The world’s best golfers will tee it up on the famous links at Muirfield this week to contest the 142nd Open Championship. Ernie Els, last man to win at this venue, is defending champion.

After a dry early summer, the course is firm and the fairways fast-running. It will set the players a true links test when the Championship gets underway on Thursday.

The ball is rolling out huge distances on the fairway, to the extent that in practice yesterday, Tiger Woods reached the 575-yard 17th with a 4-iron and then a 5-iron. Jason Day played a full practice round with no woods in his bag.

On the flipside, anything straying off line will kick away and there’ll be nothing to stop it until it finds trouble. So this will be a week to test the players’ patience and strategy.

This will be the 16th time the Open has been contested over this grand old East Lothian links and the venue has produced an impressive list of winners. James Braid, Walter Hagen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els have all lifted the Claret Jug here.

Last time the Championship visited in 2002, Ernie Els came out on top after a four-hole playoff against Thomas Levet of France and Australians Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington. Ernie is looking forward to defending the Open title he won at Lytham last year over a course he has fond memories of.

“I really can’t wait for Thursday to come,” he said. “I really have a good feeling about it.”

Another man who will take good vibes into this week is Phil Mickelson. Off the back of his victory in last week’s Scottish Open, over the links at Castle Stuart, the American will begin the tournament as one of the favourites.

Tiger Woods will take confidence from the fact the course conditions seem very similar to those when he won at Hoylake in 2006. The chances are, he’ll seldom need to use driver during the tournament.

With the weather forecast set fair for the rest of the week and the world’s best players ready to fire on all cylinders, this looks sure to be a classic Open Championship.

Venue: Muirfield, Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland
Date: Jul 18-21
Course stats: par 71, 7,192 yards
Purse: £5,250,000 Winner: £945,000
Defending Champion: Ernie Els (-7)

TV Coverage:
Thursday 18 – Live on BBC2 from 9am
Friday 19 – Live on BBC2 from 9am
Saturday 20 – Live on BBC1 from 10am
Sunday 21 – Live on BBC1 from 11am

Player Watch:
Tiger Woods – The three-time Open champion has shown some of his best form in four tournament wins this season, but he hasn’t been able to take that game to the Majors. This could be the one he manages it. Although he struggled at Muirfield in 2002, slumping to a third round of 81, he closed with a 65. So he’s obviously able to get round this track. The conditions will suit him and he’ll plot his way round as he did so imperiously at Hoylake in 2006.

Graeme McDowell – Another player whose tactical game will come to the fore in these conditions. His creativity and shot-making will stand him in good stead. As the ball will be rolling out, players will inevitably have to make a number of clutch six-footers for par during the course of the week. There are few better at dealing with these than McDowell.

Brandt Snedeker – Always a threat in Majors, Snedeker’s performance at Lytham last year confirms he has the necessary skills to produce low scores on the links. He’s another excellent putter and that will be invaluable this week.

Key hole: 17th. The par-5 has witnessed numerous dramas in recent years: Gary Evans lost ball in 2002, John Cook’s missed putt in 1992 and Lee Trevino’s chip-in in 1972 to name a few. If the wind is helping it’s a definite birdie or eagle chance that could swing this tournament at the death.

Skills required: Accuracy. With the ground as firm as it is, the key will be to keep the ball rolling straight down the fairways. The players able to hit the stinging, straight long iron shot will have a great advantage.