The Open Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
JUSTIN ROSE returns to Royal Birkdale determined to go full circle at The Open Championship. It was back in 1998 that he burst upon the scene as a 17-year-old amateur, holing his approach at the 18th hole in the final round to finish joint fourth.
It is hard to believe that it is 19 years since the Englishman came so close to writing his own piece of history. He has since won the US Open and the gold medal at the Olympic Games, won the Race to Dubai and picked up titles all around the globe. Rose is a man who cares about the traditions and history of this game and he knows full well that this Open probably represents his best chance of winning a second major.
Now 36 years old, he has seen and done it all, but he has never improved on that finish at the 1998 Championship, his next best being a tie for sixth at St Andrews in 2015. Those are his only top-10 finishes, but there have also been five missed cuts and a further four years where he did not even qualify to make the starting field. His record at the US PGA Championship includes three top 10s and he has twice finished second at The Masters, behind Jordan Spieth in 2015, when his total would have won him a Green Jacket on just about any other year, and earlier this year when he played brilliantly for four days and finished tied with Sergio Garcia, who went on to beat him in a playoff.
Rose arrives at Birkdale having warmed up at the Irish Open and is fully tuned to the demands of links golf. Birkdale has changed since Rose made his first appearance there but he will still experience some very special feelings.
The same can be said of Tommy Fleetwood, whose astonishing form this season has seen him rocket up the world rankings. In any circumstances, he would be among the favourites based entirely on his recent form, but the young Englishman has the significant advantage of local knowledge, having been born in Southport and learnt his golf in this part of the world. Most golfers struggle to cope with the demands of links golf, but for Fleetwood it is second nature.
A slight figure, he is one of the longest, straightest drivers on the European Tour and he will step on to the first tee on Thursday with massive local support. It could work against some golfers, but not Fleetwood. At the very top of his game, he will surely be inspired by being cheered to the rafters every time he hits a shot. He is now an established star but even he will experience the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end when he walks down the 18th fairway.
The likes of Rory McIlroy will hope for four days of flat calm weather. Fleetwood will be hoping that the wind blows. So, too, will Rickie Fowler, who will be looking to become the latest American to triumph here.
Birkdale has hosted The Open nine times since 1954, when it was won by Peter Thomson, of Australia. Arnold Palmer won in 1961, Thomson again in 1965, Lee Trevino in 1971, Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983), Ian Baker-Finch (1991), Mark O'Meara (1998) and in 2008 by Padraig Harrington. Five of those champions were Americans and Baker-Finch has spent much of his life in the United States and could almost be regarded as an honorary American.
Fowler is desperate to join that list. He has been a world-class golfer for what seems like an awfully long time, but is still only 28 years old. He was rookie of the year on the PGA Tour as long ago as 2010. In 2014, he finished in the top five in all four majors. The following year he won the Players Championship at Sawgrass with one of the most astonishing finishes ever witnessed - he eagled the par five 16th, birdied the notorious island green 17th and also birdied the 18th to force himself into a playoff with Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner, during which Fowler won after two further birdies on the 17th. Later that year he added the Scottish Open.
Week after week, Fowler works his way into contention but, remarkably, he has won only four times in America, along with two victories on the European Tour. Crucially, one of those victories came at the Honda Classic this year, and he also finished in a tie for fifth place in the US Open at Erin Hills. Birkdale should be made for Fowler, all the more so if it is windy. Challenging weather conditions are a great equaliser, with the cream rising to the very top when players have to consider the effects of a crosswind or club selection into a 25mph wind. If he arrives in England with his A-game he will take some beating.
What of defending champion Henrik Stenson? Nobody who watched him go head to head with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon will ever forget it. To take on a golfer of Mickelson's class at the top of his game in the final round of a major and shoot a 63 still defies belief. It was all a dream come true for the Swede. To be frank, Stenson has not enjoyed a great season, but he possesses a will or iron and nobody should be too surprised if he makes a stout defence of the Claret Jug.
Jordan Spieth will probably never recapture the incredible form he demonstrated in 2015, when he won The Masters and the US Open and came within a whisker of adding The Open and the US PGA Championship. But then again, who ever would. He is back in form, hitting the ball and putting like, well, like Jordan Spieth. He can never be overlooked.
The same can be said for Hideki Matsuyama, who showed a liking for links golf at the Irish Open at Portstewart. The Japanese golfer has few weaknesses and will surely win a major sooner or later. Birkdale may just be the course that provides him with his best opportunity. He tends to play his best golf in bursts of form that last for weeks, and he looks like he might just be approaching that kind of form that makes him irresistible - and well-nigh unbeatable.
Four months ago, Dustin Johnson would have been most people's choice as favourite to add to the US Open title he won in 2016. He could do nothing wrong until injuring himself after falling on a stair on the eve of The Masters. He was forced to withdraw at Augusta and although he returned soon afterwards, he has been unable to recapture the form that made him look unbeatable for much of last year and during the first three months of 2017. Only an idiot would write off his chances, especially as he has twice come close to winning The Open, but it would be a surprise if he were the man hoisting the Claret Jug above his head on Sunday.
There will be a whole heap of money being wagered on Jon Rahm, the 22-year-old Spaniard who was a relative unknown this time last year but has taken the world of professional golf by storm. Not since Tiger Woods burst upon the scene in 1996 has a player made such an impression. He is now firmly established in the top 10 in the world rankings and will surely remain there for a very long time. His performance in winning the Irish Open was astonishing. We all knew that he could propel the ball huge distances, but many pundits were taken by surprise by his ability to use his imagination. He knew that he had the game to be creative, playing all manner of knockdown shots to destroy the tournament scoring record. And his performance on the greens was spectacular.
And, finally, we turn our attention to Rory McIlroy. He will have plenty of support but he is still struggling for consistency. In failing to make the cut at Portstewart, he missed too many fairways, failed to put his irons close enough to the hole and, crucially, couldn't buy a putt. The Northern Irishman will always be a streaky player, but he looks like a man struggling for ideas right now, and the harder he tries, the more difficult it seems to be for him. But do not rule him out...
To Win: Rickie Fowler. It is his time
Each Way: Jon Rahm. Has every shot in the book
Each Way: Tommy Fleetwood. Can he cope with the pressure?
Rickie Fowler. Ready to win his first major
Jon Rahm. Has answered every question
Tommy Fleetwood. Best home hope
Justin Rose. Looking to complete the story
Jordan Spieth. Back to his best
Rory McIlroy. Needs a big, big week
Alex Noren. Can now win anywhere
Henrik Stenson. Determined to make good defence
Hideki Matsuyama. Will be hoping for a calm week
Dustin Johnson. Looking to rediscover early-season brilliance
Images Courtesy of Kevin Diss Photography.
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