The Open 2012: Royal Lytham set to provide stern test

By Rob HodgettsBBC Sport at Royal Lytham & St Annes

Players will have to battle the elements and one of the toughest courses on the rota when the 141st Open Championship gets under way at Royal Lytham & St Annes on Thursday.

A field of 156 will tee offexternal-link on the Fylde coast for the third major of the year with home fans hoping for a first English Open champion since Nick Faldo in 1992.

England's world number one Luke Donald and third-ranked Lee Westwood are two of the fancied contenders as they both bid to win a first major title.

Tiger Woods is chasing his 15th major victory but first since the 2008 US Open, while Northern Ireland's world number two Rory McIlroy will be hoping to put behind him a disappointing tournament 12 months ago off the back of his record-breaking US Open triumph.

The Lytham course, unlike any other Open venue, is hemmed in by houses rather than being right by the sea and features a train line running along the front nine. But it is regarded as one of the great Open venues with thick rough, narrow fairways and 206 bunkers as its defence.

"This is one of the toughest tests I've played in an Open Championship," said Westwood.

Fifteen different players have won the last 15 major championships, stretching back to Padraig Harrington's back-to-back titles at the Open and US PGA in 2008, and the last nine were all winning their first major.

Three-time Open champion Woods goes in as the bookmakers' favourite after three wins this season. Victory on Sunday would lift him back to number one in the world for the first time since October 2010 after scandal and injury curtailed his quest to pass Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles.

"I think if I continue putting myself there enough times then I will win more major championships," said Woods.

The US-based Donald is rated as one of the best short-game and bunker players in the world but his record in the Open is relatively poor, barring a best finish of tied fifth in the 2009 Open at Turnberry.

Westwood, 39, has had seven top threes in his last 16 major appearances, including second and third in two of the last three Opens.

"I've contended most weeks and given myself a chance so I don't see any reason why this week shouldn't be any different," said Westwood.

"Looking at the layout the main question asked is to hit it straight. But whoever wins will have to have all aspects of their game in top shape."

The 36-year-old Woods sparked controversy earlier in the week when he was quoted as saying the rough in some places was "almost unplayable" after an unusually wet British summer.

Peter Dawson, chief executive of Open organiser the R&A, said: "Tiger may have been taken out of context given my discussions with him. If you stray a long way off the fairways, the rough is brutal, as it is on every links course in Britain at the moment.

"The champion on Sunday, I doubt, will have won from the rough. I think he'll be winning from the short grass so there's a premium on hitting the fairways this week."

The heavy recent rain, with further showers set to come accompanied by blustery winds over the next four days, has forced officials to work hard to keep the course in championship shape.

"Obviously the weather has caused us some problems and maybe more to come," said Jim McArthur, chairman of the R&A's championship committee. "The course is at the moment perfectly playable. The greens are fine, they're putting well. They are a bit soft and a bit slower than we would like.

"There are some bunkers which are causing us some concern because of the water table and the level of groundwater but we're confident that the rules of golf will help us cope with any situations which develop."

Royal Lytham will be hosting its 11th Open Championship and its past winners include some of the biggest names in golf.

Seve Ballesteros won here twice in 1979 and 1988 while Tony Jacklin, Gary Player, and fabled US amateur Bobby Jones are also on the roll of honour.

The last time the Open was held here, in 2001, American David Duval triumphed before beginning a catastrophic slide down the rankings.

Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke is the defending champion after an emotional victory at the 20th attempt at Royal St George's 12 months ago.

Westwood tees off at 09:20 BST with Masters champion Bubba Watson and Japan's Yoshinori Fujimoto. Woods follows two groups later at 09:42 BST alongside England's Justin Rose and Spain's Sergio Garcia.

McIlroy is an afternoon starter on day one, beginning his campaign at 14:21 BST with 2010 champion Louis Oosthuizen and 2011 US PGA winner Keegan Bradley, with Donald joining Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson at 14:43 BST.

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