Royal Birkdale stages its 10th Open Championship this week and the first since Padraig Harrington took the trophy there in 2008.
Harrington was the defending champion that week and continued a theme. In a remarkable nod to past links form, he became the seventh Royal Birkdale winner out of nine to have arrived on the Lancashire coast having finished in the top six of the previous year’s Open.
In the majors this year, it’s Europe 1, USA 1 after the wins for Sergio Garcia at the Masters and Brooks Koepka in the U.S. Open. You could also score it one win for the 30-somethings and one for the 20-somethings.
History suggests the more seasoned pros will have the edge this week as experience is a valuable commodity in the Open Championship. Overall, eight of the last 10 winners have been aged 35 or over and four of the last six had already celebrated their 40th birthday.
Top five finishers in last 6 Opens
That’s 36 players if you’re counting. By region? USA 15, Australia 6, Continental Europe 5, England 4, Ireland 4, South Africa 2.
Winning Scores and Stats in most recent Open at Royal Birkdale
2008 Open Championship
1 Padraig Harrington (DD: 45, DA: 37, GIR: 30, Scr: 13, PA: 4, AA: 7)
2 Ian Poulter (DD: 50, DA: 13, GIR: 7, Scr: 26, PA: 37, AA: 8)
3 Greg Norman (DD: 37, DA 76, GIR: 38, Scr: 3, PA: 21, AA: 22)
4 Henrik Stenson (DD: 18, DA: 4, GIR: 38, Scr: 4, PA: 31, AA: 1)
5= Jim Furyk (DD: 31, DA: 26, GIR: 5, Scr: 24, PA: 61, AA: 11)
5= Chris Wood (DD: 15, DA: 32, GIR: 38, Scr: 10, PA: 31, AA: 6)
Notes: Scrambling and All-Around do best. The modest GIR figures are surprising.
The Course - Royal Birkdale
The Fred Hawtree-JH Taylor layout – a 7,156-yard par 70 where the first par 5 doesn’t come until the 15th hole - is hugely popular with players. “It’s one of the fairest courses we play, it’s right there in front of you,” is an oft-repeated phrase. A big reason for those comments is that the holes run between the dunes rather than over them. That means an absence of blind shots and flat fairways which cut out much of the quirky bounces. Perhaps it’s a big the reason why Royal Birkdale has produced so many classy winners. By country it reads five Americans - Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983) and Mark O'Meara (1998), three Australians - Peter Thomson (1954 & 1965) and Ian Baker-Finch (1991) and one Irishman - Padraig Harrington (2008). Every winner since the world rankings became a thing was a top 25 player; every winner before they existed would probably have been in the top 10.
Experience suggests that it’s folly to get too carried away by weather forecasts and draw bias. I’m writing this on Monday morning and much could change. For up-to-date, check here: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/public/weather/forecast/gctc540pv
After hot weather in Tuesday and Wednesday’s practice days, the Met office says:
Thursday: Cloud/sun, winds of 16-17mph all day. 10% chance of rain, 56-60 degrees
Friday: Likely to rain (80% chance at 10am, 40% pm), winds 17-19mph, 56-60 degrees
Saturday: 40% chance of rain from 10am to 7pm, winds 15-17mph, temps in early 60s
Sunday: 20% chance of rain, winds 14-16mph, temps in early 60s.
It’s not great weather but it seems fairly uniform as opposed to having dramatic swings from morning to afternoon or day to day. I’ll believe it when I see it though.
Let’s go then. This preview looks at the European challenge and adds in others available for the official European Tour fantasy game. Matt Cooper’s preview will look at some of the outsiders/sleeper options.
The Leading Contenders
A brilliant six-shot winner of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open on the links at Portstewart GC two weeks ago but he isn’t going to be shooting 24-under at Royal Birkdale (Harrington carded +3 to triumph in 2008 and seven of the other eight Opens held there were won in single digits under par). That said, Rahm is doing some amazing things this season and his breakthrough PGA Tour victory also came on the coast at Torrey Pines. It’s worth noting that he turned pro just before last year’s Open at Royal Troon where he made the cut and finished T59.
