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BRITISH OPEN '13: Muirfield, the fairest of the links, hosts a most unpredictable Open

One of the best players who never won a major would love a crack at one now.

Colin Montgomerie used to say it was harder than ever to win a major because each year it seemed that Tiger Woods won two of them, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson or Vijay Singh won another and that left only one for everyone else.

Those days, at least for the moment, are gone.

Over the last five years, 18 players have won the last 20 majors, none of them named Woods. And the winner? It could be anybody. Darren Clarke won in his 54th major. Keegan Bradley won in his first. Rory McIlroy won when he was 22. Els won when he was 42.

The next chance is the 142nd British Open, which returns July 18 to Muirfield for the 16th time dating to 1892.

Muirfield is reputed to be the fairest of the links courses on the rotation, mainly because there are no tricks and very few blind shots. The course consists of two loops running in opposite directions so that golfers will face the wind in every direction by the end of the day. Muirfield is perhaps more predictable than the others.

Not so predictable is finding a player at the top of his game.

The search ordinarily would start with Woods, and for good reason. The world's No. 1 player already has won four times this year, and during a two-month stretch in the spring, he won three out of four tournaments, the exception a tie for fourth in the Masters.

Now, more mystery envelops Woods. He offered limited details at the U.S. Open about an injury in his left elbow that had been bothering him for a month. Woods has not played since he tied for 32nd at the U.S. Open, and he can't guarantee he'll be at full strength when he arrives at Muirfield.

"I would like to be 100 percent, but I don't know," he said earlier this month. "It depends on how the body heals. We'll see how it goes."

McIlroy is one of two players to win multiple majors in the last five years — Padraig Harrington, with back-to-back major wins in 2008 is the other — only Boy Wonder has become an afterthought this year. After building a big lead atop the world ranking at the close of 2012, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland made a wholesale equipment change at the start of the year and has had only one reasonable chance to win, at the Texas Open.

After missing the cut at the Irish Open, he said he felt "lost."

Graeme McDowell has three wins, second only to Woods this year, though even he isn't sure what to expect. In his last eight tournaments, McDowell has won three times and missed the cut the other five times. At this rate, there's simply no telling what kind of game he'll bring to links along the Firth of Forth.

"When it's been good, it's been really good," McDowell said.

If there is a trend in this year's majors, it is the emergence of quality players whose careers were elevated by winning a Grand Slam event.

Most players would have been devastated to lose a four-shot lead with four holes to play as Adam Scott did last year in the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Scott later said he would have been crushed had he been watching a performance like that from home. Poised as ever, he realized he played the best golf for 68 holes and took that to understand he could do it again.

And that's what he did, winning the Masters in a playoff to end more than a half-century of Australian misery at Augusta National. Scott hasn't been Down Under to celebrate since he slipped on that green jacket. In his mind, the year was still young. There was much left to achieve, more majors to win. And there is a feeling of redemption he brings to the Open, even though he seemingly atoned for that collapse by winning his first major.

"I haven't won the Open because of the Masters. I still miss out on that," Scott said. "I'm really looking forward to going back and trying to get myself in a similar kind of situation, a chance to win the Open. The hardest thing is going to be curbing the expectations right from the start and just kind of building my way into that position. But it's exciting. Every tournament, I feel, is an opportunity for me now ... to just build on this."

Not long after winning the Masters, he sent a text to Justin Rose that "this was our time."

Rose lived up to his end of the prediction by winning the U.S. Open with three clutch shots at the end, including a 4-iron into the 18th green that led to par and a two-shot win. They have been friends and colleagues throughout their careers, born two weeks apart, both having endured their share of struggled.

"It hit me really at the U.S. Open that if you're not willing to experience the heartache and heartbreak of losing a major, then you can't really truly play your best stuff and be free enough in the moment to get it done," Rose said. "If you're kind of apprehensive to what it might feel like to lose, I think for me that's just what struck me. I was good with the fact that you just have to put yourself in that moment time and time again, and be willing to just keep knocking down the door.

"That's kind of what I learned as well from Adam."

Woods can't relate to any of this, of course. He won his first major as a pro with a record performance at the Masters. He had the career Grand Slam when he was 24. He was on his way to a calendar Grand Slam in 2002 when Muirfield and some fickle weather stopped him. Two shots out of the lead going into the third round, Woods couldn't cope with a cold rain and 40 mph wind that sent him to an 81, still the highest score of his career.

But he is seeing more players emerge to challenge him — McIlroy the last two years, Scott and Rose this year.

During the 12 years that it took Woods to win 14 majors, only three players who won majors were younger than Woods — Ben Curtis in the 2003 British Open, Geoff Ogilvy in the 2006 U.S. Open and Trevor Immelman in the 2008 Masters.

Since his last major in the 2008 U.S. Open, there have been 12 players younger than Woods who won majors, including six of the last seven. This is as deep and well-rounded as golf has been in years. And Woods isn't getting any younger.

"If you look at most golfers, their prime years are usually in their 30s," Woods said. "It takes a while to learn how to win at this level and learn how to do it consistently. I think that you've got to learn what you can and can't do. There's so much to learn out there, and I think that generally you see some of the guys don't mature into their games until their 30s."

That doesn't make this major any easier to predict.

Even so, Muirfield has a way of bringing out the best. Dating to World War II, the seven players who won a British Open at Muirfield are all in the World Golf Hall of Fame.