The Open 2019 Preview, Picks & Analysis
FOR the first time in 68 years The Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland with the magnificent Royal Portrush hosting the world’s oldest major. And can you even begin to imagine the pressure on the shoulders of Rory McIlroy as he attempts to end a drought that goes all the way back to 2014? Tickets for this tournament were sold out within hours of going on sale last year and you can be absolutely certain that almost every person who will be there will be willing McIlroy to win.
In an attempt to improve his chances of adding to his tally of four majors, the 30-year-old announced that he would be playing almost exclusively in the United States. He has won twice in 2019, at the Players Championship and the Canadian Open, but his performances in the season’s three majors to date have been bitterly disappointing, as he would be the first to admit. He arrived at Augusta full of confidence, believing he had every chance of completing his career grand slam. He finished 21st as Tiger Woods completed his triumphant comeback with an emotional victory. Next up was the US PGA Championship. This was going to be the week. He finished in a tie for eighth place. And then it was on to Pebble Beach for the US Open, on a course that is made for his game. The week ended with McIlroy tied for ninth.
The harsh truth is that his new approach has made little or no difference to his performances in the majors, the tournaments he craves more than any. In the meantime, the likes of Brooks Koepka has pickled up four majors. He successfully defended his US PGA Championship title, while finishing second at both Augusta and Pebble Beach. Suddenly, Koepka is the man to beat. Most pundits still agree that when he is at his best there is no better golfer on the planet than McIlroy. But his results since landing both The Open and US PGA Championship in 2014 tell a very different story.
How will he perform at Royal Portrush? The good news is that he knows the course. And the incredible local support will surely inspire him. Imagine the roars that will echo around this wonderful golf course if he holes a 30-foot birdie putt on the first hole. Or how they will react if he can find an eagle. It will be deafening and it will get his adrenalin flowing in a manner even McIlroy may never have experienced before.
It is shameful that Northern Ireland has had to wait almost 70 years for The Open to return to its shores. Everybody talks about the passion of Scottish golf fans, but anybody who has ever attended the Irish Open or who was lucky enough to have been at the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club will attest to the fervour of Irish golf followers on both sides of the border. They love all sport and they are as desperate for McIlroy to win as the player himself.
The chances are that McIlroy will come up short once again. So will it be one of the usual suspects who wins, or will there be a surprise champion?
It is difficult to ignore the claims of Koepka. Like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Woods before him, the American builds his entire season around the majors. He has only won six times - and four of those victories have come in the majors. That is quite a record. There have also been seven top-10 finishes, including those two runner-up positions this year. However, his record at The Open is not great, with a best of tied sixth behind Jordan Spieth at Birkdale in 2017. Koepka is a man who hits the ball high, which will be just fine if he gets four calm days in Northern Ireland. The chances of that are slim to non-existent, and it is likely that he will struggle if and when the wind starts to blow. And the same can be said of Dustin Johnson.
Spieth has been struggling for the best part of 12 months but he loves links golf and has rediscovered that magical putting stroke. If he can find a way to keep the ball in play, he is certain to be in the mix again. And another American who is easily capable of taking the Claret Jug back across the Atlantic is Xander Schauffele, one of the best of the current young brigade of superstars, and a man who is not frightened of beating the best player in the world.
There will be much focus on Tiger Woods and his attempt to win his 16th major. The reality is that he surely hasn’t played enough competitive golf since winning at Augusta. He took part in the US PGA Championship without playing a single competitive round of golf after The Masters and it was little surprise that he duly missed the cut. He then played at The Memorial, where he enjoyed a top-10 finish and had to settle for 21st place at the US Open. He has a big problem these days, managing his battered body while attempting to remain competitive. It is a seriously difficult balancing act for a man who loves to compete as much as Woods does. So he will bowl up at Royal Portrush with his last tournament having been that US Open. It means he is still going to be rusty. But remember that this is the man who found himself leading The Open at Carnoustie heading into the back nine 12 months ago, and nobody had given him a prayer there either.
Ultimately, he came up short and had to give best to Francesco Molinari. You will remember that the roles were reversed at Augusta, where Molinari twice came to grief in the water on the back nine. The Italian has struggled since his Augusta meltdown but he is a resilient character and will be determined to make a decent fist of defending the title he won so magnificently 12 months ago.
McIlroy and Molinari apart, the European challenge is most likely to be led by Justin Rose, Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood. Rose and Fleetwood both have the patience required for the challenges that will lie ahead. No matter how well you strike the ball, no matter how good your form is and no matter how well you putt, on a links course such as this every single player in the field is going to get the occasional unfair bounce, and it is how you deal with those that will go a long way towards determining how well you do. Rose and Fleetwood will take everything that is thrown at them in their stride. There is no doubt whatsoever that Rahm will win majors, and probably several of them, but does he have the temperament to win The Open? In time, perhaps he will. But for now, there remain huge question marks about his ability to take the bad breaks in his stride, eliminate them from his mind and just get on with the job in hand. When he finally learns to do that he will be just about unbeatable.
If you are looking for an outsider, you might want to put a few bob on Matt Wallace and Keegan Bradley. Wallace has become a world-class golfer. It took him a while to get there but now he is bursting with self-belief. He played superbly at the US PGA Championship, came within a whisker of successfully defending his BMW International Open title in Germany and finds himself with a great opportunity to win the Race to Dubai. Bradley is a golfer we all love to hate but he is hugely determined and he has patience in spades. He also knows what it takes to win a major.
Rory McIlroy. How could you bet again him?
Kevin Kisner. A terrific links golfer
Bernd Wiesberger: Back to his very best
Rory McIlroy. It's time to end that drought
Kevin Kisner. Fierce competitor
Bernd Wiesberger: In the form of his life
Keegan Bradley. Could cause a surprise
Francesco Molinari. Looking to make a little bit of history with a successful title defence
Justin Rose. Runner-up 12 months ago - can he go one better this time?
Matt Wallace. Has no weaknesses
Jon Rahm. Patience required
Tommy Fleetwood. Having a quiet season, and will want to put that right
Jordan Spieth. Do NOT write him off
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