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Muirfield evens playing field for British Open

The British Open returns Thursday to Muirfield for the 16th time dating to 1892.

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The British Open returns Thursday to Muirfield for the 16th time dating to 1892.

One of the best players who never won a major would love a crack at one now.

Colin Montgomerie used to say it was harder than ever to win a major because each year it seemed that Tiger Woods won two of them, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson or Vijay Singh won another, and that left only one for everyone else.

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Those days, at least for the moment, are gone.

Over the last five years, 18 players have won the last 20 majors, none of them named Woods. And the winner? It could be anybody. Darren Clarke won in his 54th major. Keegan Bradley won in his first. Rory McIlroy won when he was 22. Els won when he was 42.

The next chance is the 142d British Open, which returns Thursday to Muirfield for the 16th time dating to 1892.

Muirfield is reputed to be the fairest of the links courses on the rotation, mainly because there are no tricks and very few blind shots. The course consists of two loops running in opposite directions so that golfers will face the wind in every direction by the end of the day. Muirfield is perhaps more predictable than the others.

Not so predictable is finding a player at the top of his game.

The search ordinarily would start with Woods, and for good reason. The world’s No. 1 player already has won four times this year, and during a two-month stretch in the spring, he won three out of four tournaments, the exception a tie for fourth in the Masters.

Now, more mystery envelopes Woods. He offered limited details at the US Open about an injury in his left elbow that had been bothering him for a month. Woods has not played since he tied for 32d at the US Open, and he can’t guarantee he’ll be at full strength at Muirfield.

‘‘I would like to be 100 percent, but I don’t know,’’ he said earlier this month. ‘‘It depends on how the body heals.’’ Woods, however, told ESPN on Saturday, “I’m very confident that my left elbow strain won’t be a problem.”

McIlroy is one of two players to win multiple majors in the last five years — Padraig Harrington, with back-to-back major wins in 2008, is the other — only Boy Wonder has become an afterthought this year. After building a big lead atop the world rankings at the close of 2012, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland made a wholesale equipment change at the start of the year and has had only one reasonable chance to win, at the Texas Open.

After missing the cut at the Irish Open, he said he felt ‘‘lost.’’

Graeme McDowell has three wins, second only to Woods this year, though even he isn’t sure what to expect. In his last eight tournaments, McDowell has won three times and missed the cut the other five times.

‘‘When it’s been good, it’s been really good,’’ McDowell said.

If there is a trend in this year’s majors, it is the emergence of quality players whose careers were elevated by winning a Grand Slam event.

Most players would have been devastated to lose a four-shot lead with four holes to play as Adam Scott did last year in the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Scott later said he would have been crushed had he been watching a performance like that from home. Poised as ever, he realized he played the best golf for 68 holes and took that to understand he could do it again.

And that’s what he did, winning the Masters in a playoff. Scott hasn’t been down under to celebrate since he slipped on that green jacket. In his mind, the year was still young. There was much left to achieve, more majors to win.

‘‘I haven’t won the Open because of the Masters. I still miss out on that,’’ Scott said. ‘‘I’m really looking forward to going back and trying to get myself in a similar kind of situation, a chance to win the Open. The hardest thing is going to be curbing the expectations right from the start and just kind of building my way into that position.’’

Not long after winning the Masters, he sent a text to Justin Rose that ‘‘this was our time.’’

Rose lived up to his end of the prediction by winning the US Open with three clutch shots at the end, including a 4-iron into the 18th green that led to par and a two-shot win. They have been friends and colleagues throughout their careers, born two weeks apart, both having endured their share of struggles.

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