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2011 Open Championship preview

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The early-morning hours are usually among the most depressing of the day. But this week, golf fans will have reason to rise at such hours, for it is Open Championship time.

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On Thursday morning, 156 of the world's best golfers will embark on a quest to capture the year's third major championship, the Open Championship ( also popularly known as the "British Open"). Many of them will be called on to play a type of golf with which they are not normally accustomed through the rest of the year: links golf. All the courses in the Open rota are hard by the sea, built on sandy soil and exposed of heavy winds and periodic rain squalls. The traditional combination of firm fairways and greens and potentially nastily unpresdictable weather necessitates a change in approach from many players. Whereas most touring pros are accustomed to hitting high tee shots and approaches that settle quickly once they land, they will find that Open venues viciously reject this sort of game, instead demanding that many shots be played along the ground. Golf balls, therefore, will be more vulnerable to the vagaries of random undulations than usual, causing mass frustration in the wake of some seemingly good shots. This makes the Open Championship perhaps the most mental of the four majors. As a result, it is sometimes the most cringe-inducing major to watch. Remember watching Jean Van De Velde's meltdown in 1999 at Carnoustie through cracks between your fingers over your eyes? I do.

The Open Championship bounces back and forth between great links in Scotland and England. This year's Open will be decided at Royal St. George's Golf Club in Sandwich, England, where in 2003 utter unknown Ben Curtis shocked the golf world by making the Open Championship his first PGA Tour victory--in his first major championship start--with a winning score of one-under par 283.

Sandwich is not the longest or most fearsome golf course in the Open rota (both honors go to Carnoustie), but it is no pushover by any stretch. Its 497 yard, par five fourth hole features perhaps the grandest single hazard in Open Championship golf, a monstrosity aptly named "Big Bertha," carved into a dune some 230 yards off the tee. While she is not in play on any but days featuring a strong headwind, she is an imposing visual obstacle to overcome.

Many of Sandwich's other bunkers, however, are very much in play, and they are to be avoided at all cost. Just ask Thomas Bjorn, who in 2003 took three nervous hacks to extricate himself from a greenside bunker at the 163-yard par three sixteenth hole, a misadventure that cost him the Claret Jug by a shot. Players who are able to navigate Sandwich in the least sandy way possible will subject themselves to significantly less pressure than others.

So who has the best shot to win this year's Open Championship? As I did for my U.S. Open preview a few weeks ago, I will throw out three big names and four dark horse-types. Select them in your respective pools at your own peril.

Big Name #1: Luke Donald--Donald, the #1 player in the world, should contend in his home country. The longer he remains atop the Official World Golf Ranking, the higher the expectations will become that he win his first major championship. Sandwich is not a terribly long course, which brings shorter hitters like Donald into the mix.

Big Name #2: Nick Watney--Watney, who captured the AT&T Classic a couple weeks ago in convincing fashion, looks to be overcoming the big-tournament final-round jitters that sent him to a disappointing 81 after sleeping on the 54-hole lead at last year's PGA Championship. Yes, the Open Championship is a bigger deal than the AT&T, but Watney nonetheless represents the United States' best hope in the field. (Granted, Steve Stricker won last week's John Deere Classic, but it has been shown to be exceedingly difficult to win a major the week after winning a regular event.)

Big Name #3: Jason Day--Day has finished runner-up in the Masters and US Open this year, indicating that he has the attitude to contend in the pressure-cooker of a major championship. He's going to win one ooner or later; Sunday could be "sooner."

Dark Horse #1: Sergio Garcia--Garcia was my best pick at Congressional, so I'm taking him again at St. George's, where he finished in a tie for 10th place in 2003. He's a big name among the smaller names, but until he starts winning tournaments again, he will remain under the radar.

Dark Horse #2: Fredrik Jacobson--Jacobson, who captured his first career PGA Tour victory at the Travelers Championship, has earned the nickname "Junkman" from his peers for his scrambling prowess. Such a type of game needs to be played at the Open Championship, which should put Jacobson at an advantage.

Dark Horse #3: Miguel Angel Jimenez--"The Mechanic" authored the most memorable shot at last year's Open and has three top-30 finishes in the last four years. He's a veteran, with 12 top-15 finishes in 49 major championship starts. Number 50 could well be another good one.

Dark Horse #4: David Duval--By far the darkest of these four "Dark Horse" picks, there are rumblings that Duval is playing some of the his best golf in recent memory. And nearing the ten-year anniversary of his 2001 Open Championship victory at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's--his last professional victory to date--some planets, stars, and moons might just align for Duval.

The 140th playing of the Open Championship kicks off on Thursday morning. ESPN coverage begins at 4 a.m. ET.

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