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Royal Birkdale presents firm but fair challenge for Open

When the 146th Open Championship is contested this week at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, it will be only the 10th time it is played on the links course in Southport, England.

Although Royal Birkdale is a favorite of the players, it seems the course is a bit underrated when compared to St. Andrews, Muirfield and Turnberry.

"Royal Birkdale is one of my favorite courses, especially my favorite links, because we deem it a little fairer, the fairways are a little flatter but the sand dunes are fantastic and very demanding," said three-time Open champion Nick Faldo, who captured his first big victory on the course in the 1982 British PGA Championship.

"I've been watching the weather forecast. It's only been in the 60s and a lot of rain. So winds. I think the premium is going to be on tee-to-green. The golf course is going to play very long, very difficult. And it's a challenging golf course. It's a great course. Great venue."

Faldo won the Open Championship once at St. Andrews and twice at Muirfield, but a tie for eighth in 1983 was his best result in the Open at Royal Birkdale.

The winners of seven of the nine Claret Jugs handed out on the Southport links are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, with Ian Baker-Finch of Australia (1991) and Padraig Harrington of Ireland (2008) the exceptions.

Peter Thomson of Australia captured the first of his three in a row in 1954 at Royal Birkdale by one stroke over Bobby Locke of South Africa, Dai Rees of Wales and Syd Scott of England. Thomson returned to Southport and won his fifth and last Open by two strokes over Christy O'Connor of Ireland and Brian Huggett of Wales in 1965.

Arnold Palmer claimed the first of two Open titles by one stroke over Rees in 1961. Tom Watson won for the fifth and final tile by one stroke over Andy Bean and Hale Irwin in 1983, and Johnny Miller pulled away in the final round to win by six strokes over Seve Ballesteros of Spain and Jack Nicklaus in 1976.

"I'm excited to go back there and sort of see if my memory resurrects," said Miller, whose other major crown came when he closed with a record 63 in the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the course and getting my feelings. I believe it's an accuracy course. I called it the British Open back then because it was the British Open then (and) I played it like Nick Faldo (that year). I wish I had enough brains to play more majors that way. Basically let my irons do the talking. I hit the 1-iron off the tee and let my irons do the talking.

"So Jack Nicklaus didn't have a real great Open Championship, and Seve just had the bad last round."

Other Open winners at Royal Birkdale were Lee Trevino, by one stroke over Lu Liang-Huan of China in 1971, and Mark O'Meara, in a playoff over Brian Watts in 1998.

Most recently, Harrington won by four strokes over Ian Poulter of England in 2008, successfully defending the title he won the year before over Sergio Garcia in a playoff at Carnoustie.

"It's always the most exciting when you win your first major, but Royal Birkdale was very satisfying," said Harrington, the three-time major winner who was battling a wrist injury when he showed up at Royal Birkdale. "I knew I was injured going into it, but I was one of the best players in the world. I played great that week; there were no mess-ups.

"Every time you tee it up in the Open, it's a special occasion, it really is. There's something about an Open Championship, the heritage, traditions of it. There's an excitement about being there."

The 60-year-old O'Meara also will be there, playing in the Open for the 19th time.

In 1998, he closed with a 2-under-par 68 and won a four-hole aggregate playoff against Watts, 17 strokes to 19, to cap the best season of his career. He claimed his only two major titles that year, winning the Masters in April.

"When you come back to a place (where you won), it makes it even more special," said O'Meara, who plays on the PGA Tour Champions. "Having the Open back at Royal Birkdale is going to be really cool.

"I always dreamed of winning the Open as a young man. The chance to hoist the Claret Jug and be the Champion Golfer of the Year, all those things come into play when you come and play in this great championship. If I only had one major, this would've been the one that I'd have wanted."

Birkdale Golf Club was established in 1889 and moved to its current site in 1894, with the course designed by Frederick G. Hawtree and English legend J.H. Taylor, who won the Open five times. The "Royal" status came in 1951.

For some reason, it took the R&A until 1954 to realize that Taylor knew how to design a course made for the Open Championship.

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