Open Championship preview

With the Masters and the U.S. Open already in the books it is the turn of the Open Championship which this year returns to England. Royal Birkdale which is based in Southport, just North of Liverpool has played host to this major championship nine times already, most recently in 2008 and returns to the Open rota this year.

The course and what it takes to win here

Royal Birkdale, 7,156 Yards, Par 70

The short answer to what it takes to win at links golf is… everything! It is a true test of a player’s all-round game and no one stat stood out when the Open was played here nine years ago.

Looking at those that finished inside the top-5 the last time the Open was held here, only winner Padraig Harrington (4th) ranked inside the top-20 for Putting Average, whilst Ian Poulter who finished 2nd and Jim Furyk who finished in a tie for 5th were the only two to rank any better than 30th (7th and 5th respectively) in Greens in Regulation.

Distance off the tee is not going to be important with many players being able to take irons off of a lot of the tees, which was also be a sensible play most of the time due to amount of bunkers in-play on this course. The course is only 7,156 yards and when the wind is down or blowing in a favourable direction it can play a fair bit shorter, due to the elevated tees on multiple holes. This of course works both ways though and if the wind is against the players this course will play longer and tougher.

Driving Accuracy as a result will be important this week as it well known that this course is very difficult to play from the rough and also if you find any of the fairway bunkers you can wave goodbye to your chances of finding the green on that hole. Again though, because you can take irons off the tee here over driver, finding the fairway should be a lot easier on a fair few holes.

There are holes, especially if the wind gets up that driver will not only be advantageous but essential so a player finding fairways with regularity over the course of the season will be worth bearing in mind.

Scrambling well after missing the green also looks important as the six players that finished T5 or better here in 2008 all ranked 26th or better in that stat. Harrington ranked 13th whilst Henrik Stenson, Greg Norman and Chris Wood all ranked inside the top-10.

Birkdale’s last winner

Padraig Harrington was victorious nine years ago, defending the title he had won a year previously. Due to the weather conditions, scoring was tough and Harrington won with a winning score of +3 which was four shot better than Englishman, Ian Poulter in 2nd.

The +3 winning score Harrington posted at Birkdale is the only time the score has been over-par in the Open Championship this century. Paul Lawrie’s over-par win at Carnoustie in 1999 was also the first since Sandy Lyle’s in 1985, so it is fair to say it doesn’t happen often in this event.

Mark O’Meara won at Birkdale in 1998 with a level-par winning score as well, so it is fair to say the two most recent Open’s at Birkdale have been a lot tougher than in the past. The average winning score at this course before O’Meara and Harrington’s victory was around the -8 mark, so it will be interesting to see what the score is this year. If the weather is tough it is certainly going to be nearer the level-par mark but we will have to see how that plays out.

1998 Open – The introduction of two stars

The 1998 Open Championship will always be etched in one player’s memory in particular. Justin Rose, who was playing as an amateur managed to finish in a tie for 4th after holing out on the 72nd hole for a final score of +2, which was ten shots better than fellow amateur, Sergio Garcia.

Both players are now major champions, with Rose winning the 2013 U.S. Open and Garcia edging out Rose in this years’ Masters.

Neither impressed on their return to Birkdale in 2008 with Rose finishing T70 and Garcia only slightly better in T51 but both will arrive in Birkdale this week off the back of some decent results. Garcia has finished T30 or better in each of his five events since the Masters, including a T21 at the U.S. Open and a T2 last time out at the BMW International Open.

Rose on the other hand has been less consistent but a T12 finish at the BMW PGA Championship and a T4 finish at the Irish Open in recent starts gives plenty of reason for optimism.

American’s – Links Specialists?

Due to the location and nature of links golf we often favour British players in this event however players from the United States have been the most successful, accounting for 43 Open Championship wins (28 different winners), with Scotland the next best at 41 (22 different winners). Englishman have accounted for 22 wins (13 different winners) whilst Northern Ireland have provided three wins by three different winners. The Republic of Ireland were represented on the winners list twice by Harrington as well.

Since 1995, America can boast an incredible 13 wins including surprise winners Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton, both of whom won since the turn of the century. Phil Mickelson (2013) and Zach Johnson (2015) have kept the flag flying for the U.S. over the last five renewals to ensure Americans keep up their good record in the event.

Age – More than just a number

The Open Championship has often rewarded veterans of the game over the years and the last five years have been no different.

In the last five Open’s the average age of the winner has been 37.8, which was lowered drastically by Rory McIlroy who was just 25 at the time of his 2014 Open victory. Aside from McIlroy, the next youngest winner in this five-year span was Zach Johnson who was 39.

