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Masterly Muirfield set to test Open challengers

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    Tiger Woods practises ahead of the British Open at Muirfield on July 17, 2013. The Open returns to Muirfield for the 16th time starting Thursday, with two straight weeks of sunshine having turned the famed Scottish links into a firm, fast and furious test for the best.AFP/File

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    Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy during a practice session at Muirfield on July 16, 2013. McIlroy will hope to finally get to grips with his new golf clubs and balls, having switched providers during the winter.AFP/File

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    England's Justin Rose tees off during the last day of practice for the British Open on July 17, 2013. He is bidding to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2000 to win back-to-back US and British Opens.AFP/File

The Open returns to Muirfield for the 16th time starting Thursday, with two straight weeks of sunshine having turned the famed Scottish links into a firm, fast and furious test for the best.

Drivers will seldom be seen and irons will be the weapon of choice off many tees as an elite field looks to stay out of the punishing rough and create the best angles to attack the pins at the par-71 East Lothian layout.

Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion who grew up playing on links in Northern Ireland and who will start among the favourites, compared golfing at Muirfield to playing a game of chess.

"This is certainly a game of chess this week, where you have to position your pieces and keep them in play," he said.

"This golf course is all right there in front of you, there's no hidden tricks to it. Good quality golf gets rewarded.

"You hit the shots, they'll be where you expect them to be. It gives you half a chance around the greens. It's very penal off the tee, about half a chance around the greens, gives you a chance to pitch and hit bunker shots, and doesn't kind of unduly punish you too much.

"Nine out of ten times this golf course will reward good golf, and punish you off the tee, but give yourself opportunities up and around the greens.

"I think it's a fair golf course which rewards great players and great golf, probably why we have so many great champions at this venue."

A quick check down the list of past winners at Muirfield certainly confirms what McDowell says as they include Ernie Els, the last time it was played there in 2002, Nick Faldo in 1992 and 1987, Tom Watson (1980), Lee Trevino (1972), Jack Nicklaus (1966) and Gary Player (1959).

Tournament favourite Tiger Woods is eager to join that list and finally win his 15th major title, over five years after his last, which came at the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.

The 37-year-old American knows Muirfield well and not all his memories are fond ones.

The last time it was held there in 2002, he went out in his third round just as a storm system came out of the North Sea, whipping up havoc on the course and condemning the American to a 10-over 81, to date the worst score of his professional career.

That left him with no chance of making it three majors in a row, having already won the Masters and the US Open that year, and Woods has failed to get that far along the road to the Grand Slam since then.

Still, he insists he harbours no hard feelings.

"Look at the list of past champions. The number of Hall of Famers that there are who have won here," said Woods, who said that the elbow injury that sidelined him after last month's US Open is no longer a problem.

"I think it just goes to show you you really have to hit the ball well. You have to be able to shape it both ways.

"You can't just hit one way. You have to shape it both ways and really control the shots.

"Because it's not like at St. Andrews out and back or Troon. You're playing almost in kind of a circle, in a sense, because you've got so many different angles and so many different winds, you have to be able to maneuver the ball both ways."

Other strong story lines this week concern whether Justin Rose can become the first player since Woods in 2000 to win back-to-back US and British Opens and whether Ernie Els can defend the Open title he won at Royal Lytham last year on a course where he also won the last time it was played there (2002).

Phil Mickelson is sounding as confident as he ever has been at Open time following his win in the Scottish Open on Sunday, while Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter will join Rose in the bid to become the first English winner of The Open since Faldo did so at Muirfield in 1992.

Rory McIlroy meanwhile will continue in his efforts to finally get to grips with his new golf clubs and balls, having switched providers during the winter.

According to close friend McDowell, his fellow Ulsterman's winless year could soon be about to change.

The game of golf is very difficult. It's very fickle," he told a press conference at Muirfield.

"I want to say this time 12 months ago Rory McIlroy's form wasn't very good either, and he proceeded to have an incredible last six months of the season.

"So I don't think anyone in this room would be shocked if he won this week, and would continue to have a phenomenal rest of the year.

"We always say form is temporary and class is permanent. And he's a class player, and I expect to see him back very soon."