Lee Trevino in 1971 when he went Open-Open, Canadian and British. Johnson is a player who isn't short on self-confidence, and he can flat-out roll his rock.
The Drab Five: Men most likely to disappoint
Phil Mickelson. This is reverse psychology. The Open isn't Mickelson's cup of tea, never has been. He's a high-ball hitter who struggles in wind and rain, and he relies on his 60- and 64-degree wedges, which are tough to hit on tight and firm links turf. That said, he missed getting into the Ernie Els-Todd Hamilton playoff in 2004 at Troon by a shot and was about to stampede Darren Clarke last year until he gagged a short putt on the 11th hole. Should all that make expectations high? Yes, but Phil plays his best when you least expect it. His best chance to win is if we declare he has no chance to win. So be it.
Luke Donald. There's nothing not to like about the hard-working Luke, the Tom Kite of his generation. He's scored a couple of wins this year, and he's hanging onto the No. 1 spot in the world rankings like a bulldog on a pork chop. His game doesn't seem to be quite as spot-on as it was last year. Let's overlook that he's No. 183 in driving distance. That's irrelevant. But he's No. 119 in greens hit in regulation, and that's very relevant. He's living on the edge these days thanks to his superb short game; he's the best bunker player out there and ranks No. 1 on the PGA Tour in scrambling. Lytham figures to be more of a fairways-and-greens contest. Not sure he's hitting his irons well enough to win.
Bubba Watson. Let's tell it like it is: Bubba probably isn't done celebrating his Masters victory and the arrival of his son. Can't blame him for either one. But he hasn't put in the work, and he doesn't seem to have recommitted to golf yet. It was glaringly apparent he wasn't ready for Olympic Club and the U.S. Open. You don't get back to that peak level with just one or two weeks of hard work. Put the green jacket back on and enjoy it, Bubba. There's always next year.
Rory McIlroy. The conditions may set up well for Rory, who has an American-style game. He hits it high and far and lands it soft and is not a great links player despite growing up in Northern Ireland. Still, he's not great in the wind, so that could be a factor, and he hates playing in the rain and wearing raingear. Like Bubba, he's lost a little of his competitive edge in mid-year. It's tough to get it back quickly.
Dustin Johnson. You're probably expecting him to be a non-factor because he missed three months earlier this year due to injuries and kicked away a chance to win last year's Open when he blew a 2-iron out of bounds on the par-5 14th on Sunday. If you're expecting him to do poorly, you may be disappointed. Don't be surprised to see him take a page out of the Tiger Woods playbook and 2-iron Royal Lytham to death. Fairways, greens, two putts, hole after hole.