By Dave Kaplan
If you are a golf nut like me, then you too will not be getting much sleep this week!
The Open — AKA the Open Championship; AKA the British Open — begins on Thursday with four days of early golf broadcasts for us to binge on in the western hemisphere.
And when I say early, I mean super early! Coverage on the Golf Channel will commence at 1:30 am ET on Thursday and Friday mornings and air until 4 pm ET. Then, on Saturday and Sunday, coverage will begin at 4:30 am ET and 4:00 am ET respectively and continue all day long.
Set your alarm clock. Stock up on coffee. Do whatever you need to do to make sure that you will be up and watching the world’s best players go toe-to-toe in pursuit of the Claret Jug at one of the best venues in the sport: Royal Birkdale.
The Open was last played at this historic track in Southport, UK back in 2008 when Ireland’s Padraig Harrington won his second straight British Open title with an overall score of +3 for the week. Conditions were extremely difficult for scoring that year with winds blustering relentlessly all week. Only five players shot under par in the final round and that statistic should be welcome news to anyone who thought that Erin Hills played too easy for the guys at the US Open.
Unlike Erin Hills, Royal Birkdale offers no significant advantage for long hitters. At only 7,173 yards total, the course is relatively short, and its rock-hard fairways make every hole on the course extremely reachable for even the shortest hitting players in the field. In that case, you would think that the better putters in the field would be favoured. Yet, strangely enough, that is not the case. Royal Birkdale’s greens are relatively flat and easy to read, offering little to no advantage for putting wizards like Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
To win at Royal Birkdale, one needs to be both accurate and able to grind through some tough weather. The course’s tight fairways, peppered with pot bunkers and surrounded by thick, penal rough and a sea of waist-high fescue, are challenging enough to navigate on a calm, sunny day. When the wind is howling, as it is expected to be this week with gusts of 25 km/h – 38 km/h projected, scoring can be nearly impossible.
Las Vegas has Dustin Johnson as the overall favourite to win this week, but I’m not nearly as convinced that the No. 1 ranked player in the world will come away from Royal Birkdale victorious. As mentioned above, DJ does not possess a significant length advantage on this golf course, is not much of a grinder, and has cooled off significantly from his torrid play earlier this season. Moreover, DJ has missed his last two cuts and really struggled with his accuracy off the tee at Erin Hills, where the fairways are, in some spots, more than twice as wide as the ones he will be aiming for at Royal Birkdale.
I much prefer Spieth’s chances on a course like this as the Texan has demonstrated a propensity for grinding out tough tournaments throughout his young career. Furthermore, Spieth’s ball-striking stats have been off the charts this season (first in strokes gained: approaching the green; third in proximity to the hole; fifth in greens in regulation percentage) and his short game has seemingly come together at the right time to do some real damage at Royal Birkdale.
The same arguments could be made about Rickie Fowler. The 28-year-old has also been a ball-striking machine all season long and his game also appears to be rounding into form at the perfect time. Fowler, who is one of the best wind players on the PGA Tour, has now accrued Top-10 finishes in four of his last five starts including a tie for 9th at the Scottish Open last week. Amongst his peers, Fowler is 8th in strokes gained: approaching the green and 10th in strokes gained: tee-to-green. Fowler has had success in the event before (T-5 in 2011; T-2 in 2014) and will likely be motivated to win this week after letting the US Open slip away from him last month.
Sergio Garcia also has a very good chance to win his first Open title this week. Not only has the Spaniard played in two Open Championships at Royal Birkdale before (1998, 2008), but he has also racked up 10 previous Top-10 finishes at the tournament over the course of his career. Garcia has played at an extremely high level all year and currently ranks second in strokes gained: off-the-tee, third in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and 18th in strokes gained: around-the-green. Incredibly, he has also not missed a cut in any of his 11 starts on the PGA Tour this season, so it’s almost a given that he will be around for the weekend.
Of course, it seems like there is always a veteran in the mix every single year at the Open. If that player is not Garcia, then it could very well be either Henrik Stenson or Phil Mickelson — or both! Remember the exciting shootout for the Claret Jug between those two that we witnessed on Sunday last year at Royal Troon? Who is to say that something similar won’t happen again?
Stenson has not been fantastic on the PGA Tour this season with six missed cuts, including early departures at The Masters and at the US Open. However, the Swede is the defending champion going into the week. He also finished with a pair of runners up at WGC events to start the year and has played significantly better across the pond this season than he has in North America. Plus, when the Open was last played at Royal Birkdale, Stenson finished tied for third place!
Mickelson, on the other hand, will be playing in his first major without long-time caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay in over a quarter century and that, in and of itself, will be interesting to watch. The southpaw did not have much success at the Open during the first half of his career, but appears to have figured out links golf over the last decade. Since 2011, Mickelson has finished as a runner up or better at the Open on three different occasions, including, most notably, his victory at Muirfield in 2013. Lefty has not won yet this season, but he has also not missed the cut either in any of his 16 starts on the PGA Tour. You could say that the 47-year-old is due …
On the other hand, it is just as conceivable that we will have yet another first-time major winner come Sunday. Each of the last seven major tournaments has been won by first-time winners, dating back to Jason Day’s victory at the 2015 PGA Championship. With so much talent once again in this year’s field, we might very well see that streak extend to eight first-timers.
It would be an amazing story if Englishman Tommy Fleetwood were able to win the Open in what is essentially his backyard, but I also would not be surprised if any one of Fowler, Jon Rahm, Thomas Pieters, Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama, Daniel Berger, or Branden Grace is hoisting the Claret Jug on Sunday.
Or maybe — just maybe — we will see the first-ever Canadian champion in Open tournament history. Canadians Adam Hadwin and Austin Connelly (Connelly is a dual citizen, whom we are only too happy to claim as one of our own!) will both make their Open Championship debuts this week. What a story it would be if either Canuck played himself into contention with some strong play in Southport this week! In case you are waiting until the last possible moment to fill out your Open office pools, Hadwin is actually a really good dark horse bet for this week. The bearded Canadian is 5th in sand save percentage, 13th overall in scrambling, and 18th in scrambling from the rough — I think that skill-set could be a major asset for Hadwin at Royal Birkdale this week.
On the women’s side last week, we saw a relatively unknown 17-year-old amateur nearly topple the world’s best players to win the US Women’s Open.
Who knows what excitement is in store for us at the Open this week?!
Dave Kaplan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and golf fanatic who is sneaky long off the tee. He’s on a crusade to inject a youthful perspective into golf media, especially the broadcast booth. Follow him on Twitter @davykap