Rory would love some of Rahm’s swagger at the moment. The four-time major champ will enter this Open on the back of three missed cuts in his last four starts, the latest two coming on links courses in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Despite the usual soundbites that he’s “close”, gamers are losing faith and many won’t be convinced that a windy par 70 is the ideal hunting ground for a Rory revival. That said, he did battle the elements well to finish T5 at Royal Troon last year while he won the 2014 Claret Jug at Hoylake (just 28 miles along the coast from Royal Birkdale).
For Mark O’Meara in 1998 (won first major at Masters before coming to Royal Birkdale three months later and adding another), read Sergio in 2017, perhaps. That’s certainly a very realistic outcome for the Spaniard given that he has a wonderful Open record with 10 top 10s. It includes T5-T6-T2 in his last three while he was also runner-up in 2007. He didn’t get it going at Royal Birkdale in 2008 when T51 (perhaps a reaction to the previous year’s heartbreak at Carnoustie?) although he was T15 going into the final day. Since his Augusta glory, Garcia has finished 30-20-12-21-2 so he deserves to be a hugely popular pick this week.
The then amateur Rose first introduced himself to a worldwide golf audience at Royal Birkdale in 1998 when completing a memorable week by famously holing out at 18 to finish T4. Curiously, he’s never bettered that finish in 14 subsequent Open starts although he was T6 at St. Andrews two years ago and has made the top 25 for the last three years. A hugely unfortunate runner-up to great friend Sergio at Augusta National this year, Rose would be a deserved winner and he enjoyed a nice links prep with T4 in the Irish Open two weeks ago.
The local man and we really do mean local. Fleetwood and his dad would walk the dog at Royal Birkdale and he used to sneak on and play a few holes as a young kid. He, himself, is expecting a first baby in October (so will shut it down for a while after September) and life is certainly sweet all round after his sensational 2017. Wins in Abu Dhabi and France and a top four in the U.S. Open have rocketed him up to a career-high 14th in the world rankings and his form heading to his hometown Open reads 4-6-1-10. There will be distractions, of course, but if the laid-back Fleetwood can handle them he can run another huge race on ground so familiar.
Like Garcia, Stenson also has a recent historical precedent in his favor. Nine years ago, Padraig Harrington came to Royal Birkdale with the Claret Jug and left with it still in his possession. It’s a huge ask to win back-to-back Opens but Harrington and Tiger both did it in the previous decade and Stenson was T3 at Royal Birkdale in 2008. He’s clearly a big fan of the course and links golf in general having made the top three in four of his last eight Opens. The World No. 7 honed his skills with T26 in the Scottish Open last week.
Not available for the official European Tour fantasy game but Casey should certainly be considered for selection in other formats. Firstly, he has some Royal Birkdale pedigree having taken T7 there in 2008, an Open finish he’s only beaten once (T3 at St. Andrews in 2010). He’s not played well in this event since but some strong form this year, including 6th at Augusta National, 26th in the U.S. Open and T5 at the Travelers on his most recent start, suggests a challenge is brewing
The defense of his Scottish Open crown didn’t go well (missed cut) but pulling the camera back a little to get a wider picture shows that he has a win (at Wentworth thanks to a closing 62), two top 10s (PLAYERS Championship and Open de France) and a T15 (Nordea Masters) in his last six starts. The Swede has played well, indeed won, in windy conditions and it’s notable that he was T19 on his Open debut at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and that included a double bogey at the 72nd hole. Also T9 in the 2012 Open at nearby Royal Lytham, Noren could give handsome reward this week.
