HOYLAKE, England — Players take great care setting the table for the British Open, a formal — and for many, foreign — event. For this one week, many will take out and polish off the club that, like a salad fork, is reserved for special occasions. It is the 2-iron, the nearest thing golfers have in their bag to a repellent for the British links courses' biggest pest, the pothole bunker.
In 2006, the last time the tournament was held at Royal Liverpool, site of this year's event, Tiger Woods used his long irons to steer clear of the penal fairway bunkers, never finding one on his way to his 11th major title. The other players — including Bubba Watson, the longest hitter on the PGA Tour with a 314.1-yard average drive — took note.
When it came time to pack for this event, Watson, the reigning Masters champion, made a trip to the golf room in his Windermere house — the one Woods called home in 2006 — and retrieved a 2-iron from a storage unit. "I haven't used it all year until this week," Watson said.
For Watson, whose driver is like his security blanket, it is a psychological stretch to stake his fortunes on a seldom-used club.
"I've played the last couple of days with it, and I've hit it pretty decent," Watson said Tuesday. "Now, in the pressure of the golf tournament, it might not feel the same."
Phil Mickelson, who today opens defense of the title he earned at Muirfield, is another player who uses his 2-iron only when competing on links courses. The 2-iron is to Mickelson, Watson and others what grasscourt shoes are to the world's top tennis players: a one-major curio.
"That's why playing last week was important," said Justin Rose, who made liberal use of his 2-iron on the way to winning the Scottish Open. "Because it's all very well to hit it perfectly, but you need to understand with your club what your miss is or what the tendency is for it if it doesn't go to plan. I don't think you only really know that once you get a scorecard in your hand."
Mickelson, who last year became the first player to win the Scottish Open and British Open in consecutive weeks, said a short practice session on the range was all it took to get reacquainted with his 2-iron.
"Maybe a half-hour of practice on the range just to develop the confidence in it," Mickelson said. "You would think it would take a little bit more time to get used to, but it's not like it's a new club. It performs the same as it did last year and the year before."
Rory McIlroy, who smashed a drive 430 yards downwind in the first round last week at Royal Aberdeen, said he planned to use his 2-iron as much as his driver. "I think it will be an important club," he said.
On the lush courses of the PGA Tour, nearly every tee box calls to mind a batting cage, with the players swinging freely at targets at a specific distance because they know the ball, once it lands, typically will not roll very far. On the harder ground of the windswept links courses, the ball can run for several yards.
The advantage of using a long iron as opposed to a wood is that the ball's trajectory is flatter, so it is less vulnerable to the gusts.
"In links golf it's not as crucial to know how far a ball flies with any given club," Rose said. "Because the elements are so drastically different and the bounce is so unpredictable and the calculations that you're making, it's not an exact science."