HOYLAKE, England (AP) — Even for a major championship that goes back 154 years, the British Open is capable of providing a new experience.
Attribute that to the weather.
Returning to Royal Liverpool for the first time since 2006, two differences were immediately obvious. The flags above the grandstands surrounding the 18th green were rippling in a stiff breeze off the Irish Sea. There was hardly any wind eight years ago. And thanks to a wet spring, the grass was green and lush, compared with brown and wispy the last time.
And then there's Tiger Woods.
He won in 2006 at Royal Liverpool in an emotional finish. It was the first major he won since the death of his father two months earlier, and Woods sobbed on the shoulder of his caddie and later his wife when he completed a two-shot victory. Woods now is divorced and has a different caddie.
Woods is playing his first major this year because of a back surgery and is sure to be a key figure. Here are five things to watch when play begins Thursday:
1. TIGER'S BACK
Woods had back surgery on March 31 to alleviate a pinched nerve, forcing him to miss the Masters for the first time in his career and then the U.S. Open. There was speculation he would return for the British Open, and it was a surprise when he came back three weeks ago for the Quicken Loans National at Congressional. He missed the cut, but said he was encouraged that he didn't have back pain.
As for his game? Still to be determined. His short game looked shoddy at Congressional. But at least it allowed him to shake off some of the rust from being out three months.
2. THE CLOSER
Royal Liverpool is the only links course on the current British Open rotation that ends with a par 5. The 18th hole is 551 yards and should be able to be reached in two shots, allowing for a player to have a chance at an eagle. It also has big trouble — out-of-bounds to the right — that could lead to bogey or worse. The hole is capable of big swings that could determine the championship.
In the last 20 years, only five major championship venues ended with a par 5 — Liverpool, Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Valhalla and Baltusrol. Woods won on four of them.
3. BROWN AND GREEN
How a British Open links course plays often depends on the color — brown or green?
A wet spring usually means the grass is green and lush, and thus the ball doesn't roll as far and the course plays longer. A dry summer bakes the thin grass and makes it brown. That's when the ball rolls forever and the course plays shorter, though it's more difficult to control how far the ball goes on the ground. Liverpool was brown in 2006 and Woods hit driver only once in 72 holes. It is green this year, though recent sunshine could make it firm and bouncy.
4. THE 40s HAVE IT
Darren Clarke won The Open in 2011 for his first title of any kind in three years. Ernie Els won in 2012, a shocker considering that Adam Scott had a four-shot lead with four holes to play. Phil Mickelson won last year at a major not even he thought he would ever win. Mickelson didn't have a good history in links golf. What do they have in common besides their names on the claret jug? All of them were in their 40s.
It's the first time any major has produced three straight champions who were 40 or older.
If the streak continues, that would bode well for the likes of Padraig Harrington and Justin Leonard, both 42.
5. GERMAN SLAM
One of the strong favorites at Royal Liverpool would have to be Martin Kaymer. The 29-year-old German won The Players Championship (the strongest field in golf) and the U.S. Open (the toughest test in golf) from start to finish. He is among the hottest players in the game. And he is the best bet to complete what Kaymer jokingly referred to as the "German Slam." He has won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. Bernhard Langer won the Masters twice. The claret jug is all Germany is lacking.