The Belgian made his Open debut 12 months ago at Royal Troon and impressed, opening with a 68 and posting T30. He’s made a significant jump since and T4 on his Masters debut shows just what is possible. He’s been mixing missed cuts and top 15s since and perhaps there are more suitable Open venues than this (St. Andrews an obvious first thought) but Pieters has the talent and belief to put on another big show.
The battling South African has delivered four top five finishes in his last 10 majors so can be a real factor at this level. A little surprisingly, T20 at St. Andrews is his only top 40 finish in six Open starts although that modest record must improve soon. He’s a winner in windy conditions in Qatar (2015 and 2016) and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship (2012) and could be coming into form at the right time after T15 in the Scottish Open last week and T9 at Wentworth two starts earlier.
He’d be one of the first names on the team if this Open were at St. Andrews (won there by seven in 2010 and lost a play-off in 2015) but gamers will need a little more convincing at other venues. He didn’t play at Royal Birkdale in 2008 while his best finish away from the Old Course is T19 at Royal Lytham in 2012. The South African has connected four top 25s since April, the obvious highlight his second place in the PLAYERS Championship. Last seen finishing T23 at the U.S. Open.
The name ‘Wiesberger’ hasn’t been seen on the famous yellow Open scoreboards yet. In fact, his record is not just poor but surprisingly poor (64-MC-68-MC) so managers will need to take him on trust a little. Better news comes from looking at his form in this year’s majors (T45 Masters, T16 U.S. Open) and his week-to-week results which show a string of top 10s and 20s over the last 12 months. He played the Scottish Open although T51 wasn’t the prep the Austrian was hoping for.
The Next Rung
We’re 14 majors into Reed’s career at this level and he’s still to manage a single top 10. That’s a fairly harsh assessment though given that he’s posted top 15s in three of his last four and six top 25s since the start of 2015 so he’s getting there. That batch of results includes T20 at St. Andrews and T12 at Royal Troon so the American, who is available for the official European Tour fantasy game, is a legitimate pick even if though his very latest start resulted in MC at the Scottish Open (eight top 25s in nine starts prior to that).
The Open has been kind to the 40-somethings in recent years and Westwood would certainly deserve a first major given his string of high-quality performances at this level. The Englishman’s Open record includes four top fours although all of those came when the tournament was held in Scotland. At Royal Birkdale, Westwood was T64 in 1998 and T67 in 2008 although he says it’s one of his top three favorite Open courses. He missed the cut in the Irish Open last time but, against that negative, he posted a top 10 in France two starts ago and was T18 at Augusta National.
The Irishman closed out victory in style at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and looked all set to give himself the perfect boost ahead his return there when taking the 36-hole lead in last week’s Scottish Open. Harrington wobbled badly on Saturday when the weather turned nasty (missing short putts the main culprit) but bounced back to finish T4. Not that we needed it, but that was a timely reminder of how good the two-time Open champ can be on links courses and T17 in the Travelers adds to the feeling that he’s in a good place again.
With his wonderful short game and ability to shine in poor conditions, Lowry should be an Open contender for many years to come. He’s got it wrong the last two years (MC-MC) but did show his skills when T9 at Hoylake in 2014 and he’s finished T32 (2013) and T37 (2010) in his other two Opens. The 2016 U.S. Open runner-up was T20 in his home Irish Open two weeks ago and before that T15 at Memorial and T6 at Wentworth so he’s offered enough hints that this could be a breakout week.
When Poulter lined up a 20-foot par putt on the 72nd hole at Royal Birkdale in 2008, he believed it could be to win the tournament. He holed it, a portent for his clutch putting at future Ryder Cups. In the end it proved academic as Padraig Harrington stormed past him but Poulter said it was one of the best weeks of his life. He loves the venue and second place at Sawgrass and T9 (despite poor final round) at the Scottish Open on Sunday shows that he’s still a factor in big events.
