Handicapping the field



* Hale Irwin: Defending champion and 3-time Open winner is looking to join a select group with No. 4. Hasn't won this year but has finished in the top 5 in his past 4 events.

* Seve Ballesteros: Aside from Billy Andrade, he probably is the hottest golfer in the world. Has emerged from a slump to win 3 times in Europe and Japan during the past 2 months and finished fifth last week. Has to control tee shots to stay in the hunt.

* Nick Faldo: The 2-time British Open and Masters champion came within a shot of a playoff last year with Irwin and Mike Donald. Steady and unspectacular, he rarely gets into trouble and always seems to be in the chase. Has not played well, or much, this year. A victory would make him the fourth player to have won all 4 majors.

Dark horses

* Billy Andrade: On a roll, with back-to-back victories at Kemper and Buick, his first 2 wins on tour. Is long enough off the tee to keep up with the big hitters, but his strong suit is his short game, always a factor in the Open. Major drawback is his lack of major championship experience, with only 5 appearances. Missed the cut in his 1 previous Open (1988).

* Jose-Maria Olazabal: This 25-year-old Spaniard is quickly establishing himself among the world's best players. Ballesteros says Olazabal is there already. Finished eighth last year at Medinah, and was in the hunt until a bogey on the final hole this year at the Masters.

* Tom Watson: Proved at the Masters that he can still be a factor at majors. Has had a pair of finishes in the top 10 since Augusta but still needs to be able to make a few putts.

* Paul Azinger: Still trying to get over the hump after losing the lead with 2 holes to play at the 1987 British Open. Is slowly gaining a reputation similar to Tom Kite's, as a top player who has not won a major. Has 1 victory this year.

Long shots

* Greg Norman: Took 5 weeks off earlier this year after admitting to burnout. Has played well in 3 tournaments since returning, but 1 round always seems to hurt his chances. Hasn't won a major since the 1986 British Open. Some question his heart, others his brains, but nobody his talent.

* Curtis Strange: His game has dipped considerably since he won the Open back-to-back in 1988 and 1989. Hasn't won since the Open at Oak Hill 2 years ago and seems to be going through the same kind of decline that Watson encountered in the mid-1980s. Since he has spent more time at home, his game has suffered.

* Jack Nicklaus: Is not in peak form, as evidenced by last week's performance in the Senior TPC. Looking to become the first player to win 5 Opens and the first to win in 4 separate decades. Was given a USGA exemption this year to play. Irwin won it last year with the exemption.

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