British Open Wide Open Without Woods

Chris Nichols tells you what -- and who -- to watch at the upcoming golf tournament.
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For the 156 players set to tee off Thursday in the 137th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, now is not the time to be tentative.

With Tiger Woods sidelined by knee surgery and the most formidable obstacle to claiming the Claret Jug removed, the tournament is completely up for grabs.

The competitors will now merely have to overcome their own demons, the demands of links-style golf and that dastardly British Isles weather that can go from a sunny summer day to an overcast wind-driven downpour in the course of two holes.

This year Birkdale, in Southport, England, has the honor of hosting golf's oldest major, commonly known Stateside as the British Open. Eight times previously, Birkdale has played home to the Open. On five of those occasions, including the last, the gold medal was won by an American -- most recently Mark O'Meara in 1998.

The course, at 7,173 yards, has been set up to play 155 yards longer than it did last time, though that will be a nonissue to the pros. Par is 70, and the layout features only two par 5s, both on the back nine.

New mounds on the course, more demanding bunkers and revised lines of play pose the biggest challenges. The weather, of course, will be the wild card, as it always is in Great Britain in July. If it cooperates, players can go under par. If not, level or possibly over par is likely to be the winning score.

One of the most popular picks for the upcoming tournament is Spain's Sergio Garcia, who has played well in past Opens -- particularly in 2007, when he finished runner-up in a playoff to Ireland's Padraig Harrington. "El Nino," who has never won a major, is widely considered to have the skills necessary to do so, but his balky putter has too often failed to back his outstanding iron play.

This year, Garcia picked up the biggest win of his professional career, capturing The Players Championship in May. The Spaniard's triumph had to provide him with newfound confidence in his game, which has shown so much promise through the years -- despite his shortcomings.

Englishmen Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Justin Rose will also be expected to play well at the Open, and they'll certainly have the support of the home crowds. Westwood especially will be one to watch, as he's coming off a U.S. Open in which he missed a Monday playoff with Woods and Rocco Mediate by a single stroke. Meanwhile, Rose was the low amateur in the prior Open at Birkdale.

Amid those prospects, a U.S. victory at Birkdale feels a bit like a long shot this time. Phil Mickelson, the second-best American behind Woods, rarely plays well at the British, and Kenny Perry, the hottest U.S. golfer of late, isn't entered in the event.

One player who is intriguing though, is Justin Leonard. The Texas native, who won the British at Troon in 1997, is quietly having a solid year, and he collected his 12th PGA Tour win at Memphis in June.

Then again, maybe this will be another year for a Ben Curtis or a Todd Hamilton, Americans who came out of nowhere to win Opens in back-to-back years earlier this decade. Or perhaps Ernie Els can sneak in and claim his second victory in the event.

Then again, it could be time for a promising young talent such as Andres Romero of Argentina, who has already nearly pulled off the feat.

Open Championship Notes

Because the obvious choice -- Woods -- won't be playing, I'm going out on a limb and taking Leonard to win. I strongly considered Garcia, but I'll give him another "almost" with a third-place finish.

My dark horse is Romero. I'll give last year's winner, Harrington, a top 15 showing. The sentimental favorite, though, has to be Australia's Stuart Appleby, who lost his first wife Renee in a freak accident just after he missed the cut in the 1998 Open at Birkdale.

If Garcia manages to be victorious, he'll continue the great year Spain is having in sports, which has already seen tennis pro Rafael Nadal win at the French Open and Wimbledon, a victory for the soccer team at the European championship and Pau Gasol helping lead the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals.