The great sporting summer has not been the one British and hopefully English fans wished for but there is a great source of pride for home sport as the Open returns to Hoylake at Royal Liverpool this week.
We have an English favourite for the first time since the 1990’s with Nick Faldo, but for Justin Rose and the other 156 competitors taking part in this week’s event will have to conquer the links at Liverpool.
The second oldest seaside links course in England, Hoylake was once the home of the Liverpool Hunt Club, and was a racing venue alone with a golf course for it’s early existence. It has a rich history not only in British sporting history and also The Open, having hosted 11 previous Championships – 1897, 1902, 1907, 1913, 1924, 1930, 1936, 1947, 1956, 1967 and 2006.
It is the last of those which should be the main form focus (given that the only, other significant tournaments stages at Hoylake have been Ametur Championships in 1995 and 2000) with Tiger Woods having taken it apart with an astonishing 18 under par total for one of his most emotional triumphs – his father Earl having died just a few months earlier – smoking a roasting track his iron, using his driver just once, aided by the scorching temperatures and the windless conditions to rack up a succession of tee to green shots.
Things have changed since then, even if subtle. There are now 82 bunkers in total, and 5 holes have swales – A small hill or depression on a golf course – with minor yardage changes meaning the course plays longer than it did 8 years ago, by just 54 yards, but the real changes are the par 4 second, which is some 18 yards longer, the par 4 seventh, which has been lengthen by 27 yards, and the par 5 16th hole, which now measures 23 yards longer than it did in 2006. The par 4 opener is now described as the “hardest opening hole on the Open rota” with new bunkers and harder run off areas on each side here is also the new broken ground created in the rough around a number of holes, according to the organisers themselves.
For links, this course is a fairly high scoring and by these standards – and oh please, whisper this quietly – easy course by these standards, unless the wind is blowing as the course is amongst the flattest to be found on the professional circuit.
It’s pretty obvious that you need to have an exceptional game and it must be in top shape but there are certain ingredients that are needed for an Open champion and history tells us that this is so. With the approaches having been toughened up significantly from either side on a number of holes, touch and accuracy are two of the most vital skills for champions here.
Rain is forecast to take the edge of the course, which lends one to take big hitters as a positive although that goes without saying that you must have driving accuracy as the runoffs from either side could be the difference between victory and defeat. Also, as Steven Rawlings explains in such detail, Par 4 scoring is essential but top scramblers are a must; There are four 5 fives, and in 2006 anyone in the top 10 played them at a worse of 8 under par. Previous Open Championship form is a must, but that goes without saying.
Moving onto who the men going for the claret jug, and those who we fancy and why; Favourite Justin Rose burst onto the scene when a brilliant tied fourth as an 18-year-old amateur at Royal Birkdale 6 years ago, he broke his major duck at the US Open last year, bringing the promise of several promising shows there to fruition.
He has been backed into favouritism for this week, an with good reason, following wins in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional and then the Scottish Open as well, making him arrive at Hoylake as the in-form player here. His win at Scotland is so vital purely because his three missed cuts in the last 4 opens raise great doubts over his ability to play the links game at this level, but there looks to be no reason that he shouldn’t be a major player if he turns up in the same form and handles the pressure –Britain needs a big sporting winner and it’s been 22 years since an Englishman won.
Of the market leaders, Adam Scott makes more appeal. The Australian World.1 has not appeared since the US Open when ninth, but he goes well off a light schedule and everything else looks set for a massive bid here. Before his US Open finish, he was fourth at the Memorial Tournament, and then won the Crowne Plaza Invitational in a playoff with Jason Dufner. This is a marked improvement on some disappointing showings in the first half of the year, and the amount of time dedicated to practising his game here – he has had 5 full rounds at Royal Liverpool under his belt at the time of writing – is a serious sign of intent for a man who has a score to settle with this tournament.
Scott should’ve won this in 2012 when he had a four shot lead at Royal Lytham and St Annes but he has since converted a string of near misses to a first masters victory and he was third last year as well at Muirfield. He has finished in the top 15 in 11 of his last 14 majors, an astonishing run of consistency at this level, and his strong ball striking and fine putting are two of the things most needed for Hoylake, and to top it all off he was eighth here in 2008 when a mere novice – he arrive here a champion.
Where Scott seems to be, Henrik Stenson is not far away and it is a matter of when, not if, he captures his first major. The Swede’s 2013 was a season that few could even dream of, winning the Race to Dubai and FedEx Cup, and after injury problems and equipment troubles, he looks to be coming back to the relentlessly consistent best that saw him soar so highly.
In his last four starts, he has been seventh at Wentworth for the PGA, fifth in Sweden for the Scandinavian Masters, fourth in the US open, and second, beaten only by a playoff, in the BMW International in Germany. He comes here arriving in top form, but to seal the deal he has an Open record t die for with three top three finishes in his last five appearances – third at Royal Birkdale in 2008, third at St Andrews in 2010 and runner-up at Muirfield last year.
