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Holy Hoylake!
July 18, 2006
Trevor Immelman won the Western in style, but it was the post--U.S. Open, pre--British Open return of the game's two biggest stars that got all the attention
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July 18, 2006

Holy Hoylake!

Trevor Immelman won the Western in style, but it was the post--U.S. Open, pre--British Open return of the game's two biggest stars that got all the attention

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We learned the one thing we needed to know about next week's British Open at last week's Cialis Western Open in Lemont, Ill., and it was this: They're ready.

Who are they? Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, golf's twin titans. And, oh, yeah, the Western Open champion, Trevor Immelman of South Africa.

There were two sure giveaways that Tiger is ready for Royal Liverpool and the season's third major championship. First, he blistered Cog Hill's Dubsdread course with a third-round 66 to get into contention and then made a back-nine charge on Sunday, holing the kind of clutch putts he always makes when he absolutely, positively has to. He might have won if the 26-year-old Immelman had not almost accidentally rammed home a 30-footer for birdie on the final hole.

Second, Tiger was ticked (although Tiger undoubtedly would choose a different, more colorful word). He had taken nine weeks off at the time of his father's death before missing the cut at the U.S. Open and had taken another two weeks off before finishing two strokes behind Immelman. But even after such a strong showing, Woods was not happy. "I finished second again," he said, his eyes shooting darts. "It's not a good feeling."

At Winged Foot, Woods didn't appear to care enough to get angry. Clearly, the fire has returned, which means count the basket, Woods is back.

Even Hank Haney, Tiger's swing coach, has his swagger again. Last Friday the Chicago Tribune reacted (O.K., overreacted) to Tiger's opening one-over 72 with this: " Tiger Woods is in danger of starting a bad habit: Spending his weekends at home. Woods is one bad round away from unthinkable back-to-back missed cuts." After Woods's 66 on Saturday, Haney made a point of stopping by the pressroom, where he muttered, "Miss the cut, my ass," before seeking out the offending scribe and having a come-to-the-principal's-office sit-down.

Woods may not be the invulnerable Man of Steel of old, but he is ready for Royal Liverpool. He worked hard with Haney on the range--for 2 1/2 hours until dark last Thursday and for another three hours on Friday, as well as before each round. Woods hit an array of good shots during the tournament, with a few notable exceptions. On Friday his drive at the 10th flew so far right that he nearly hit the Buick exhibition tent. "It wasn't on purpose," said Woods, Buick's star endorser. On Sunday he was trailing by one at the par-5 15th and drilled a perfect drive that left him an iron approach for a potential two-putt birdie. But he badly blocked the next shot. Woods was still steaming when he made a 15-footer to save par. That steam, though, portends well for Hoylake, where Woods will arrive on July 15, five days before the first round of the British Open.

Mickelson's main chore at the Western was to bury the ghost of his Winged Foot flop, and he made it look easier than Public Relations 101. Mickelson confronted the questions about his collapse head-on and with humor. "I have no idea what you might ask," he said to open his first press conference of the week, getting a big laugh. Although Mickelson admitted to no strategic lapses on the final hole at Winged Foot, he embraced the topic, urging writers to ask him Open questions. It was a winning performance, as was Mickelson's play in Thursday's first round, which he finished with a flourish. At the par-5 9th, his final hole, Mickelson launched a four-wood (the club he said he didn't hit far enough to use off the final tee at Winged Foot) 272 yards to five feet from the hole, setting up an easy eagle and a 67. He stumbled with four straight bogeys early in the second round and, as far as the Western Open was concerned, he was history. "The next two rounds I'll use to get sharper for the British," said Mickelson, who spent his evenings in Lemont studying the notes he had made during a recent visit to Royal Liverpool. After finishing 65th in the Western, Mickelson decided not to enter this week's Scottish Open so that he could spend even more time at Hoylake.

Immelman, who earlier this year had lost chances to win the EDS Byron Nelson Classic and the Wachovia Championship on the 72nd hole, got the job done for the first time on Tour. A three-time winner in Europe, he withstood the final-round pressure by making three birdies on the last four holes. Immelman has the kind of straight, precise game that could serve him well on a seaside links such as Royal Liverpool. That is, if he goes. Immelman and his wife, Carminita, are expecting their first child (it's a boy), and the due date is July 26, three days after the Open. If Baby Immelman is imminent, Trevor will stay home. "I have to be there for [Carminita]," he says.

Like Woods and Mickelson, Immelman is ready for the British Open. And for something far more important.