143rd Open is a big question mark

Tiger Woods was the betting favorite for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 until the day he withdrew because he was not sufficiently healed from back surgery.

Some bookmakers again list Woods as a co-favorite along with Rory McIlroy for the 143rd Open Championship this week at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England, even though the erstwhile No. 1 player in the world has played only once since March and missed the cut in the Quicken Loans National.

At least one former champion doesn’t see Woods in the mix.

“Even before his surgery, his form was obviously hampered by his physical condition, he wasn’t playing well, so when you have an operation and you’ve been out for three months, you’re not going to be a better player after doing that,” said Curtis Strange, who won the U.S. Open in 1988 and 1989.

“If he goes to Hoylake saying, ‘I’m here to win and that’s the only thing,’ that would be him telling a lie to himself.”

Woods said his goal was winning before playing at Congressional a few weeks ago, but he later he admitted it was more about getting in some competitive reps and seeing how his back responded.

Still, this is Tiger Woods, and Strange couldn’t help but hedge his bet.

“He could win it, of course, but it’s not something you could bet your house on, I don’t think,” Strange said.

For much of the past 20 years, it was been fairly simple to pick the favorites in the majors, with Woods winning 14 of them, Phil Mickelson claiming five, Ernie Els four, and Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington three each.

With Woods winless in the Grand Slam events since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the door opened for 15 first-time major champions in that span, including Adam Scott, Justin Rose and Jason Dufner last year.

Rose raised his stock by winning the Quicken Loans National and the Aberdeen Asset Scottish Open at Royal Liverpool in his past two starts, but he never finished in the top 10 of the Open Championship as a professional.

Mickelson, who claimed his first Open Championship last year at Muirfield to earn a third leg of the career Grand Slam, McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson are the only players to win two majors in the past six years.

Each has the talent to win at Hoylake, but all come with question marks.

“It’s been a bit of a funny season for Phil,” said Strange, noting that Mickelson does not have a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this year. “We always expect him to play well, but this is a tough game, there are a lot of moving parts, and sometimes you don’t play as well as you would like.

“Phil is so unpredictable sometimes, and he can often come out of a slump very quickly because he has so much talent. I expect that from him any time. A lot of us didn’t expect him to ever win the British Open, but he did it in such fantastic fashion in the last round last year.”

McIlroy was at home playing some links golf at Royal Portrush before making a reconnaissance trip to Royal Liverpool.

However, even though he grew up in the United Kingdom, links golf is not his favorite, and once he got out into the world a bit, he said that he would rather play when it was sunny and 90 degrees.

Watson is terrific in his own comfort zone, but the other side of the Atlantic is not it. He played the Ugly American in an infamous trip to the Alstom Open de France a few years ago, and he has not finished in the top 20 in five appearances in the Open Championship.

Also on the favorites’ list are top-ranked Scott (the 2013 Masters champ) and Rose (the 2013 U.S. Open champ), as well as Kaymer, who won the Players Championship and the U.S. Open this year before struggling a bit his last two times out.

Sergio Garcia, often a contender but never a winner, can’t be overlooked, along with Graeme McDowell, who captured the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and recently repeated as champion in the Alstom Open de France.

“Winning majors is hard, otherwise everyone would have a handful of them, wouldn’t they?” Scott said.

Even Woods is finding that is true, though he made it look easy for so long.

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