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The Open Championship, British Open, Champion Golfer of the Year, Claret Jug or the Championship Belt: whatever you call it, they all refer to the same event. It's the season’s third major and it is upon us. This year The Open returns to Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, UK, a venue that last hosted in 2001.
Course (Gorse) Preview
Lytham begins unconventionally with a mid-length par-3, and in fact has three par-3’s on the front nine. The inward nine only has one par-5 and one par-3, creating a brutal finish of six straight four-pars. Historically, most of the scoring happens in the first 13 holes and then players try to hold on to the finish.
What is conventional about this links course? Sea breezes, bumpy fairways, lopsided greens and poor weather will all be present at the 7,100-yard, par-70 venue. For several weeks, reports out of Lytham have been that the course has been unusually lush and soggy, a result of the very wet spring experienced in the UK. After playing his first practice round of the week, Tiger Woods was asked about the thick rough and exclaimed, “Oh my God! It’s just that you can’t get out of it. I’ve never seen the rough this high. Or thick and dense. The wispy stuff, we’ve always faced that at every Open. But that bottom six inches, in some places it’s almost unplayable.” 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley echoed Woods sentiments calling the course, “very spotty” and that “One foot to the left, you are hitting in to the green, another foot and you are chipping to the fairway.” Along with the difficult rough, the other defense that this course boasts is its 206 bunkers (most of any Open course), many of them deeper than you are tall. Many of the players have likened them to water hazards, because if the player finds himself in one, there will be no other option than to just chip out sideways. The recipe to win at Lytham is not to overpower it; rather, it is a test of golf that demands accuracy and strategy. That said, as with every Open Championship, mental toughness and luck of the draw will also be required.
This Open site probably has the best collection of champions of any of the Open Rota courses. Past winners at Lytham include: Bobby Jones, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles, Tony Jacklin, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros (twice), Tom Lehman and David Duval. In all 10 of these championships it seems as if the best players in the world at the time rose to the top of the leaderboard, which bodes well for the top ranked players in the field. An interesting fact about all of those who have lifted the Claret Jug at Lytham: they were all at some point and time ranked No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Here are some of the feature pairings and local times. My personal favorite aspect of the Open is the first tee introduction by Ivor Robson: (in my best English R&A accent), “On the tee from USA, Tiger Woooods!”
Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Zach Johnson – 9:09 a.m.
Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose – 9:42 a.m.
Ryo Ishikawa, Martin Kaymer, Tom Watson – 9:53 a.m.
Rory McIlroy, Keegan Bradley, Louis Oosthuizen – 2:21 p.m.
Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson, Geoff Ogilvy – 2:43 p.m.
Robert Garrigus, Jim Furyk, Jason Day – 1:02 p.m
- Lee Westwood. Finally. The week Lee gets the major monkey off his back. He is in his home country of England and is trying to snap the 43-year drought of Englishmen failing to win the Open on their own turf. Westwood has finished in the top 10 in half of the majors he’s competed in since 2009; I would call that knocking on the door. He is widely considered the best ball striker in the world, which fits the bill for this course. If he can knock down a few putts, literally just a few, he is my choice to be dubbed the Champion Golfer of the Year at the end of the week.
- Tiger Woods. A self-described plotter, Woods is at his best when course strategy is at a premium. He has been installed as the bookies favorite, fueled by his three Tour wins this season and his history in the championship (his name is etched on the Claret Jug thrice). However, the last time Woods won the Open was back in 2006 and his record since is less than stellar, with his best finish a T12. After winning at Congressional, Woods inexplicably missed the cut at The Greenbrier, so he comes to Lytham searching for his game a bit. His bunker play needs to be substantially better than it has been – although in 2005 at St. Andrews he never found a bunker, still one of the most amazing feats in tournament history – and he needs to put the ball in play off the tee. I expect a lot of irons and 3-woods off the tee and if he can have a good putting week, he might be able to add to his major total.
- Graeme McDowell. GMac doesn’t have the best Open record, but this course might fit him better than any other in the Rota. He drives the ball straight, makes big putts and loves to play tough golf courses. With the predicted gloomy weather forecast, McDowell should feel right at home in his waterproofs. He narrowly missed out on his second US Open trophy a month ago, but I have a hunch that winning here would be the highlight of his career.
- Sergio Garcia. As C.A. mentioned in the 10fer, the stars could be aligning this week for Sergio. The past results are there: seven career top-10s and has only one missed cut since 2000. His game has been good all season on both tours – zero missed cuts this year, and his style of play fits this major better than any other. His idol and friend Seve Ballesteros won on this soil twice, which is exactly the motivation that could finally push Sergio over that major hurdle.
- Ernie Els. The 2002 champion has too much consistency in this event to ignore. Twelve top-10 finishes including a T2 and a T3 at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s, and he’s had a strong season to date. Another trend to keep an eye on is that Els did not contend the week prior to the Open at the Scotland Open, a result that he has in common with the past two winners (Clarke and Oosthuizen).
- Rory McIlroy – Being seriously undervalued at this point by the media and even by the betting parlors. He’s never missed a cut in The Open and says he is swinging as good as he has all year. Driving accuracy might hold him back from winning, but a top-10 could be in the future.
- Rickie Fowler – Probably had the round of the championship last year with his 68 on that miserable Saturday, and ended up T5. Seems to relish the idea of links golf and the weather that comes along with it. Good finishes the past two years and played very well at the Ryder Cup across the pond two years ago. It would be great for American golf if he were in contention on Sunday and make it four straight majors for the red, white and blue.
- Dustin Johnson – See Fowler, Rickie. He finished T2 last year, too.
- Steve Stricker/Jim Furyk – Both steely veterans that grind and scrap when conditions get tough. Each bases their respective games off of accuracy and short game rather than trying to overpower a golf course, attributes that should benefit them this week. I see Stricker and Furyk in a similar light, both making the weekend and posting a good result.
- Luke Donald – Only one top-10 in 11 appearances, which is very surprising for someone with his short game. Played decent last week at The Scottish but I get the feeling that this is another major in which the World No. 1will fail to contend.
- Paddy Harrington –The two-time champ has been playing some really nice golf of late: top-20’s in his last five tournaments. Obviously he’s well-versed to the weather and the pressure of the Open. A great addition to any six-man Majors Challenge team.
- Nicolas Colsaerts– No history here, but really like his game. Longest driver on the European Tour (probably the world) but is also fairly accurate. If the ‘Muscles from Brussels’ can hit long irons off the tee and be in the same spots as the rest of the field, I smell a top-25 in his Open debut.
- Retief Goosen – Still battling the balky back and his game has suffered because of it. However, The Goose might have the most underappreciated Open record in the field. Eight top-10’s and hasn’t missed a cut since 1998. He was T10 as the US Open so his form could be trending to a solid finish this week.
- Francesco Molinari – Ball striking machine comes in hot and is a very trendy pick. He has back-to-back runner-up finishes on the European Tour, but what’s concerning is the lone top-10 in majors in his 14 appearances.
- Tom Lehman – Champion here in 1996, Lehman is now a dominating force on the Champions Tour. Still a great ball striker which might get him a quiet top-25 finish.
- Potential Busts: Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Jason Dufner
- Sleepers: John Huh, Andres Romero, Raphael Jacquelin, Simon Dyson, Tim Clark
Photo: US Presswire