The Open 2011: Rory McIlroy heads home hopes at Sandwich

By Rob Hodgetts BBC Sport at Royal St George's

The 140th Open Championship gets under way in Sandwich on Thursday with high hopes of a first UK winner in 12 years.

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy is tipped to lift the Claret Jug after his dominant win at the US Open last month.

England's Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are the top two ranked players in the world and are both closing in on a maiden major title.

But Royal St George's unpredictable bounces and blustery conditions could blow the form book out of the window.

When the Open was last held at Sandwich in 2003, little-known American Ben Curtis, a 300-1 outsider, emerged triumphant.

"We believe that Royal St George's is a true Open Championship test," said Jim McArthur, chairman of the Championship committee of tournament organisers the R&A. "It's very much based on strategic play rather than muscle."

In McIlroy's favour, his confidence is still sky high after taking three weeks off since that stunning eight-shot win at Congressional, and he has finished in the top three in three of his last four majors.

The 22-year-old's collapse at the Masters, after leading for three days, is the exception, and he insists the added weight of expectation in Kent will not affect him.

But no player since before the Second World War has won back-to-back majors after clinching his first one. And nobody has won the Open straight after the US Open since Tiger Woods back in 2000.

Another current trend against McIlroy is that eight of the last nine majors have gone to first-time winners.

"I've got to forget about what happened three weeks ago," said the fourth-ranked McIlroy, who would become only the second Northern Irishman to win the Open , following in the footsteps of Fred Daly who won at Hoylake in 1947.

"I'm just focused purely on winning here. Everything else that is going on outside the ropes I can't control, but I can control going out there and playing the best golf I can."

Donald, 33, is also flying high after capturing the Scottish Open title last week for his third Tour win this season. He has rarely been out of the top 10 this year but needs to improve on a best Open finish of fifth in 2009.

The 38-year-old Westwood has endured a series of near misses in recent majors, finishing in the top three five times in his last seven. And a number of pundits are tipping him to go one better after finishing third in 2009 and second last year.

"I've got a feeling there is a progression in process here," said BBC radio 5 live golf correspondent Iain Carter.

England, though, has had a long wait for an Open champion since Nick Faldo last won at Muirfield in 1992. Faldo's 1996 Masters victory was also the last of any majors won by an Englishman. Scotland's Paul Lawrie was the last British winner of the Open in 1999.

Donald follows McIlroy's group alongside Japan's Ryo Ishikawa and Spain's Sergio Garcia, while Westwood goes at 1410 BST with American world number five Steve Stricker and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.

Woods, the 14-time major champion, is missing through injury and perhaps a spent force in the higher echelons of the game, while former world number two Phil Mickelson has a mediocre record at the Open, save for a third place in 2004.

However, Americans have a good history in Britain, having won seven Opens since 2000 (three by Woods) and 11 of the last 20.

Competition from other international players is also likely to be strong. Germany's Martin Kaymer is ranked third in the world and already has a major title to his name after clinching the USPGA last year, while South African golf is also on form with defending champion Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel, while Australian Jason Day has finished second in the last two majors and is also a genuine contender.

The forecast strong winds expected for the rest of the week have forced the R&A to consider moving some of the tees forward. "If the wind turns around it's a completely different story," said R&A chief executive Peter Dawson.

"But I think players should be able to reach the fairway and reach the par three, frankly."

With the course sited just 80 miles from the centre of London, and with a train service direct to Sandwich, the R&A are expecting big crowds over the next four days. More than 185,000 attended when the Open was last held here in 2003.

"It's a wonderful venue from a spectator's standpoint," said McArthur. "There are many natural vantage points so we're hoping for a good turnout."

The first group of Jerry Kelly, Nathan Green and England's Danny Willett are set to get the 156-strong field under way at 0630 BST on Thursday.

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