Brown: Plenty of storylines to be excited about entering The Open Championship

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Plenty of eyes will be on Rory McIlroy at Muirfield as he attempts to turn his year around.
July 16, 2013
By Clifton Brown, PGATOUR.COM columnist

Ten reasons I can’t wait for The Open Championship at Muirfield.

1. Tiger Woods can’t wait: It’s time for Woods to get moving if he is going to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. With four wins in 2013, Woods is back to being the world’s best player, but he’s not playing his best golf at major championships. That’s a frustrating dynamic, and the longer it lasts, the more it could weigh on him mentally. It was a good sign for Woods that he was already on the course Sunday at Muirfield for a nine-hole practice round. Seems like his left elbow will not be a hindrance. But will Muirfield be memorable or frustrating for Tiger? Can’t wait to find out.

2. Phil Mickelson can’t wait either: Winning the Scottish Open was a signal that Mickelson could be ready to win at Muirfield. He gained confidence, had a blast, and got re-acclimated to links golf. The U.S. Open has been the most heartbreaking major for Mickelson, yet the British Open has been his most difficult, with just two top-10 finishes in 19 starts. But after winning the Scottish, Mickelson has momentum and that makes him dangerous. Imagine Woods and Mickelson dueling for the Claret Jug on Sunday. They’re due for a showdown, and this weekend we could see it.

3. The unpredictable weather: The last time the Open was at Muirfield in 2002, a bizarre Saturday storm made playing conditions almost unbearable. Covering the ’02 Open for the New York Times, I ran for cover when the storm began, but then I decided I’d walk a few holes to experience how bad it was. I took 10 steps outside the press trailer before saying, "OK, this is really bad," then I went back to the press trailer. The weather forecast is favorable this week, but there is always the potential for conditions to change quickly, which adds to the Open’s allure.

4. Imagination will be at a premium: You’ll see a variety of strategies this week, especially if Muirfield plays firm and fast. On holes like the par-4, 441-yard eighth hole, which has numerous pot bunkers, players will tee off with everything from 5-iron to driver. It will be difficult for players to gauge how far tee shots will roll once they hit the ground. The winner will have to think his way around the course successfully, and play the right shot at the right time.

5. Rory McIlroy will be hoping to recapture some magic: A player as talented as McIlroy is a threat to bust out at anytime. But in his last four starts, McIlroy has missed the cut twice, and his best finish is a T41. When a player ranked No. 200 in the world changes equipment, people yawn. When the No. 1-ranked player in the world does it, people scrutinize the decision, and McIlroy has faced plenty of criticism for his switch to Nike clubs, and for showing his frustration on the course.

Is this the week something clicks for McIlroy, or will 2013 to be a lost year for him?

"We’ve seen bits and pieces of the McIlroy we expect during this year, but it hasn’t been the consistency level that you need to win," said Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN commentator. "I think we’ll see a much different player when he’s 28, 29 years old. But he is one of those players that if he plays two or three good rounds in a row, he might win the next three tournaments. There are not many players like that."

McIlroy is a special talent. It would create major buzz if his slump somehow ended at Muirfield.

6. The trend of first-time major winners in 2013 could continue: We have already seen Adam Scott and Justin Rose break through this year. It would not surprise me to see any of these players become first-time major winners at Muirfield – Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, or Lee Westwood.

7. A fluke winner is unlikely: Muirfield has a powerhouse list of former champions that includes Ernie Els, Nick Faldo (twice), Walter Hagen, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. That speaks to the quality of the course. Woods, Mickelson, or any of golf’s heavyweights would love to add their name to the prestigious list of Muirfield winners.

"A lot of the luck factor here is eliminated," said former PGA champion and current ESPN analyst Paul Azinger. "It’s just not a quirky golf course. Unlike some of the courses in the rotation where you’ll have some really awkward, quirky, unlucky bounces, you’re not going to see that as much here. If you’re on, you will be in contention there, if you’re that quality of player.’’

8. The British Open galleries are loyal and knowledgeable: They know the game, and they show appreciation for good shots. You won’t hear people yelling "get in the hole" after a tee shot on a par 5.

"They appreciate quality shots, they appreciate good golf," North said. "And they’re as appreciative to the 150th-ranked player in the world as they would be to the No. 1–ranked player."

9. Watching someone’s name engraved on the Claret Jug: Always love the moment when the cameras switch to the engraver, carving the winner’s name into the trophy. David Duval once let me hold the Claret Jug. Didn’t see my name on it. I may not be the worst golfer ever to hold it, but I could be close.

10. Waking up to golf: What’s the next best thing to setting your alarm clock to play golf? Setting your alarm to watch it. It should be a fantastic British Open. Can’t wait.

Clifton Brown is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.