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CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Everything is aligned at Carnoustie for a British Open likely to overshadow an otherwise desultory Slam season.

There are no excuses available for golf's glitterati at this week's 136th British Open. Tiger Woods won't tee off tomorrow with his heart stuck in an Orlando hospital room. Phil Mickelson won't look like a refugee from the PBA. And nobody in the field will be whining about the setup, which if anything has been overly softened in reaction to the lingering furor from 1999.

For the first time this major season, the golf world has arrived at a major without a slew of minor issues.

Masters officials can scream all they like about protecting the integrity of Augusta National, but the event they held in April looked nothing like the Masters. The season's first major used to be about booming drives, short-game creativity and birdie-driven, back-nine drama. Now anything short of a good soaking has turned the event into a fairways-and-greens grinder's paradise — a U.S. Open among the azaleas. Who needs Mickelson vs. Ernie Els at 9 under (2004) or Woods vs. Chris DiMarco at 12 under (2005) when Augusta can offer Zach Johnson at 1 over?

The beauty of the British Open (with the exception of 1999) is that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club lets the standard of play and the weather, not the setup, dictate the winning score.

"I love playing over here because it allows you to be creative," said Woods, who went on to take a not-so-subtle jab at the Masters. "Augusta used to be like that. The U.S. Open is obviously not. The PGA is kind of similar to a U.S. Open setup. Over here you can create shots.

"I loved [links golf] the first time I came over here in 1995. I played here at Carnoustie [Scottish Open] and over at St. Andrews [British Open]. My first two experiences on links golf were probably as good as they get."

Of course, none of the layouts in the British Open rota poses more of a challenge than Carnoustie, which was known as the "Angus Monster" long before greenskeeper John Philp lost control of the beast in 1999.

"It's definitely the toughest of the lot," said Ernie Els, who moved up to fourth in the latest world rankings with a solid third-place finish in last week's Scottish Open at Loch Lomond. "You've got to play every shot in the bag. Every links shot you can think of gets tested here. It's got everything."

Carnoustie is the longest course on the Open rota at 7,421 yards (par 71). It's perhaps the most diabolically bunkered; only Royal Lytham and Hoylake feature such punitive cross-bunkering in the landing area, though the comparative shortness of the latter two allows for a profusion of iron play off the tee (see Woods last year).

Carnoustie features holes that run to all four points of the compass with no more than two in succession running in the same direction, forcing players to prove their skills in a variety of different crosswinds.

And then there is Carnoustie's trio of closing holes that make up the undisputed toughest finish in championship golf. The 16th is a 248-yard par 3 that requires a driver into the wind and features a crowned green. The 17th and 18th, par 4s of 461 and 491 yards, respectively, would be a stern test over unbroken fairway. But both are fiendishly crossed, recrossed and surrounded by the omnipresent Barry Burn, a devilish ditch of 10- to 30-feet wide in which the water rises and falls with the tides of the adjacent North Sea.

Few images in the game's history tell a story more completely than that of the barefooted Jean Van de Velde standing forlornly in the Barry Burn during his epic 72nd-hole collapse in 1999.

"Obviously what happened in 1999 is a rarity, but it's very easy to give away two or three shots over those last three holes," Mickelson said yesterday. "That's the toughest stretch of holes on any course I've played."

The secret to Carnoustie's splendor, however, is the bluntness of its challenge. There are no blind shots (St. George's) or hidden fairway bunkers (St. Andrews). And the greens, while subtle, offer an array of recovery options.

Said Mickelson: "What I really like about this course is how much room around the green there is to hit shots and have a chance to let your short game make pars for you."

Aside from Carnoustie, what is really likable about this week's event is the superb form of the players who drive the game. With an absurd nine top-four finishes and four victories in his last 10 major starts, Woods is the fully focused and obvious favorite. But Mickelson is back, proving with his silver at Loch Lomond last week that his wrist is fully recovered. Els, the 2002 Open champion, seems to have rediscovered his game thanks to the new driver he employed in the Scottish Open.

U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, who finished fourth at Carnoustie in 1999, is brimming with confidence — the only commodity he ever lacked as a player. And even Colin Montgomery, golf's long-suffering major bridesmaid, rolls into Carnoustie only two weeks removed from a victory (European Open).

Prepare for a claret jug conquest at Carnoustie worth remembering for all the right reasons.

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