The South African made his Open debut in 2003 but didn’t qualify for Royal Birkdale in 2008. His record is solid and T18 at Royal Troon last year represented a fifth top 20 in his last seven Open starts, the highlight T7 at Hoylake in 2014. Also solo third at Augusta National earlier this year, he played some more fine golf to post T2 in the St. Jude Classic, a week before missing the cut in the U.S. Open. Perhaps not the first name that springs to mind, he could be a sneaky pick nevertheless.
A par 70 of modest length that needs plenty of strategy should be in Fitzpatrick’s wheelhouse although he’s not delivered at other venues when he seemed to have the cards in his favor. There are two very obvious recent examples, T54 at the Irish Open and a missed cut at the Scottish Open while he also crashed out at halfway in the Open de France so recent form is a concern. Fitzpatrick was the Low Amateur (T44) on his Open debut in 2013 but missed the cut at Royal Troon last year. He’s finished 32nd and T35th in this year’s majors.
He’s 8-for-9 at the Open Championship with three top 12s. That record began at Royal Birkdale in 2008 although 79-77 on the weekend left him alone in 80th. Kaymer has made his last 10 cuts in majors so offers plenty of reliability but since his career-best T16 at the Masters in April he’s gone flat, not managing a single top 30 in seven starts. There were no signs of a revival in last week’s Scottish Open where he missed the cut.
A star in Florida earlier this season, that form allied to his excellent results on the links would have made Hatton hot property with gamers here. But after hitting the giddy heights of 14th in the world rankings he’s dropped back to 24th and heads to Royal Birkdale on the back of four missed cuts. Of extra concern is that the latest two have come on links courses at the Irish and Scottish Opens so it’s a big ask for him to find his best again on this week’s demanding par 70.
Fisher looked set to be a big factor in Scotland last week but an early challenge evaporated and he ended T35. However, T7 in the Open de France, T9 at Wentworth, a pair of top sixes in China and T5 (Match Play) and T3 (Mexico) in two WGC events represents an impressive body of work and he’s improved his world ranking from 71st to 43rd during that run. Fisher once held a two-stroke lead in the final round of an Open (Turnberry, 2009) but faded to T13. He’s not managed anything better than T37 since but T39 at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and this year’s fine form suggests he could play a part.
The Italian has made his last five Open cuts and T9 (2013) and T15 (2014) were promising efforts. That said, he has just two top 10s from 31 starts in the majors so it’s justifiable to overlook him at the very highest level given his inability to change the storyline. Molinari was runner-up at Wentworth and T6 at Sawgrass but he’s shone at those events numerous times before and yet not carried that same form to the majors.
Sullivan came through the field with a third-round best-of-the-day 67 in tough conditions at last week’s Scottish Open. It didn’t go his way Sunday but T9 added to T20 in the Irish Open and T13 in France so he has some useful and relevant recent form. This will be just his ninth major start but in his two Opens the Englishman has posted T30 at St. Andrews in 2015 and T12 at Royal Troon last year so he’s worth more than just a passing glance.
Royal Birkdale has special memories for Wood. He was a superb T5 when still an amateur back in 2008 and showed it was no fluke by improving to T3 at Turnberry in 2009. He’s become a Ryder Cup player since then and won big at the BMW PGA Championship but his record in the majors has stalled and since those back-to-back Open highs in 2008 and 2009 the giant Englishman hasn’t managed a single top 20. Surely that must change soon and Royal Birkdale would be an obvious venue. Missing the cut in Scotland last week wasn’t in the script after he declared himself over a wrist injury but you only have to go back to early June to find him finishing runner-up in Sweden.
Who’s On The Team?
Sergio Garcia leaps off the page as the best example of offering high-class reliability and he’ll by my go-to guy in any format.
Justin Rose will likely join him in my six-man line-up for the official European Tour fantasy game, but I’m certainly putting Rahm ahead of Rory although I might still squeeze the latter in.
One To Swerve
I’m lukewarm on Martin Kaymer this week due to poor recent form. He might finish T45 but that’s of no real interest.