The Open 2018: Rory McIlroy ready for American challenge at Carnoustie
|The 147th Open Championship|
|Venue: Carnoustie, Scotland Dates: 19-22 July|
|Coverage: Live across BBC Radio, highlights on BBC TV and online, live text commentaries on BBC website.|
The Open Championship returns to Carnoustie for an eighth time this week with Rory McIlroy among the home players hoping to break an American stranglehold on the majors.
All four of golf's biggest prizes are held by US players, with Jordan Spieth the returning champion for the 147th Open, which starts at 06:35 BST on Thursday.
Northern Ireland's McIlroy won the Silver Medal as the leading amateur on his Open debut in 2007, the last time the championship was held at Carnousite.
"It's great to be back," said the 29-year-old, who won the Claret Jug in 2014. "Hopefully I can create more good memories this week.
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"When we last played The Open here I was just happy to be here. I was bouncing down the fairways and I didn't care if I shot 82 or 62. The more I can get into that mindset this week, the better I'll play golf."
In his past two Opens, McIlroy has finished joint fourth and tied for fifth, after winning in 2014, and he comes into this year's tournament on the back of an excellent 2018.
He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, taking a career-best 100 putts for the tournament in the process, finished joint-fifth at the Masters in April and has had three other top-fives.
His only real blemish was missing the US Open cut after a 10-over-par 80 in the first round.
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The challenges of the 'Carnasty' course
Standing in McIlroy's way is a course that was dubbed 'Carnasty' in 1999 when The Open returned after a 24-year absence.
High winds, narrow fairways and deep rough combined to make the winning score six over par, with Scotland's Paul Lawrie winning in a play-off after Jean van de Velde's infamous meltdown on the 18th.
This week, the rough is a little less severe - but the lack of rain in the area has left the fairways parched and players struggling to keep balls on the fairways.
"The golf course is playing so firm and fast," said four-time major winner McIlroy. "The risk of hitting the driver on some holes is not having full control of your ball if it does run into the rough.
"But either side of the fairway there are five to 10 yards where the rough is not too bad. If it does go in the rough, you're still able to get some control and then you're trying to land the ball on the front edge and get it trundling on to the green."
Tiger Woods has talked of balls bounding 80 yards down the fairway and hitting a three-iron 333 yards - as long as he would hit a driver on US courses. "Creativity plays such an important role at Carnoustie," he said.
Spieth added that he was looking forward to using his "imagination" after a sticky spell this year that has seen him miss three cuts in seven events after finishing third at the Masters.
One of those missed cuts came at last month's US Open and the world number six said: "I got very technical and into making everything perfect. This week provides an opportunity to use your imagination, hold the ball, ride the wind."
The 112 bunkers are likely to feature heavily, with world number one Dustin Johnson saying if he can take them out of the equation by hitting his driver, then he will, thoughts echoed by US Open champion Brooks Koepka.
Johnson said: "You hit it in a bunker and it's like a penalty shot. You can advance the ball forward but I haven't seen one I could actually hit it out of and on to the green.
"The rough is not very penal so if I can carry all the bunkers, I'm going to hit driver.
McIlroy warned against going in with one set game plan for the week, though.
"With links golf you have to adapt," he said. "There is not one player that has a game plan on a Wednesday night and is going to stick to it for the whole 72 holes.
"It's just not going to happen with wind conditions and pin placements.
"You'll see guys on Saturday and Sunday taking way more drivers, way more risks, because they've played the course a couple more times and think the risk is worth it."
The home challenge
England's Justin Rose is still to better his fourth-place finish as a teenage amateur at Royal Birkdale 20 years ago.
But the world number three has been typically meticulous in planning for this latest tilt. He came to Carnoustie and played a "surreal" round in 30C temperatures before last week's Scottish Open at Gullane.
"You can't click into this style of golf quickly, especially when the fairways are as fast as they are now," he told BBC Sport.
"You need to play links golf and I've been fortunate that all the courses have been browned out, even down south so I feel like I've been playing this style of golf for a month."
Rose ran through a host of English players, including US Open runner-up Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter as "guys who are completely capable of winning this week".
Fleetwood, 27, missed an eight-foot birdie putt on his 72nd hole at Shinnecock Hills in June, eventually losing by one shot.
"One shot is a quarter of a shot a round so it's not that much," he said. "There's no good reason why I can't win a major."
Russell Knox leads the home challenge after the Scotsman won the Irish Open a couple of weeks ago, although there will be many eyes on 1985 champion Sandy Lyle, who will hit the first tee shot on Thursday morning as he plays in what could be his final Open at the age of 60.
Amateur Sam Locke, who works part-time in 1999 champion Lawrie's Aberdeenshire golf centre, is playing his first Open. Lawrie, who used to be coached by Locke's father, is missing because of foot and back injuries.
Darren Clarke, the champion golfer of 2011, flies the Northern Irish flag alongside McIlroy.
The American challenge
Three-time Open champion Woods has declared links golf as his best hope of adding to his tally of 14 majors, and the 42-year-old has been hugely in demand this week, with hordes of fans following his practice rounds as he returns to the tournament after missing the previous two with a back injury.
Woods has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and although he has the links golf experience, it would be a remarkable story were he to win.
The young quartet of major holders Spieth, Koepka, Patrick Reed (Masters) and Justin Thomas (PGA Championship) are expected to be in contention as they look to extend the US winning run to six majors.
Reed said his challenge was "getting a bit more comfortable with landing the ball short and letting it run" and adjusting to "hitting a 90% six iron 260 yards when back home I'm hitting a three wood".
There are any number of players who could win this week though, far too many to go into detail here.
As McIlroy put it: "There's 156 guys in the field and there are probably over half who have a realistic chance of winning."
Thursday's early starters are likely to have the better of the conditions, with sunshine and light winds forecast. The breeze freshens in the afternoon, getting up to around 20-25mph.
And those playing in the stronger winds on Thursday afternoon look set to get a little wet on Friday morning with predicted rain showers blowing away by mid-afternoon.
The weekend is set fair though with winds no stronger than 25mph.