Muirfield all set for British Open classic

The stage was set Wednesday for the start of the 142nd British Open just after the crack of dawn Thursday with Tiger Woods the favourite despite not having played competitively for a month.

The 37-year-old American was installed as bookies' choice on the back of his superb start to the season, which saw him win four times and regain the world number one spot from Rory McIlroy.

"I feel very good about my game. I've had a pretty good year this year so far - won four times. Even though I haven't won a major championship in five years," he said.

"I've been there in a bunch of them where I've had chances. I just need to keep putting myself there and eventually I'll get some."

The chances of him winning a a 15th major and drawing to within three of the all-time best of 18 set by Jack Nicklaus in 1986, looked odds-on before last month's US Open at Merion outside of Philadelphia.

There, he exacerbated an earlier injury to his left elbow when hacking out of deep rough and ended up with his worst ever four-round finish at a major championship.

Woods insists he is rested and fully healed and he will have to be as Muirfield, despite being bone-dry after two weeks of near non-stop sunshine, has weapons in the form of waist-high rough and deep pot bunkers all of which will test the most robust of elbow joints.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has a new "pear-shaped" Nike driver in his bag as he strives to finally get to grips with the new clubs and balls he signed up for during the winter break.

He has had advice from all quarters this week, with six-time major winner Nick Faldo telling him he needs to get his focus back totally on golf and Woods advising him to be patient and stick with his Plan A.

The 24-year-old McIlroy shrugs and says things are "going in the right direction."

"I know sooner or later it will turn around and I'll play the golf that everyone knows that I'm capable of and the golf that I know that's capable of winning major championships." He has already won two.

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).

Australian Adam Scott, the newly-crowned Masters champion is out to avenge his collapse at Lytham last year when he squandered a four stroke lead with four holes to play as Els sneaked past him with a birdie at the last.

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.

Former world number one Donald said that he would draw inspiration from the major wins of close friend Rose and Scott, both of similar age to himself.

"They've had some similar career paths, up until they won a major, to myself," he said.

"I have won a World Golf Championship and some tournaments, big tournaments around the world, but not quite having broken through. I feel like hopefully my turn's coming.

"We've been on a similar path up until this year, and obviously they've stepped up a gear and I would love to follow in their footsteps."

The Open, with a 156-strong field, gets underway just after first light on Thursday with Australian veteran Peter Senior, local lad Lloyd Saltman and Englishman Oliver Fisher first away.