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Leave the driving to other tournaments: British Open will come down to the best iron player

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HOYLAKE, England - When Tom Watson remembers his favourite shots from the British Open — and, given he's a five-time champion, there are plenty — one stands above all the others.

That 2-iron on the 72nd hole at Birkdale, locking up the last of his major titles in 1983.

Anyone who fancies a chance of hoisting the claret jug at Royal Liverpool would be well advised to practice the same sort of shot.

"That's where you beat your competitors, if you're a good long-iron player," Watson said. "You hit the shots where you're supposed to when you're a long way from the green."

Tiger Woods proved that in 2006, the last time the Open was played at this course in northwest England. He pulled out his driver only once all week, sticking almost entirely with his irons on the way to an 18-under score and two-stroke victory.

That week, the links course was so dried out it looked like nothing more than a cow pasture from the aerial camera shots. It was hard as a pool table, meaning Woods could get plenty of distance by keeping the ball low and letting it roll, the sort of shot the 2-iron was made for.

The conditions are much different this time around.

Royal Liverpool is greener and softer, the result of a cooler, wetter summer. Still, the 2-iron — heck, all the irons — will be of vital importance in controlling the ball and staying out of the devilish pot bunkers that serve essentially as an automatic penalty to anyone who strays in their direction.

Justin Rose pointed out that he won last week's Scottish Open while hitting nothing longer than a 6-iron off the tee on the final six holes.

"That's all based upon keeping it out of the bunkers," Rose said. "You can't play links golf from pot bunkers. They are true penalties. So whatever the club is, if it's a 2-iron or 3-iron or 4-iron or 5-iron, that's why they are important clubs to keep it in the fairway."

Defending champion Phil Mickelson feels like he is driving the ball as good as he ever has, but he'll be pulling a 2-iron out of his bag this week. It's one of two clubs he rarely uses at any other tournament, the other being a 64-degree wedge that helps him keep the ball from bouncing.

He described the 2-iron as being "very important and instrumental in my success here."

"I will carry a driver," Mickelson said. "But it will be very situational depending on the wind, pin placement and how I'm feeling at the given moment."

The world's top-ranked player, Adam Scott, always has a 2-iron in his bag.

He's really looking forward to using it at the Open.

"For here, it's perfect," he said. "I don't have to do anything with it, other than swing."

Depending on the wind, Rory McIlroy figures he'll divvy up his tee shots between the driver and the 2-iron. While the par 5s present the best chance for birdies — and will likely bring out the driver — the two-time major champion knows he can't get too reckless with his big club.

"I usually carry a 5-wood instead of a 2-iron," McIlroy said. "I just think for this terrain and the conditions and the wind, the 2-iron just goes a little bit lower, and there's a bit of a better flight on it, which is obviously better for these conditions."

Even when one hits a booming shot with the driver, that doesn't mean it will turn out well on a links course.

"Very often, they are so well designed that there's the next set of bunkers, at 280, 290, 300 yards," Rose said. "So your decision is to take all the bunkers out (of play), normally."

While no one expects a Woods-like performance this year, the 2-iron will almost surely be a vitally important club for whoever emerges as the champion on Sunday evening.

"I understand how Tiger won in 2006 here," Watson said. "Very simply, he was the best iron player by far during that tournament. By far. His iron play was spot on."

Who knows? Maybe it will come down to the sort of shot Watson pulled off more than three decades ago.

He still summons up with the details like it happened yesterday.

"As soon as I hit the ball, I knew I hit it dead flush," he recalled. "There was a left-to-right wind and the ball started just right of the flag and hooked off the flag."

His caddie, Alfie Fyles, shouted, "Stop hooking."

"Alf," Watson replied, "don't worry.'

The ball wound up 15 feet from the hole.

Two putts later, Watson had his fifth Open title.

___

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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