Better Open finish, Tiger or Lefty?


The year's third major is upon us as the golfing world descends on the coastal town of Hoylake in North West England for the Open Championship.

What's in store for the two most famous golfers in the world -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson? Is anyone drifting under the radar who might be worth taking a flier on this week at Royal Liverpool?

Our scribes dive into those topics and more in the latest edition of Four-Ball.

1. Better Open Championship finish, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson?

Michael Collins, senior golf analyst: Phil Mickelson, but that's like being the best-looking guy in an ugly contest. I don't expect either to finish inside the top 25 at this year's championship.

Farrell Evans, senior golf writer: Coming off back surgery, Tiger has no real pressure to play well at Hoylake. These low expectations might free up the three-time Open champion to play more relaxed and free. For this reason, he could be a surprise on the leaderboard and outplay the defending champion, Mickelson, and many of the other favorites.

Bob Harig, senior golf writer: Mickelson. It's simply a matter of common sense. It's way too early to expect Woods to perform well at the Open, given his return from back surgery and lack of practice and competition. Mickelson has not had a great year, but he's had plenty of preparation time, including last week's Scottish Open.

Kevin Maguire, senior golf editor: Tiger's history is better at Hoylake than Mickelson's, but this isn't even close to the same Tiger who owned Royal Liverpool in 2006. Mickelson's year might be a disappointment, but at least he's not coming off back surgery. The nod goes to Lefty, but barely.

Ian O'Connor, senior writer: Mickelson. This isn't a fair fight, even if Lefty sure doesn't look primed for a two-peat. Tiger has played two rounds since back surgery. He's just hoping to be ready to compete by the PGA Championship.

Gene Wojciechowski, senior national columnist: Based simply on golf reps, you have to give the edge to Mickelson. Anything is possible, but Mickelson comes in as the defending Open champion and just played links golf at the Scottish Open. Woods hasn't played in a major since August. Then again, Woods won the Open at this same Royal Liverpool course in 2006 ?

2. What does Phil Mickelson have to focus on most to turn the tide on his tumultuous season?

Collins: Mickelson ranks 107th on tour in strokes gained putting and 141st in driving accuracy. Those two stats (especially SGP) are glaring examples of why Mickelson doesn't have a top-10 on the PGA Tour this year.

Evans: Mickelson has to keep a consistently strong mental focus throughout the week at Hoylake and the rest of the season. At this point in his career, he wants to complete the career Grand Slam by taking the U.S. Open, so it's hard for him to focus 20-odd weeks a year. But few players in the world get up for majors like Phil. At Hoylake, we will see him poised to compete to win.

Harig: Putting. It's the main aspect for his struggles this year. He has changed grips, worked with different putters, and brought in Dave Pelz and Dave Stockton for tips. Perhaps it's time to get back to a natural putting stroke without so much analysis. For Mickelson to succeed, he needs to hole more putts.

Maguire: Remembering and forgetting at the same time. It's the rare gift where a golfer can celebrate his great swings but not wallow in the mistakes and miscues. For Mickelson to play well this week at Hoylake, he should channel those emotions from his victory at Muirfield last year and forget just about everything else that's happened on the golf course since then.

O'Connor: Mickelson just needs to see the ball go in the hole early in this tournament. He'll need to make some putts Thursday to regain some confidence, and to summon some of that Muirfield muscle memory.

Wojciechowski: That's easy: his putting. He was a putting mess at the U.S. Open, changing grips in the middle of the round. If he figures it out, he's an instant threat.

3. Which 2014 major winner has the better shot to win this week, Bubba Watson or Martin Kaymer?

Collins: Kaymer. He never makes excuses or complains about the courses. And having played the European Tour, any weather conditions won't faze him.

Evans: Even if he doesn't fully believe it, Watson has the shot-making ability and imagination to win on a links course. Kaymer is hot right now after the U.S. Open win at Pinehurst, but I like Bubba's chances better at Hoylake.

Harig: Watson. Kaymer appears a bit out of sorts, having posted a couple of lackluster results after winning the U.S. Open. Watson, meanwhile, might just prosper at Hoylake if he can figure out a good strategy to steer clear of the fairway bunkers.

Maguire: Kaymer. Even though the German has struggled since his U.S. Open triumph, links golf can get into your head pretty quickly. Watson tends to have rabbit ears, hearing everything around him. That kind of a mental game doesn't bode well when perfectly struck shots can turn into double-bogeys because of a bad bounce here or there.

O'Connor: Kaymer. He's rock solid right now, and who knows what you're going to get with Bubba? If Kaymer wins his second straight major, sandwiched around Germany's World Cup title, what a month that would be for his country.

Wojciechowski: I'll go with Kaymer, although neither player has teed it up at Hoylake for an Open Championship. I think Kaymer's game is better suited to links golf. Of the two, he at least has a top-10 finish at an Open (T-7 in 2010). But if anybody has the club speed to hack it out of the rough here, it will be Bubba.

4. Give us an under-the-radar player to watch for this week at the Open Championship.

Collins: Mikko Ilonen. He got a win less than a month ago at the Irish Open and has been playing solid golf all year, having missed only one cut in 13 starts. I have a feeling I'll be kicking myself for not having him in my top 25 list.

Evans: Thomas Bjorn has four top-10s in the Open Championship, including two seconds. In 2003, Bjorn had a 2-shot lead with three holes to play at Royal St. George's before a double-bogey at the 16th hole cost him the tournament. At 26th in the world ranking, the 43-year-old Dane has five worldwide top-10s on the year, including a tie for eighth at the Masters.

Harig: Angel Cabrera. The two-time major winner seems to prosper in the big events, and he recently added to his victory total in a regular PGA Tour event, suggesting his game is in good shape.

Maguire: Rickie Fowler. His best finish in an Open Championship is T-5 in 2011, but he handled the brutal conditions that year at Royal St. George's with great aplomb. And it doesn't hurt he works with Butch Harmon, the teacher of the reigning Champion Golfer of the Year, Phil Mickelson.

O'Connor: Erik Compton. Why not? If a guy working on his third heart can place second at the U.S. Open, who says he can't place first at the Open Championship?

Wojciechowski: I'll give you two: Hideki Matsuyama and Jamie Donaldson. Matsuyama finished T-6 at last year's Open and Donaldson T-32. They have three Open appearances between the two of them, but I like the way they're trending.