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Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Updated: July 16, 7:21 PM ET
Anything can happen at Hoylake

By Ian O'Connor
ESPN.com

HOYLAKE, England -- If the game of professional golf on your average American course can be a lot of things -- tedious, predictable, even robotic -- it rarely is the one thing a game is supposed to be:

Fun.

The Open Championship is the antidote to all of that. From Old Tom Morris to Old Tom Watson, golf over here has it all over golf back there. Who needs cookie-cutter fairways and bunkers, all of them manicured just so, when you can have moonscape dunes, 90-yard putts and more trick-shot opportunities than Willie Mosconi or Meadowlark Lemon could've asked for?

Forget the weather that might cut through Hoylake this week, like the way it cut through Tiger Woods at Muirfield a dozen years back, blowing his Grand Slam bid out to sea. You know what the Scots say about storms and golf?

Nae wind, nae rain, nae fun.

Remember, Woods did win one of his three Open titles here at Royal Liverpool by using his driver once -- once -- in four rounds. It wasn't just a masterpiece of precision and poise, but a showcase of the creative thinking required on the links in the one major that's more like a mini-golf course on steroids than the stateside three.

Of course, the lords of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club would rather play lift, clean and place than liken their venues to the popular roadside stops in the U.S. that feature moms and dads and their cute kids putting through a clown's mouth and an elephant's trunk. But with golf hemorrhaging recreational players at an alarming rate, perhaps losing them to pursuits with more X Games appeal, there are worse times to emphasize the wild-and-crazy element of a notoriously staid sport.

"I think what works 51 weeks of the year," Justin Rose said, "doesn't always work here."

And that's a very good thing. The faceless, robo-approach to golf in America -- hit emerald fairway, hit emerald green, sink 7-foot putt, nod on muscle memory to the fans -- doesn't cut it in the U.K., where you can't simply fly your souped-up Titleist over trouble.

You have to play the ground game here. You have to deal with the blind spots, the hay, the gorse, the pot bunkers and the crosswinds that can hit you like a roundhouse right. If it takes time for an American to learn how to weigh the low-trajectory risks and rewards, it's more than worth the wait.

"I didn't like it at first," said Watson, a five-time Open champ. "When I played St. Andrews at first, all those blind tee shots, I didn't like that at all. I hated it. Where do you hit it? You hit it over that gorse bush over there. Didn't quite like that, then I kind of figured it out. You play it once, you ought to be able to figure it out."

Justin Rose
The conditions at the Open Championship -- like this pot bunker -- are unlike anything players face in the States.

Well, maybe not once. The first time he tried to qualify for the Open, in 1992, Phil Mickelson recalled being 7 or 8 over par after nine holes at Scotland's North Berwick and called it "a rude awakening." Mickelson would go on to finish 30th or worse in nine of his first 11 Opens. He finally learned how to hit low line drives in 2004, when he placed third, nine years before his epic breakthrough at Muirfield.

"I used to hate it," Mickelson said of links golf last year, five days before he conquered it. "And now I love it. ... I love the shots we get to hit over here."

Mickelson is a six-time runner-up in his Open in the United States, and a guy who was never supposed to win their Open. Though Mickelson won't be the first or last to learn this game on the fly, some Americans have stayed home to play in decidedly non-major events.

Kenny Perry, then 47, took a pass in 2008, explaining that he needed to honor a commitment to the Milwaukee tournament and to the cause of chasing Ryder Cup points. Scott Hoch skipped the Open a bunch because he hated the cold weather.

Maybe now he knows what he missed, maybe not. But anything can happen at the most unpredictable of majors, and anything has happened.

Watson nearly winning No. 6, at age 59, happened. The epic Duel in the Sun at Turnberry between Watson and Jack Nicklaus happened. Somehow John Daly winning the Open happened. Somehow Jean Van de Velde losing the Open happened, too.

Woods shooting 81 in the driving rain most definitely happened on that remarkable Saturday in 2002, and so did his equally remarkable (if futile) 65 the following day. Three consecutive champions in their 40s (Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Mickelson) also happened, and on Sunday somebody could extend that streak to four.

Strange things have been going down in this tournament for a long time. How did Mickelson score his greatest victory at Muirfield right after one of his most soul-crushing defeats (to Rose) at Merion? More than a half-century ago, how did Arnold Palmer recover from his most devastating loss to Nicklaus at Oakmont, right in Arnie's backyard, to lap the field at Troon?

And while we're at it, how did the villain in that all-American rivalry, "Fat Jack," become the chosen one in the U.K., especially in Scotland?

"The British Open," said the late Bev Norwood, a longtime Palmer associate, "was the one place where Jack ended up in the end getting more love than Arnold."

The game is different here in all ways, and yes, there are enough funny bounces to suggest that Tiger Woods might indeed win. It doesn't matter that he couldn't get out of bed earlier this season, or that he's played two lousy rounds since his back surgery. If he's a lot more likely to reproduce that 81 Thursday, the Open is bizarre enough to keep alive the possibility of another 65.

Woods embraces the wide-open nature of the fight, and he's not alone among the Americans in the field. Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champ, has yet to deliver a top-20 finish in this major, yet he adores the outside-the-box vision it demands.

"It's just stuff you can't do in the States," he said.

Fascinating stuff, and thank heavens for it, too. No guarantees can be made at Royal Liverpool during the next four days, except for this one:

Whatever happens, it will be fun.