SANDWICH, England (AP) — As workers pieced together plastic tables and hammered the last tents into place Sunday, Aaron Baddeley got an idea of just how punishing a British Open course can be when you don't hit the ball straight.
Coming to the final hole of a friendly practice game with fellow Aussie Geoff Ogilvy, Baddeley sprayed his tee shot far to the right, toward the sponsor suites that were still being spruced up before the crowds descend on Royal St. George's.
Baddeley ignored the vacuum cleaner humming in the background and hopped over two metal barricades, hoping to locate the ball in the tall, thick grass.
"This course rewards someone who's playing really well," Ogilvy said. "The guy who's playing the best is going to win."
While that may sound like an obvious thesis, the third major of the year has a knack for producing champions that don't fit the mold.
Eight years ago, the last time an Open was held on the seaside in southeastern England, a guy named Ben Curtis — barely known at the time beyond family and perhaps a few guys in the locker room — claimed the claret jug while hitting shots on the practice range, preparing for a playoff he didn't even need.
Winners such as Curtis, Todd Hamilton and even the defending champion, South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen, give hope to lesser-known players such as Matthew Millar, who lugged his own bag while joining Ogilvy, Baddeley and Adam Scott in an all-Australian practice group.
"Everyone is in contention," said Millar, whose regular caddie was working at the Scottish Open. "You've got to hit the ball well here, especially with all the undulations in the greens and fairways. But this is the type of course that brings a lot of players into the mix as well. There are different holes that suit different types of players."
The one player who seems to find every hole to his liking is 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, who'll be playing for the first time since his record-setting win at the U.S. Open last month.
Everyone is ready to proclaim the start of a new era in golf, especially with Tiger Woods on the sideline for the second major in a row because of an ailing leg.
Even before his body broke down, the 14-time major champion was struggling to regain the aura he had before a Thanksgiving car crash in 2009 ripped apart his marriage and exposed his secret life away from the course.
The personable McIlroy certainly has the skills, swagger and personality to succeed Woods at the top.
"He's my favorite player to watch," Millar said. "I love everything about him. It's not only his swing, but his attitude, the way he handles himself around people. He's upbeat. He's confident. He's got that little bounce in his shoulders. Everything he does is the way an athlete should be."
Ogilvy cautioned those who want to put the game on McIlroy's shoulders at such a young age. He's still got a lot of growing up to do, after all.
"He comes in after maybe one of the best majors that's ever been played," Ogilvy said. "I'm sure he's going to get there. But let's all let him be who he can be."
McIlroy has taken time to savor his astounding win at Congressional, where he shattered U.S. Open records and blew away the field with a 16-under score.
He sat in the Royal Box at Wimbledon. He attended a heavyweight championship fight in Germany. He opened up to the fans in a way that Woods never did.
"Rory just seems like a nice guy," Millar said. "He's just what this game needs."
Especially with Woods sitting out another major championship. The fans will have to settle for his caddie, Steve Williams, who's filling in on Scott's bag while his boss recovers.
"It takes away from the tournament a little bit," Millar said. "Everyone wants to see Tiger, regardless of where his game is or what he's been through. It's sad that he can't be here."
With Woods relegated to watching from home, Ogilvy expects the claret jug to wind up in the hands of someone who's riding high in the rankings. That would certainly include McIlroy, who's climbed to fourth in the world, but also keep an eye on the two Englishmen at the head of the pack.
Luke Donald has taken over at No. 1 and bounced into Royal St. George's on a major roll, cruising to a four-stroke win Sunday in the Scottish Open.
The warm-up tournament delayed the arrival of many top players — including second-ranked Lee Westwood, who's been a perennial contender in the biggest events.
Neither Donald nor Westwood has won a major title.
This could be their chance to break through at home.
"If you go by my rationale, Luke Donald will win," Ogilvy said. "But there's at least 10 guys who are on top of their game. I expect the leaderboard to be filled with class players."
National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963