LONDON • Treacherous and unfamiliar challenges lie in wait as The Open returns to Royal Troon today and Rory McIlroy begins his hunt for the Claret Jug.
The world No. 4, who leads a host of golf's biggest names who have controversially withdrawn from next month's Rio Olympics, is bidding to win his fifth Major and second Open after his victory at Hoylake in 2014.
Twelve months ago, he was missing at St Andrews after suffering an ankle injury while playing football, but he will tee off today in the same group as Bubba Watson and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama.
"I'm excited to be back and to a golf course that I've never played on before," the Northern Irishman said on Tuesday. "I don't really have any experience at Troon, so it was good to get a couple of good looks at it last week, and then I just played another 18 holes this morning."
Troon is where Tiger Woods first played in The Open as a professional in 1997.
But the ailing 14-time Major winner is not in this year's field and instead the focus is on the current "Big Four" of McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and recent US Open winner Dustin Johnson.
SELECTED TEE TIMES
1.35pm Colin Montgomerie, Marc Leishman (Aus), Luke Donald.
2.41pm Darren Clarke, Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Jim Furyk (USA).
3.14pm Paul Lawrie, Brandt Snedeker (USA), Thongchai Jaidee (Tha).
3.25pm Padraig Harrington, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Jamie Donaldson.
4.03pm Jordan Spieth (USA), Justin Rose, Shane Lowry.
4.25pm Danny Willett, Rickie Fowler (USA), Jason Day (Aus).
4.36pm Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Bubba Watson (USA).
8.26pm Phil Mickelson (USA), Lee Westwood, Ernie Els (Rsa).
9.04pm Dustin Johnson (USA), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Russell Knox.
9.15pm Zach Johnson (USA), Adam Scott (Aus), Henrik Stenson (Swe).
*Gbr and Irl unless stated. All in Singapore times
The Open has been played at Troon eight times, with the last six winners all American, most recently Todd Hamilton in 2004. Spieth, 22, and Johnson, 32, are looking to continue that "tradition".
Spieth is targeting a third Major title, having won the Masters and US Open last year.
"This is a very, very special tournament. I crave (the chance) to have that trophy in my possession at some point, and to reach a third leg of the Grand Slam this week would be a fantastic achievement and a lifelong goal of mine," he said.
Johnson, the hottest player in golf, looks like he has all the credentials to send the US into seventh heaven this week.
Not only did the big-hitting American follow up his victory at last month's US Open by capturing the prestigious WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title, but he also has a good record in the world's oldest Major. He has finished in the top 14 in four of his seven trips to The Open and came within a whisker of landing the Claret Jug in 2011 when he wound up in a tie for second behind Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke.
Said Day: "He's typically played pretty well in the Open championship so he's obviously going to be a very tough guy to beat." Added his namesake Zach Johnson: "He's a supreme athlete... Not many guys can do what he does."
This being the first Open at Troon since 2004, the younger stars are unfamiliar with the course, but one man who knows it all too well is Colin Montgomerie. This is the veteran Scot's hometown Open and his 86-year-old father will become club president next week.
Montgomerie came through qualifying and will hit the championship's first tee shot at 6.35am (local time) today as he goes out with Luke Donald and Australia's Marc Leishman, who was involved in a three-way play-off in St Andrews last year won by American Zach Johnson.
The hope is for calmer weather this year, although tomorrow is expected to be wet and windy.
"If you get it breezy, like in any Open venue, this place really shows its teeth. I think it's a fantastic Open venue and a fantastic test of golf," acknowledged current Masters champion Danny Willett.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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