Tiger working on Open game plan

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HOYLAKE, England -- Clouds hovered over the seaside coast Sunday, a mist and a chill greeting golfers at Royal Liverpool, the sun peeking through occasionally to give a glimmer of what might be -- but nothing like it was.

Eight years ago when the Open Championship last came to Hoylake, a heat wave enveloped the region. The hot, dry, sunny weather turned the famous links into a baked-out, yellow, fiery course with wispy rough and fire trucks on the ready.

True story: So concerned were tournament officials about a brush fire, they had the fire department on site. Spectators were not allowed to smoke. The course played so hard and fast that tournament winner Tiger Woods famously hit just one driver during the week.

Whether that changes when the 143rd Open Championship begins on Thursday remains to be seen, but what competitors are already seeing is something far different than the mark this place left in 2006.

Simply, it's green.

Fairways, rough, putting surfaces. Hot has been replaced by cool, short-sleeve shirts covered by sweaters.

"It's definitely different," said Woods, who got in a second practice round on Sunday after seeing 12 holes of the course Saturday, his first visit here since his 2006 victory. "It's a lot more green, lush. But it's still playing fast."

And that will be the gauge as the week progresses into the third major championship of the year. How firm and fast can it get? Will it matter?

The conditions in 2006 produced a memorable tournament, but instead of heat, it'll have to be wind that dries things out and makes the course play the way tournament organizers prefer.

Days like Sunday will suffice. Woods' 18-under-par 270 would appear to be difficult to attain this time, but then again, the weather has so much to say. If the wind dies, you never know on a links course such as this.

"There is some thick rough," said Rory McIlroy, who visited Hoylake last week prior to heading to the Scottish Open. "There's been a lot of growth. It's lush. The greens are soft and very green. Fairways are pretty similar. But a good spell of weather leading up to the Open and hopefully it will get a bit firmer.

"It's quite straightforward ... off the tee. The strategy is easy. Just don't hit it in the bunkers, and if you can do that, even if that means laying yourself back a little more."

And that is what the practice rounds determine, figuring out exactly how to play each hole. Of course, they can be as much hindrance as help. Sure, you need to get to know the course, the routing, the greens. But the conditions can be hugely different from day to day, meaning the difficulty of various holes could be radically altered.

Woods began his practice round with Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland at noon local time, and it's good to know that some things are the same for us as for them. It seemed a bit curious to see Woodland walking down the fairways with just a putter, but there was good reason: While he made it to England, his clubs and his clothes did not.

So he tagged along, getting a look at a course that measures 7,312 yards and plays to par 72, 54 yards longer than in 2006. For what it's worth, Woods at least for now appears to be sticking to his irons-off-the-tee strategy, as that is what he was doing Sunday.

Normally a sleepy day prior to a major championship week, this Sunday was quite different. In addition to players such as Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Brandt Snedeker, K.J. Choi and a smattering of others throughout the course, there was a surprising number of spectators on hand. Woods, naturally, had the biggest following, but it was impressive nonetheless.

And many of them were treated to Woods meticulously working his way around, hitting more than one shot off tees, hitting putts from numerous angles on the greens, as well as pitch and run shots from various locations.

"I remember most of the holes, which was nice," said Woods, who had not been here prior to this weekend since winning in 2006. "The golf course really tests your patience and your shot-making and your ability to control shots, especially with all the different angles we have to hit. This really does test a lot of shot making.

"In '06, I had it going and really had control of my ball."

That would seemingly be a simple, yet difficult, mantra for everyone in the coming week.

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