Rory McIlroy leads the charge as 156 golfers tackle the swales, hollows and pot bunkers that make the Open thrilling and petrifying in equal measure. So who will fall in love with the links?

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Tiger Woods recorded a video the other day. It was mainly in acknowledgement of an award he received from the writers of his sport, but it shifted into a series of memories about the strange business that plays out this time of year.

Links golf. Some love it. Some love it when they aren’t hating it, and on occasion love leaves town altogether, which is where Woods found himself 21 years ago.

‘Some days are tough,’ he said in his message to a couple of hundred of us in a pavilion adjacent to the third fairway here at Hoylake. ‘I particularly remember the Saturday in 2002 at Muirfield. That was the worst day I have ever known, and probably the worst in the history of golf. I have never felt that cold and I have never felt that miserable. Most of you bailed — and we wanted to do that, too.’

He carded an 81 that afternoon, 10 over par, and for a time it was the worst round of his career. Links golf can do that. It can make you and it can break the finest there ever was.

As 156 golfers embark on the 151st Open Championship this morning, you might notice the branding on this uniquely beautiful stretch of land next to the Dee Estuary. Forged by nature, they say, and that’s about right.

Red-hot Rory McIlroy (above) has rarely seemed closer to claiming his fifth major

Red-hot Rory McIlroy (above) has rarely seemed closer to claiming his fifth major

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Brooks Koepka is the big-game hunter who has spoken this week of his love of links golf

Brooks Koepka is the big-game hunter who has spoken this week of his love of links golf

It’s a different kind of golf, with swirling, coastal winds and two-irons and stingers. A different kind of golf, with so many paths to each hole, through swales and hollows and pot bunkers that reach deep into a sporting hell. A different kind of golf, and some would say the original and best.

‘A few guys have asked me who to bet on,’ said Pete Cowen, and at that point the Yorkshireman, who coaches Brooks Koepka and countless others, threw his hands in the air. ‘Links golf. I would never put a bet on until after the first two rounds of an Open are done. Good side of the draw, you could be set up. Bad side and you have a bit more wind and a different game. Links golf.’

It’s a fine thing and that’s before we even broaden the context to a marvellous tangle of stories, big and small.

At 6.35am, Matthew Jordan hits the opening tee shot of the tournament and he’s got a nice tale. Jordan is a local lad, a Hoylake member, and he’s been charting these links since he was seven. He was here as a 10-year-old when Tiger Woods won, and the same in 2014 for Rory McIlroy. Now he’s inside the ropes as a qualifier. It’s lovely — he might even have a better idea than most of how to play the 17th.

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For others, it is all a bit more complicated. That means McIlroy, and however we choose to interpret the ticking clock which accompanies his trips to the majors.

Justin Rose offered up a fun line recently when we chatted about his Ryder Cup team-mate and the 34 majors that have passed since he won his fourth in 2014.

‘If that’s struggling, then we’d all like to struggle like Rory,’ he told Mail Sport, and his point was about perspective, because McIlroy has gone on to win 20 tournaments in his fallow period.

But then the McIlroy conversation is also about relativity, because the scale of his talent makes a mystery of how he is yet to get to five majors. With each of his near-misses, you query if the biggest barriers to progress exist in his own mind, rather than any limitations in his wedge game.

We can talk about doors opening if you keep knocking, or we can ponder the accumulation of painful memories and what they might mean in those crucial examinations on a Sunday. The next four days will add more data to the sample, but based on McIlroy’s recent results in the majors, and his brilliant win at the Scottish Open last weekend, he has rarely seemed closer to pulling it off.

He sets off as favourite in what is forecast to be a moderate breeze at 2.59pm, five hours or so after Koepka, that big-game hunter who has spoken this week of his love of links golf. He has brute strength, guile, five majors and the strut of a man who has forgotten how to doubt himself.

Scottie Scheffler has an excellent chance after 15 top-10s in his last 19 starts

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Scottie Scheffler has an excellent chance after 15 top-10s in his last 19 starts

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He can be confidently backed here, as can Scottie Scheffler. The 27-year-old has never managed better than eighth in the Open, and lately his putter has been horribly out of kilter with his game from tee to green, but he has 15 top-10s in his last 19 starts.

He is astonishingly consistent and has an excellent chance, as does Cameron Smith, the defending champion, while hope also resides within Tommy Fleetwood. He is pushing to be the first Englishman since Nick Faldo to win this major — Rose described it on Tuesday as an English ‘curse’.

They are the protagonists and there are many more, from Rickie Fowler to Jon Rahm to Phil Mickelson and other wise men of the links like Padraig Harrington.

One of the older boys always springs a surprise at the Open because it’s a different kind of golf. It’s links golf. A golf where what you know is worth more than how far you hit. It’s golf where misery is always in play, and it’s all the better for it.

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