Anything can happen at Hoylake

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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."

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."

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