Rory McIlroy is next best and his Scottish Open 14th is a nice warmup for this event, even with the frustration of giving up an opening 64 with a 78 the next day – forget the Irish Open when the home pressure and off field events got to him – and he has finished outside the top 20 just three times this year. However his debutant status at Hoylake is one worries, his poor Open record – since tying for third he has gone –T25-T60-Missed cut – is another and enough to put me off.
The fact it’s not a shock to see Tiger Woods at 25’s says a lot about his fall from fortune, but there’s a good argument to suggest that the 14 time major winner should be longer than that. He won the last of his three Opens here but injury has blighted a career that will be remembered forever short and he missed the cut but four shots on his return from a 4 month layoff for back surgery when last seen; It will be a battle to make the weekend this time around.
Last year’s winner Phil Mickleson is also added to the portfolio. There once looked to be a time that he would never get on with links – even his third at Troon had looked to be a flash in the pan – but his third at Royal St Georges was the effort of a layer finally getting along with the Open and he brushed off a missed cut to win the Scottish Open and then follow up with an astonishing closing stretch 12 months ago to take this title in fine style. This year he has been low key, missing out on the US Open, but he played well in Scotland last week when putting well and showing a game that seemed to be in good general shape, and expecting an improvement from that is not unreasonable.
Defending majors is hellishly difficult but it has been done in the Open, with Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington having done it this century alone, and he may peak at the right time just again to become the third to do it.
Sergio Garcia’s promise could come to fruition at any time and there are many positives to him, but the only worry is still a mental one. Strongly fancied for the Masters, he missed the cut then and was little better in the US Open, when he was a flat and disappointing 35th, eight over par, and the worry is that majors are a step too far while the man who had run of six Open top 10s in seven years has a recent record which isn’t as good, 14-9-MC-21; Even his nice efforts the last twice (second place in the Travelers Championship and a 12th in the BMW International Open) don’t quite convince.
I, and many others, have long been of the opinion that Rickie Fowler will win a major soon, and his recent efforts look to have suggested that he’s approaching a peak challenge for major glory. Links have long been a passion of the Florida native, and he showed that talent to the world when blitzing the first 54 holes in a course record on his debut at St Andews and then finishing fifth the next year at Sandwich; He has since failed to show his best but has built an impressive major record for a 25 year old and finished fifth and second in the season’s majors, tuning up for this in fine style with an eighth at Royal Abderdeen; He looks fine value at 45/1.
The portfolio is getting toploaded here but Graeme McDowell is too tempting to leave out. A links specialist, he led here after round 1 in 2006 and was fifth in 2012 at Lytham, while he rejoiced in the filthy weather as he took the French Open, having been four shots behind at one stage into the final round. That was the first time McDowell had retained a title but there’s no fluke about his thriving on difficult courses and inclement weather could help his chances this week.
Now for a couple of bigger priced outsiders; Danny Wilett has been mentioned by better punters than I, but he was 15th last year and now appeals as a better player judged on his third place in Ireland, eight in Germany and then 11th at the Scottish Open last week, an event the last four winners of this event played. He has twice finished in the top 5 of the Dunhill Links, so knows his way around this setup, and it is worth taking a chance that he becomes the top player his talent and results suggests that he can become.
Brendon Todd’s run of form is almost as good. He’s finished inside the top eight in 5 of his last 6 starts, and while it’s a worry that his only failure to make that cut was in the US Open, but he headed out in the leading group on Saturday and may well have learned a lot from that – it’s notable that’s his worst result since winning the Bryon Nelson at the beginning of may, and since then a heavy schedule has paid great dividends for him and the iron may well be hot.
I considered a million other options but the most tempting of them was Matt Kuchar – his ninth in 2012 and 15th last year are signs of him getting to grips with things here and he’s finished in the top 30 in 16 of his last 18 majors but getting past the winning line seems to be an issue for him, with his Masters effort his most promising effort for a long time although again he was moving backwards not forwards towards the end. Even more difficult to pass over was Martin Kaymer, whose US Open win was just astonishing – reminiscent of Tiger Woods at his peak – and his French Open effort was deceptive, given that he found a tiiple bogey eight on the third hole and then a double bogey six on the sixth. He should be better at dealing with the spotlight having won his first major – the USPGA – 4 years ago. The German, make no mistake, can be on the scene.
1 pt each/way Adam Scott (14/1 Boylesports, Betfair)
1 pt each/way Henrik Stenson (16/1 Boylesports)
1 pt each/way Phil Mickleson (25/1 Betfair)
1 pt each/way Graeme McDowell (30/1 Betfair)
1 pt each/way Rickie Fowler (40/1 Betfair)
1 pt each/way Brendon Todd (100/1 Boylesports)
1 pt each/way Danny Wilett (125/1 Boylesports, Betfair)