- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2011

SANDWICH, England — Steve Stricker can appreciate better than most how the British Open is unlike any other major.

One day after winning the John Deere Classic with a birdie-birdie finish on the green, manicured fairways of a TPC course in America’s heartland, Stricker was trying to stand upright on the lunar links of Royal St. George’s. The yardage book was more of a guide than the gospel. It was tough to control his golf ball through the air, even harder when it was bouncing along the ground.

“It’s quite a turnaround,” Stricker said Wednesday. “To learn and adapt to this style in 2 1/2 days is a challenge.”

That short time was all he needed, however, to learn what most others have about this links course in the southeast of England. It’s a strong test for golf’s oldest championship on a mild day. When the wind is up, which it has been all week, it can be a beast.

The 140th edition of this championship begins Thursday at Royal St. George’s, as unpredictable as any links on the Open rotation. This is the course where Greg Norman in 1993 became the first Open champion to win with all four rounds in the 60s. It’s the same course where Ben Curtis was the only player to break par when it was last here in 2003.

A dry spring has kept the rough from getting too thick, which is but a small reprieve.

“It’s a big challenge, and we are the best players in the world here,” PGA champion Martin Kaymer said. “So it should be tough. At the end of the day, everybody has to deal with the same golf course.”

Even so, it’s not always the same for everyone.

The piece of information getting most of the attention on the eve of the British Open was the weather report. The forecast is for gusts up to 25 mph Thursday morning with patches of rain, before the wind tapers off in the afternoon. The wind is expected to remain moderate Friday morning, then switch directions and return to gusts upward of 25 mph by the end of the day.

If that holds true, the players teeing off early Thursday and late Friday could get the worst of it. And as a reminder of how significant the tee times can be, remember that Louis Oosthuizen teed off at 6:41 a.m. in the second round last year at St. Andrews, missed the worst of the weather in his round of 67 and was on his way to a seven-shot win.

Among the early starters Thursday: Rory McIlroy, the overwhelming favorite to add the claret jug to his U.S. Open trophy.

McIlroy, who has not played since his record-setting win at Congressional last month, did most of his preparation last week at Royal St. George’s. He played in a strong, southwesterly wind, which is typical this time of the year. The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland played at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday in a wind coming out of the opposite direction.

He played at the same time Tiger Woods used to practice, and while the gallery for McIlroy wasn’t quite as large, the kid caused a frenzy when fans tried to get his autograph after he finished. For the rest of the day, officials banned autographs in the area leading from the 18th green.

It’s a different test for McIlroy, with conditions much more firm and dry than at the U.S. Open.

“It’s firm. It’s fast,” he said. “But the thing is with this wind, you’re going to have to keep the ball low. But sometimes it’s hard to run the ball into these greens because they’re so undulating and they can go so many different ways.”