Golf’s oldest major returns to Royal Birkdale for a 10th time this year as all eyes turn to The Open Championship on Thursday.
The Southport venue is steeped in the game’s history having thrown up winners of the ilk of Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino through the years, and this renewal is set to be up there with the very best.
In fact this year’s unique selling point might just be its unpredictability as picking a winner has never looked so difficult.
Despite its illustrious list of past champions, Birkdale has never reached the acclaim of a St Andrews or a Carnoustie.
A magnificent layout in its own right, yet it often comes in for criticism for its unadventurous flat fairways not usually found on links terrain, but what it lacks on the short grass is more than made up for in the hilly, grassy dunes that give this track glorious definition.
There will be a premium placed on accuracy from the tee this week, much more so than length, and expect those finding fairways to be right there come Sunday.
So where should we be looking for the winner?
Well given driving will be key on the Liverpool links, the first two names that spring off the page are Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia who currently lead the PGA Tour’s ‘Total Driving’ statistic that pulls together both distance and accuracy off the tee.
Garcia and Fowler have arguably been in the form of their lives of late, notably with the Spaniard winning The Masters in April and Fowler contending just about every week he’s teed it up this season.
Dustin Johnson starts as the pre-tournament favourite but hasn’t quite been firing all cylinders after a blistering start to the season. Missed cuts at both The Memorial and US Open don’t exactly spell ideal preparation, however the big-hitting American has enjoyed some time off and is capable of coming in cold with a big performance.
A tie for second at Royal St Georges in 2011 is the pick of his Open form but a tie for ninth last year at Royal Troon suggests he’s still comfortable on this side of the pond. He should go very close if bringing his A-game to the table.
Then there is Jordan Spieth. The American comes in fresh off holing out from the bunker to claim the Travelers Championship last month. Spieth is the ultimate grinder and seems to relish Open Championship conditions having finished tied fourth at St. Andrews in 2015.
Spieth’s form has been indifferent since that memorable year where he also won two majors, but with a hot putter and half a swing Spieth is a rival for anybody.
Few success stories have come quicker than Jon Rahm in recent years and having proved to himself in Ireland that he can handle links conditions, how appropriate it would be that another 22-year-old Spaniard lifts the Claret Jug.
Rahm punished the field at the Irish Open – played on the links at Portstewart – two weeks ago with a combination of brutal accuracy and relentless putting culminating in a six-stroke win.
Though his temperament is questionable, few, if anyone has stronger claims this week. Much will depend on whether the wind blows in Liverpool, as it didn’t in Ireland, but that will be the same for everyone and Rahm’s confidence must be brimming more than most.
Hideki Matsuyama is many people’s favourite to become Japan’s first ever male major champion at Birkdale, and having vaulted to world number two already this season they could be spot on. Matsuyama won just about every week he teed it up at the end of 2016, and he has shown glimmers of that form in recent weeks, none more so than when finishing tied second at the US Open.
In the words of NBC analyst Johnny Miller, Matsuyama is the “best player right now”.
Such has been the decline in Rory McIlroy’s game of late that he’s available at as much as 16-1 with some bookmakers.
Having missed the cut at his national open the pain was clear to see, but McIlroy is one hot putter away from re-announcing himself to the golfing world. Worryingly though, McIlroy has missed three of his last four cuts and the last time he did that was in the summer of 2012.
McIlroy, the 2014 Open champion, is a strong cookie though and he will no doubt launch some sort of assault on a championship that helped introduce him to the world when winning the Silver Medal at Carnoustie in 2007.
Regardless of the eventual winner, one thing can be sure. Four days of unrivalled golfing competition for us to feast our eyes upon. I for one can’t wait.
If you’re in need of some tipping advice, here’s where we’re all going at GolfMagic…
GOLFMAGIC’S BEST BETS FOR THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP AT BIRKDALE
Andy Roberts, editor:
I fancy Rickie Fowler (16/1) to become the eighth consecutive first-time major winner. Rickie is in the best form of any of the ‘big’ names right now, has Open form in the book with ties for fifth in 2011 and second in 2014, and drives the ball better than anyone. He also holes out better than most.
As an outside pick, I’ll take Ian Poulter (66/1). Back where he belongs and seemingly has his confidence back. When that happens, he’s a dangerous man. Finished second behind Harrington the last time the Open was held at Birkdale.
Charlie Lemay, equipment editor:
Hideki Matsuyama (22/1) looked somewhere near his 2016 season-ending best when finishing runner-up behind Brooks Koepka at the US Open last month. His misses seem to be less errant than other players and if he can keep the putter hot, often his biggest demise, he will be right in with a shout of becoming Japan’s first ever male major winner. It’s a matter of time before that happens.
At bigger odds, I like the look of Branden Grace (55/1). The South African has flirted with major leaderboards in the past and has notched four top-five finishes at the US Open and US PGA in recent years. While his Open form isn’t the best, he did win the Dunhill Links at St Andrews in 2012 so clearly knows what he’s doing on the links.
Max Harvey, staff writer:
Adam Scott (33/1) deserves to lift a Claret Jug having gone so close in the past. Scott really should have won the Open before gifting it to Ernie Els in 2012. The Australian has five top-10 finishes in the Open, including four in his last five, so loves an Open test. His putting remains a slight concern, but if he can get hot with the flatstick he should go very close at relatively big odds.
My dark horse is Ross Fisher (100/1). The Englishman has been showing signs of a mini resurgence of late. He has a pretty shocking record in the Open with just one top-15 finish in nine starts, but he looks a stronger player this season and I expect a much better showing.
John Craven, staff writer:
Jon Rahm (18/1) is the pick of the bunch for me. That display in the final round at Portstewart two weeks ago was as impressive a round as we’ve seen this season. If in the same mood as the Irish Open, he will be a very tough man to beat. Just wish I’d backed him a few weeks ago, the bookies have taken note!
Watch out for New Zealand’s Ryan Fox (200/1) at massive odds, The Open rookie is in the form of his life at the minute finishing very high up the board at the Open de France, Irish Open and Scottish Open, and might just go under the radar.
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