The 2018 Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
HOW do you follow that? After a World Cup of incredible drama, the eyes of the sporting world turn to Carnoustie and the 147th Open Championship, with Jordan Spieht attempting to become the first man since Padraig Harrington 10 years ago to successfully defend the Claret Jug.
And the omens are not great for the American. He finished third at The Masters but has missed the cut two of his past three starts, including at the US Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Spieth’s victory at Birkdale came in remarkable circumstances, his three-shot 54-hole lead turning into a one-shot deficit after his fifth bogey of the day on the 13th, which involved a 20-minute ruling and playing his third shot from the practice ground. But the 24-year-old somehow regained his composure to play the next four holes in five under par, card a remarkable closing 69 and finish 12 under par, three shots ahead of Matt Kuchar, who also shot 69 after a bogey on the last.
Spieth should at least encounter similar conditions at Carnoustie, which promises to play hard and fast following the recent dry spell in Scotland. Throw in a healthy breeze and it could revive memories of the hardest Open in living memory in 1999.
On that occasion the combination of a severe course set-up and bad weather saw Paul Lawrie, Jean van de Velde and Justin Leonard finish tied on six over par, with Lawrie going on to lift the Claret Jug in a playoff.
Van de Velde needed just to play the 72nd hole in six shots or less but ran up a triple-bogey seven, during which the Frenchman took off his shoes and socks to wade into the Barry Burn in a fruitless attempt to play out of the hazard in front of the green.
Lawrie is absent due to injury but Tiger Woods will contest The Open for the first time since missing the cut at St Andrews in 2015 as he seeks to end a decade-long major championship drought, as well as five years without a win of any description.
Woods was seventh at Carnoustie in 1999 and 12th in 2007, while he also played the course in the 1995 Scottish Open as an amateur. Since returning to action after spinal fusion surgery last year, the 42-year-old has threatened to get back into the winner’s circle, bouncing back from a missed cut in the US Open with a tie for fourth in the Quicken Loans National.
And the omens may well be in his favour given that five of the past seven Open champions - Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Mickelson, Zach Johnson and Henrik Stenson - have been 39 or older, while the dry conditions could be reminiscent of Royal Liverpool in 2006.
Woods famously used his driver just once all week at Hoylake, led the field in fairways hit and won his third Open title a month after missing the cut in the US Open. The precedent exists and there is no doubting a Woods victory would cap one of the most remarkable comebacks of all time.
Elsewhere in the field is the man who carries the title nobody wants - “the best player not to have won a major”. Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Colin Montgomerie, Matt Kuchar are just some of the names that spring to mind who were cursed with the moniker. Garcia, Mickelson and Johnson put it right, of course, while Monty never did and Kuchar still searches for that elusive first major crown.
But there is little doubt as to the identity of the tour player who most desperately wants to get that monkey off his back. It is, of course, one Rickie Fowler, whose latest near-miss came at The Masters in April. In 2014 he famously finished in the top five in all four majors. Everybody thought that it was only a matter of time before he made the breakthrough. But here we are in 2018, and he is still waiting, still looking for that first major success.
You may be surprised to learn that Fowler, aged 29, has only won four times on the PGA Tour, together with a couple of victories on the European Tour.
He won the Wells Fargo in 2012, beating Rory McIlroy, the Players Championship in 2015 when he finished in sensational fashion, defeating Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a playoff, the 2015 Deutsche Bank Championship, beating Henrik Stenson, and last year’s Honda Classic. His European successes came at the 2015 Scottish Open and 2016 Abu Dhabi championship. It has also been largely forgotten that he won the Hero World Challenger in December thanks to a stunning final round of 61 - a victory that was overshadowed by the comeback of Tiger Woods.
Fowler has no weaknesses. He drives the ball superbly, is a wonderful iron player, has a fabulous touch around the greens and is one of the best putters on the planet. He can also play in the wind, knowing how to keep the ball low, and can shape his shots in either direction.
When you put all of this together, you have a man who really should be winning The Open Championship. Fowler also tends to plays his best on tough courses, and they don’t come a lot tougher than Carnoustie.
Not that Fowler is the only one who enjoys a challenge. The same is true of Justin Rose, who actually has a miserable record at The Open. His best performance came at Royal Birkdale in 1998 when he was a 17-year-old amateur and finished fourth. In fact, his only other top-10 finish was at St Andrews in 2015 when he ended the week tied for sixth place.
But Rose is a different player these days. He won the WGC HSBC Champions in October, followed the next month by the Turkish Airlines Open, and in May he added the Fort Worth Invitational. The Englishman has now won nine times on the PGA Tour, including the US Open in 2013, and is overdue a second major. Last year he traded blows with Sergio Garcia at The Masters, eventually losing out to the Spaniard in a playoff.
He has always been a fabulous ball striker but he has now added a world-class putting stroke to his game and it seems that every time he steps out onto a golf course he finds himself in contention.
McIlroy's play from tee to green during the Irish Open was sensational but he has no confidence whatsoever on the greens. There are times when it looks like he will never hole another putt again, and that even if the hole was six inches wide he still wouldn’t be able to hole the ball. But on his day he remains the most exciting player in world golf.
Henrik Stenson, the champion from two years ago, is another to keep an eye on. The key to scoring well at Carnoustie is to keep the ball in play. Stenson hits a three wood further than anybody else and he hits it straight.
Rickie Fowler. It’s his time
Justin Rose. Sure to be there or thereabouts
Henrik Stenson. Great each-way bet
Rickie Fowler. Will love it of the wind blows
Justin Rose. The tougher the course, the better he likes it
Henrik Stenson. Difficult to overlook
Tommy Fleetwood. Loves links golf
Sergio Garca. Due another big week
Brooks Koepka. A quality act
Rory McIlroy. Come on Rory, get your act together
Patrick Reed. Could easily add a second major of the season
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Don’t be surprised to see the Spaniard in contention
Alexander Bjork. A bit of a left-field choice but this boy can play
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