By Rob Hodgetts
BBC Sport at Royal Birkdale
Royal Birkdale will host golf's most prestigious tournament this week
The 137th Open Championship starts at Royal Birkdale on Thursday with the 156-man field chasing the Claret Jug in the absence of Tiger Woods.
The world number one, who has won two of the last three Opens, is recovering from knee surgery, making this year's event one of the most open in years.
Sergio Garcia starts as favourite, but defending champion Padraig Harrington is a doubt because of a wrist injury.
Britain's challenge will be led by Justin Rose and Lee Westwood.
Open organisers are expecting about 200,000 people through the gates this week - and possibly up to 30,000 more if the sun shines - and insist Woods's absence will not dent the attendance.
"People are coming to see the Open more than ever," said championship director David Hill. "It's disappointing Tiger's not here but the fans think this is a special week and they've made up their minds to come."
Much has been made of Woods's absence this week, with suggestions from some quarters that the eventual winner will always have an asterisk next to his name because the game's dominant player was missing.
But Phil Mickelson, the world number two, is keen to draw a line under the debate and insists the focus now is on those players competing at Birkdale.
"I've practised hard, I've developed a good game plan and I am excited to compete against whoever is in the field," he said.
Mickelson, 38, is the top-ranked player in the championship but the left-hander's Open record is poor. His best finish was third at Troon in 2004 but he missed the cut last year.
Garcia, on the other hand, has finished in the top five for the last three years, has had six top 10s in his last seven Opens and is a man in form after victory in the prestigious Players Championship in America earlier this year.
The exciting Spaniard was devastated after missing a putt to win in regulation play and then losing to Harrington after four extra holes at Carnoustie last year.
But the 28-year-old insists he is not scarred by the experience and is confident he can clinch a maiden major on Merseyside this week.
"There are a lot of worse things than losing a major in a play-off," he said. "There were a lot more positives than negatives that week.
Garcia would be a popular champion at Birkdale
"But I love this major. I love the golf courses, and then the crowds and the history of the tournament is unbelievable.
"And I feel like my game is as good as it's ever been."
Harrington, who hurt his wrist in winning the Irish PGA title last weekend, was forced to cut short his final practice round on Wednesday and claimed he would have pulled out altogether this week if it had not been the Open.
Rose, meanwhile, returns to the course that made his name when he finished fourth as a 17-year-old amateur when the Open was last held at Royal Birkdale 10 years ago.
The 27-year-old is the reigning European number one and perhaps Britain's best hope of a first major winner since Scotland's Paul Lawrie claimed the Open in 1999.
Pushing him to become the first Englishman to win the Open since Nick Faldo in 1992 will be Westwood, who came so close at the US Open, only to miss out on the play-off between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate by one shot.
The Englishman leads Europe's Ryder Cup standings after a consistent season but his best Open finish was fourth in 2004.
Of the international challengers, South Africa's Ernie Els is widely tipped as a likely contender this week.
The 38-year-old world number five was fourth last year, third in 2006 and won at Muirfield in 2002. He has had a total of 10 top 10s in 17 Open appearances since his debut in 1989.
But though the two-time US Open champion has won on the PGA Tour this season, there are question marks over whether he is the major force he once was.
This is the toughest Open course that I've played
South Africa's Trevor Immelman
Australia's Geoff Ogilvy, the world number three, and fourth-ranked compatriot Adam Scott also have lively chances to emulate countrymen Peter Thomson, who won the Open at Birkdale in 1954 and 1965, and Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 winner.
Argentine Angel Cabrera, the 2007 US Open winner, is another name touted as being suited to the conditions, while rising US star Anthony Kim is attracting much media attention.
The par 70, 7,173-yard Royal Birkdale layout has been lengthened by 155 yards since American Mark O'Meara won in 1998, with the changes mainly to bunkering and mounding to tighten the course and make it a more strategic test.
"This is the toughest Open course that I've played," said South Africa's Masters champion Trevor Immelman.
The weather will play a major factor as it always does on links courses and the forecast is for blustery conditions with some rain, clouds and sunny spells for the next few days, clearing up on Sunday.
With only Woods and in-form American Kenny Perry, who chose not to attend, absent from the world's top 50, the winner will have earned his cheque for £750,000, possession of the Claret Jug for a year and a place in history.
"I just hope they've taught the engraver how to put an asterisk on the trophy," said Ogilvy, with tongue firmly in cheek.