FIVE TO WATCH: Mulqueen’s picks on the Open road

A CONTINUATION of the rain and howling wind that caused the cancellation of yesterday’s eagerly-awaited Champions Challenge celebrating 150 years of the Open Championship are predicted for the next four days.

In those circumstances, picking a winner becomes more of a hazardous exercise and indeed the R&A are so worried by the situation that they are considering alterations to a few holes and may not use the new and controversial tee at the famous 17th.

“We’ve retained the option of going forward if we get a very severe and strong wind which would make the back tee unplayable,” explained Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R & A.

“Other tee adjustments would only be necessary if the wind was so strong that we’d probably have to abandon play anyway. It’s measurable by whether the balls are moving about on the greens.”

Leaving out the Irish challenge led by Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy, here is my idea of five capable of making a serious challenge for the famous Claret Jug.

Tiger Woods 11/2

TIGER’S record at St Andrews speaks for itself — two appearances as a professional, two wins, by a margin of eight strokes in 2000 and by five in 2005. He turned both championships into a one-horse race almost from the outset and if ever a course was suited to his game, then it has to be this one (even if the slow greens he detests have caused him to change from a putter that has helped to win 13 of his 14 major championships).

He would still be virtually unbackable were it not for the events that have shattered his private life and had a debilitating effect on his golf. The mood swings hardly help the situation and he didn’t look content either in Adare for the JP McManus Pro-Am or since his arrival here on Sunday. Still, he maintains that he has settled well and that he is coping with the difference in the conditions that he has encountered over his last three visits.

“Granted, it was unplayable on Sunday but I was still hitting the shots, seeing what the ball was doing on the ground, the lag putting, some of the breaks, all these things started coming back,” he maintained. “It’s been different. I’ve switched to the Nike putter. The ball comes off faster which is important on these greens.” However if Tiger doesn’t win this one, you would have to seriously wonder if his days for winning major championships have come to an end.

Ernie Els 16/1

A CLASS act back in form after a few years when he could hardly buy a putt. The 40-year-old South African has won twice in the US this year and even if he did falter on the final day at Pebble Beach last month, a third place finish suggested he remains a formidable force.

“I came here for the first time in 1987 for the Links Trust trophy and won it and I just fell in love with the place,” enthused The Big Easy. “I didn’t know where to go but I loved it and now I’ve played it so many times. I’ve seen it in different shapes and forms and different conditions and you’ve just got to try and adapt.”

No better man, and well capable of repeating his play-off victory at Muirfield back in 2002.

Ian Poulter 33/1

THE winner of this year’s WGC-Accenture World Match Play Championship has gone off the boil in recent weeks but remains a major force for my money. Remember how he chased Pádraig Harrington to the finishing line at Birkdale two years ago? He has the mental aptitude and fortitude to stand up to the conditions.

Luke Donald 40/1

THE CALM, unfussy Englishman has struck a rich vein of form. He keeps the ball in play better than most and is a fine putter — qualities sure to stand him in good stead around the bunker-laden Old Course with its massive double greens. Donald missed the cut in his first five Open appearances before playing all four rounds at St Andrews in 2005 when he tied for 52nd. The graph has gone more favourably in recent years: fifth at Turnberry 12 months ago and this year he captured the Madrid Masters the week after coming second in the BMW PGA Championship and the week before finishing third in the Wales Open.

Steve Marino 150/1

EVERYBODY loves a rank outsider and my few bob are going on Steve Marino, a burly 30-year-old from Florida who got into his first Open at Turnberry as a last-minute alternate. He had never previously seen a links, let alone play one, and he still started 67, 68 before fading badly over the weekend at Turnberry to tie for 38th. He will have learned from that experience and was likened last night by a US colleague as being “like a young Mark Calcavecchia who won’t let the weather bother him”. Open Championship watchers will recall that “Calc” was a relative unknown when he won the title at Troon in 1989.


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