By Ed Osmond
SANDWICH, England (Reuters) - Predicting the winner of a major championship is notoriously difficult but for the 156 players who will tee off at the British Open on Thursday the most important thing this year is that the tournament is back.
The 2020 event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic and it returns with 32,000 spectators expected each day at the Royal St George's course.
"It's good to be back. It's a massive championship, my favourite of the year, and I'm delighted to be back and playing well and hopefully having a chance to contend this week," said England's Lee Westwood, who is playing in his 88th major and has yet to win one.
"I'm looking forward to it. I think everybody missed The Open Championship last year, watching it on TV or playing it."
The combined world ranking of the last two British Open champions at Royal St George's was 507.
American Ben Curtis was 396th in the world when he pulled off his shock victory in 2003 and Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke claimed his only major title in 2011 occupying 11lth spot in the rankings.
"It's obviously great to come back to any golf course where you've played well before and especially won, but then to come back to an Open venue where I've played at and won before is even more special," Clarke said.
"The course is different this week. Wind direction is the opposite to what it was the last time we were here. The golf
course is a little bit softer than the last time we were here, so a bit of a different proposition."
Of the last six major champions, only American Phil Mickelson has lifted the British Open Claret Jug.
World number one Dustin Johnson won the Masters in November and Spaniard Jon Rahm will be aiming to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2000 to lift the Claret Jug straight after winning the U.S. Open.
Woods misses the tournament as he continues his recovery from injuries sustained in a car crash and along with Johnson and Mickelson the American challenge may be led by 2020 U.S. Open winner Bryson DeChambeau and Jordan Spieth, the 2017 British Open champion.
Ireland's Shane Lowry is the defending champion following his victory at Royal Portrush in 2019 and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, the winner in 2014, expects the course to be in excellent condition with fine weather forecast for the week.
"As the days go on with a little bit of wind and sunshine, it should be absolutely perfect," said McIlroy. "I walked away from the golf course on Saturday and Sunday thinking this is a much better golf course than I remember."
England's Richard Bland will strike the opening tee shot at 0635 local time (0535 GMT) on Thursday.
(Reporting by Ed Osmond, editing by Toby Davis)