Aiming to hone a Hoylake plan

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HOYLAKE, England -- Armed with titanium drivers, high-tech golf balls, swing coaches and psychologists, few of today's players can relate to the way the game was played at the end of the 19th century, especially at Royal Liverpool, where the 143rd Open Championship begins Thursday on England's northwest coast.

So often, the place where the game's oldest major championship is contested can be as big a part of the story as those who play it. Eleven times the Open has visited the course simply known as Hoylake, starting in 1897, when amateur Harold Hilton won the event being played for just the second time in England.

Over the years here, the winners have represented seven different countries. American amateur Bobby Jones won the second leg of the Grand Slam here in 1930. Australian Peter Thomson, a five-time champ, won his third in a row here in 1956. Argentina's Roberto de Vicenzo -- the year before his infamous scorecard error at the Masters -- won in 1967.

Due to logistical issues, the Open did not return until 2006. Hoylake is a town of just 5,700 people, and staging such a big event can prove difficult. The event came alive eight years ago as Tiger Woods won his third Claret Jug in emotional fashion, torching a course that was already baked and burned-out from a summer heat wave.

Woods shot 18 under par in winning his 11th major title, famously negotiating his way around the course by playing short of the menacing bunkers and hitting just one driver. He positioned himself mostly with 2-irons off the tee, and the strategy led to one of the top performances of his career.

Can he do it again? Or perhaps more appropriately, can anyone elect to play Royal Liverpool with that kind of strategy and win the 143rd Open Championship?

Unlike eight years ago, the temperatures are cool, the grass lush, the conditions far different.

"You will see a lot of guys out here with an iron [off the tee]," Woods said. "It depends on the golf course. This golf course is giving it up. There's lots of roll, even though we just got rain. The forecast is supposed to be clear. It's supposed to dry up a bit. And most of the holes, the ball is getting out there."

Woods made that comment Saturday after seeing Royal Liverpool for the first time since his victory in 2006. Yes, it had rained, and the ball was moving along the fairways quite nicely.

But more rain came Wednesday, and unless the wind blows fiercely, the course won't be anywhere as firm as it was when poofs of dust flew up in 2006 whenever a ball landed. The local fire department was on the ready in case of a brush fire.

"You're talking about one of the better long iron players maybe the game has ever seen," said Graeme McDowell about the way Woods played the course in 2006. "Not many guys can be as patient and as disciplined as he's shown us over the years. He has a special type of focus and zone that he can get into.

"And he certainly got there in 2006. He played the golf course -- call it defensive, call it conservative, very safe -- and just relied on the great approach play and great patience to take the golf course apart."

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