British Open 2016
Mcllroy, Spieth, Day and Johnson braced for Troon Open test
Treacherous and unfamiliar challenges lie in wait as the British Open tees off at Royal Troon tomorrow as Rory McIlroy returns to the hunt for the Claret Jug.
McIlroy, who leads a host of golf's biggest names to have withdrawn in controversial circumstances from next month's Rio Olympics, is bidding to win his fifth major and second Open after his victory at Hoylake in 2014.
Missing from St Andrews 12 months ago after suffering an ankle injury while playing football, McIlroy will start his challenge on Thursday morning in the same group as Bubba Watson and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama.
"I'm excited to be back and to a golf course that I've never played before," said the Northern Irishman, number four in the world.
Troon is where Tiger Woods first played in the Open as a professional in 1997. The ailing 14-time major winner is not in this year's field and instead the focus is on the current "Big Four" of McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and recent US Open winner Dustin Johnson.
The shortest odds with the bookmakers are for the latter two, with the laid-back Johnson having every reason to fancy his chances after finally winning his first major at the US Open last month and shaking off his "nearly man" tag.
"I always expect to come out and perform and to contend. But I mean, it's definitely a little bit different coming out and not trying to win that first major. That's the biggest difference," said Johnson, who also won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational recently. "I feel like I've been playing really solid all year long, so winning the last two tournaments I've played in, obviously, I'm on a good run right now."
The same cannot quite be said of his American compatriot Spieth, who won the Masters and the US Open last year but came in well down the field at Oakmont last month. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old Texan will still hope to continue his country's remarkable record in The Open at Troon.
It has been played here eight times, with the last six winners all American, most recently the unheralded Todd Hamilton in 2004.
"This is a very, very special tournament, everybody knows that," said Spieth. "I crave to have that trophy in my possession at some point, and to reach a third leg of the Grand Slam this week would be a fantastic achievement and a life-long goal of mine."
The Big Four have won six of the last eight majors between them, but there are most certainly no guarantees as to who will come out on top in Troon, where the sport's leading players must beware the potential pitfalls.
Troon is home to one of golf's most iconic holes, the 123-yard par-three eighth known as the Postage Stamp. Here is where German amateur Herman Tissies took 15 in 1950 but also where a 71-year-old Gene Sarazen had a hole-in-one in 1973.
Then there is the 11th, a 482-yard par-four with the Glasgow to Ayr railway line immediately over a four-foot-high stone wall to the right side. Jack Nicklaus took 10 here in 1962.
"Just stay out of the fairway bunkers," was Irishman Shane Lowry's advice. "To play this golf course you need to take a few of them on, but I think if you stay out of the fairway bunkers and if you play 10, 11, and 12 okay, I think that's kind of going to be the key for the week."
With this being the first Open at Troon since 2004, the younger stars of modern golf are unfamiliar with the course. But one man who knows it all too well is Colin Montgomerie.
This is the veteran Scot's hometown Open, and his 86-year-old father will become club president next week. Montgomerie came through qualifying and will hit the championship's first tee shot at 6:35 am local time on Thursday as he goes out with Luke Donald and Australia's Marc Leishman.
The latter was involved in a three-way play-off in St Andrews last year that was won by the American Zach Johnson.
It was played out in gloomy conditions on the Monday after wind and rain delayed the finish. The hope is for calmer weather this year.