A major championship is never short of intriguing storylines and the 146th Open Championship, starting on Thursday at Royal Birkdale, is no exception.
The oldest major in the sport wears a most open look. While the world No1 Dustin Johnson is installed as the pre-tournament favourite, he clearly isn’t the most in-form player.
Perennial favourite Rory McIlroy is also struggling, while defending champion Henrik Stenson would have loved to travel to the golf course, near Liverpool, with some better recent rounds under his belt. In the past few years, the one theme that has run through most Opens is that it favours experienced players.
McIlroy is the one exception of a young 20-something lifting the Claret Jug, but then he is an exceptional player. Then of course, there is the uncanny ability of links courses to throw up surprise winners. Be it the virtually unknown Ben Curtis in 2003 and Todd Hamilton in 2004, or unlikely champions in Stewart Cink (2009), or even Darren Clarke in 2011.
Such is the nature of the links courses that players who have an advantage over the rest of the field in other tournaments struggle to make the necessary adjustments. Take Phil Mickelson and McIlroy for example this week – they are doing something with their bag that they won’t do in any other tournament. Mickelson, the 2013 champion, has taken out his driver, while McIlroy is putting in a 1-iron.
Players like Hamilton, Cink and Zach Johnson (2015) have shown that length off the tee is certainly not the overriding criteria for a good score at The Open. More important is the ability to stay patient in a tournament where you are bound to get bad bounces and terrible weather conditions.
So, let’s have a look at some of the storylines worth following over the next four days… It’s the Open Championship and all eyes are on McIlroy. Even if it wasn’t held in the UK, the Northern Irishman would have been the most followed player. He has truly become the game’s next superstar after Tiger Woods.
If one goes purely by his results, his chances are not looking very good. Missing two successive cuts on links courses is not the greatest preparation, but the four competitive rounds that he could manage might just be the tonic McIlroy needs as he tries to rectify a season that has been ravaged by his rib injury at the start of the year.
Then there is Johnson. Like McIlroy, he is also coming into the tournament with successive missed cuts. The American was in Woods mode before the Masters, winning three tournaments in three starts, but the fall from the stairs that ruled him out of Augusta National, seems to have cooled him down substantially.
Stenson is another star who is struggling for form and will have to pull something extraordinary out of the hat to become a first repeat winner of The Open since Padraig Harrington at the same venue in 2008. However, if the Swede’s ironplay is on song, he’d be a strong contender.
Which brings us to the players who have shown good recent form. Jordan Spieth has two wins this season, including one in his last outing at the Travelers Championship. He showed he could play in bad weather in 2015 when he finished fourth at St Andrews despite getting the bad end of the draw.
World No2 Hideki Matsuyama leads the Asian challenge and he has been a force since the end of last year. It would be interesting to see if he, or Korean Kim Si-woo, winner of this year’s Players Championship, can step up and follow in the foosteps of YE Yang, who won the 2009 PGA Championship.
There is a lot of buzz around the Spanish players. Jon Rahm and Rafael Cabrera Bello won the last two European Tour events on links courses, while Sergio Garcia has a fantastic record at The Open. Another in-form player is the local hero Tommy Fleetwood.
An Open record of three missed cuts in three starts would not inspire much confidence, but then Fleetwood has won two huge events this year, including the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he is clearly looking like a player who can reverse his past record.
Among other Englishmen, Justin Rose, could have a shot. He does not have the best Open record, which is a surprise, but not many have forgotten how he finished fourth as an amateur on this very course back in 1998.
And here’s one for the romantics. Given the recent form of Harrington and Ian Poulter – first and second when The Open was last held at Royal Birkdale – how about a reprise of their battle down the stretch?
Both players have shown good form recently and were in the mix at the Scottish Open. Both fit the bill of experience and patience, so be prepared for the possibility of 2008 all over again.