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.
We take a look at some of the prime candidates for this year’s tournament.
World ranking: 1
Best results in 2017: Winner, WGC-Match Play, WGC-Mexico & Genesis Open
Last five tournaments: MC-MC-T13-T12-T2
Last five years at The Open: T9-T49-T12-T32-T9
Open appearances: 8
The big-hitting 33-year-old won his first major at the US Open last year but has performed poorly in recent majors, missing the cut at the 2016 PGA Championship and at last month’s US Open, either side of sitting out the Masters after suffering a freak back injury.
Has missed his last two cuts, but he remains the favourite. Comes in fresh into the tournament after recently becoming a father for the second time.
World ranking: 2
Best results in 2017: Winner, Waste Management Phoenix Open
Last five tournaments: T14-T2-T45-T22-T11
Last five years at The Open: MC-T18-T39-T6-DNP
Open appearances: 4
Matsuyama has risen to number two in the world thanks to some outstanding results in the last year. The 25-year-old has won five titles in the last 12 months, most recently at the Phoenix Open in February, while he finished in a tie for second in last month’s US Open.
Second on the PGA Tour money list behind Johnson and now targeting becoming the first Asian to win the Open Championship.
World ranking: 3
Best results in 2017: Winner, AT&T Peble Beach Pro-Am & Travelers Championship
Last five tournaments: W-T35-T13-T2-MC
Last five years at The Open: T30-T4-T36-T44-DNP
Open appearances: 4
The Texan prodigy does not turn 24 until the end of the month and has already packed a remarkable amount of success into his young career. Victory at the Travelers Championship last month allowed him to match Tiger Woods in reaching double digits for tour wins by such a young age.
However, his two major titles to date came back to back in 2015 and he is eager to get his hands on a third one.
World ranking: 4
Best results in 2017: Second, South African Open
Last five tournaments: MC-MC-T17-MC-T35
Last five years at The Open: T5-DNP-W-MC-60
Open appearances: 8
The last Open at Birkdale was won by a golfer from across the Irish Sea in Padraig Harrington, so McIlroy will be hoping that is an omen. His only Open win came three years ago just the other side of Liverpool at Hoylake, but his form coming into this year’s championship is not the best.
Hasn’t won in 2017 and he missed the cut at the US Open, and in his last two starts at the Irish and Scottish Opens.
World ranking: 8
Best results in 2017: Second, Omega Dubai Desert Classic
Last five tournaments: T26-T10-MC-T26-T3
Last five years at The Open: W-T40-T39-2-68
Open appearances: 12
Stenson waited until he was 40 before winning a major in thrilling fashion at Troon a year ago. Now his challenge is to become the first man since Padraig Harrington, at Birkdale nine years ago, to successfully defend the Claret Jug.
The Swede is yet another big name coming into the championship on the back of some patchy form though, having missed the cut at both majors so far in 2017.
World ranking: 5
Best results in 2017: Winner, Masters & Dubai Desert Classic
Last five tournaments: T5-T6-T2-T21-MC
Last five years at The Open: W-T40-T39-2-68
Open appearances: 20
Garcia finally got the major monkey off his back at this year’s Masters, and is enjoying one of his strongest seasons, having earlier won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic as well.
The Spaniard is getting married next week, so what better way to climb up the altar in a Green Jacket with the Claret Jug tucked under his arms? He also has a great record in the Open Championship with 10 top-10s in 20 starts.
Here are five of the dark horses most likely to upset golf’s biggest names in the British Open at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, starting Thursday:
World ranking: 7
Best British Open finish: T-59 (2016)
The eye-catching Spaniard’s rise to the top of the world game has been staggering. He made the cut at last year’s British Open in just his third event as a professional, before claiming his first PGA Tour title at Torrey Pines earlier this year with an eagle on the final hole. A run to the WGC World Matchplay final and his runaway victory at the Irish Open have confirmed him as one of golf’s brightest prospects.
Tipped by many to win multiple majors, there is no reason why Rahm will not get that ball rolling in north-west England.
“I know why there’s some confidence in me from people who think I’m going to play good this week. And I like to think if they have the faith in me, I should have faith in myself that I’m going to do it properly,” he said on Tuesday.
A year ago after #TheOpen, Jon Rahm was 278th in world. This week, he's getting better odds (18/1) than Rory (20/1, per Ladbrokes) to win.— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) July 18, 2017
World ranking: 10
Best British Open finish: T-2 (2014)
One of the most talented players yet to win a major title, Fowler appears to have regained some of his best form so far this season. After finishing in the top five in all four majors in 2014, Fowler failed to post another top-10 until this year’s US Open.
The 28-year-old was well-placed to launch serious title challenges at both the US Open and April’s Masters, but produced poor final rounds on both occasions.
A former Scottish Open champion, Fowler has showed himself to be a fine links player. He finished tied for second behind Rory McIlroy three years ago at Hoylake, and also contended at Royal St George’s in 2011.
World ranking: 11
Best British Open finish: T-10 (2015)
The powerful American stormed out of the pack to claim his maiden major crown at the US Open last month. The 27-year-old’s final-round 67 showed he can produce his best under severe pressure. Koepka will be well-rested too, having not played since his breakthrough triumph at Erin Hills.
Unlike some of his compatriots, he shouldn’t struggle to adapt to the British conditions, having made his name on the European Tour.
“I love links golf. I think it’s the best kind of golf you can play. So much imagination that goes into it. You can play 10 different shots from the middle of the fairway and I think that’s so cool. You’ve really got to be creative,” he said Tuesday.
World ranking: 14
Best British Open finish: Missed cut (2014, 2015, 2016)
The Englishman is one of the most in-form players in the world and will be buoyed further by the prospect of playing in his hometown of Southport. The 26-year-old has risen to 14th in the world from 99th at the start of the year thanks to some stellar performances.
His first event of the season saw an impressive victory in Abu Dhabi, while he also finished second at the WGC event in Mexico. Fleetwood eased to the French Open title two weeks ago, having also finished fourth behind Koepka at Erin Hills for his best major-championship effort to date.
World ranking: 32
Best British Open finish: Debut
The young Korean showed maturity far beyond his years when comfortably beating a field of the highest quality to win the Players Championship in May by three shots.
The 22-year-old has never played the British Open, but showed he can compete at the top of major leaderboards at last month’s US Open, before falling away on the final day to finish tied 13th.