Given the testing conditions and style of play presented only by a links course it is no surprise that experience is rewarded in this event. Constant wind and rain can test the calmest of players so keeping a level-head is key to winning the Claret Jug.

Links experience is by no means overrated

Again of the last five winners, every one of them has had a finish of 6th or better in a previous Open Championship, with Ernie Els already having an Open win to his name and three others finishing inside the top-3.

Johnson was the only player of the last five years to not have a top-3 in the event previously before his win, with a T6 finish in 2013 his best effort before the win.

Another area where Johnson stands alone is being the only champion of the last five years to have not played the Scottish Open the week before, instead opting to play the John Deere Classic where he finished T3.

Els finished T52 at the Scottish Open the week before he won the Open in 2012 however, Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy all impressed the week before in Scotland. Stenson finished T13 at the 2016 Scottish Open the week before he won, whilst McIlroy managed a T14 before his victory at Hoylake. Mickelson went above and beyond them all winning both the Scottish Open and the Open Championship in 2013 making for a memorable fortnight for him in Scotland.

Even though Johnson didn’t play in Scotland he put in a fine performance at his favourite event the week before and it is clear that momentum is momentum heading into the third major of the year.

You have to go back to 2009 when Stewart Cink won the Open to find a winner who hadn’t played the week before his win. Harrington did the same on both his wins in 2007 and 2008, so it appears it is a recent trend that playing the week before is advantageous, but it is a trend now nonetheless.

Without further ado, here are my selections for the 2017 Open Championship.

Rickie Fowler 16/1 (General) 2pts e/w:

I took some 22/1 about Rickie Fowler a fortnight ago and whilst that price is long gone, I strongly believe Fowler is the most likely winner of this event and as such would be foolish to rule him out.

Straight away without looking at anything else, his current form makes him more than a worthy candidate. Since the start of 2017, Fowler has a win, a further four top-5’s and three more top-12’s. Three of those top-5’s outside of his win have come in his last five starts, one of which was at the U.S. Open (T5). He has since gone on to finish T3 at the Quicken Loans National at T9 at the Scottish Open in his last two starts further cementing the notion that he is a man in incredible form.

Playing and playing well (albeit a slightly disappointing weekend) last week at the Scottish Open is great preparation for this week and after finishing T11 at the Masters and T5 a the U.S. Open already this season, it is finally Fowler’s time to get his hand on his first major.

Rickie has a decent record in this event, finishing T14 and T5 in his first two Open’s in 2010 and 2011, before adding a T2 at Hoylake in 2014. His only missed cut in this event came in 2013 and although his last two years have been less than impressive (T30 & T46) I still think this is the year he breaks through.

Fowler is playing excellently once again, as he did in 2014 when he finished inside the top-5 at every major and given he ranks highly in both Driving Accuracy (9th) and Scrambling (35th) he looks a good fit for this course.

There has only been three weeks where Fowler has really struggled this season, missing the cut at both Torrey Pines and the St.Jude Classic, whilst also struggling in round four of the Players where a final round 79 at Sawgrass saw him drop to T60. The consistency in his game this year has been outstanding and there really is nowhere else for him to go but to become a major champion.

With Brooks Koepka extending the extraordinary run of first-time major winners, which stretches back to Jason Day’s 2015 PGA Championship victory, it is about time Fowler joined the list.

At 16/1 his price may well have gone shorter than hoped but I do not want to leave him out, given his obvious credentials and how high I am on his chances personally.

Hideki Matsuyama 25/1 (Betfred 1-6 1/4 odds) 22/1 (General)1.5pts e/w:

Hideki Matsuyama ticks an awful lot of boxes and like Fowler it is about time he added a major championship to his trophy cabinet.

The 25-year old has already made 18 major starts, and he has finished inside the top-10 6 times, which is an impressive strike rate, given how young he was when he burst on the scene.

In 2013, Matsuyama made his Open Championship debut at Muirfield and finished T6 and whilst that is his best effort to date he has shown signs in the event since. Matsuyama has made the cut in three of his four Open starts, missing his first at Royal Troon last year. He finished T39 at Hoylake in 2014 and T18 at St. Andrews in 2015.

After a slight slump following victory at this year’s Phoenix Open, an event he has won twice, Matsuyama is showing winning form once again.

Between his win and the Masters, Matsuyama’s results read MC-T25-T45-T51, so it was very impressive he managed a T11 at Augusta. Since then his results read T22-T45-T2-T14, with the T2 coming at the U.S. Open and his T14 coming at the Irish Open.

It is becoming increasingly important to have prepared for this event by playing the Scottish Open the week before, but with the change in schedule, the Irish Open gave players a chance to play some links golf before the Open, whilst still being able to take a week off. Matsuyama played well enough in Northern Ireland to suggest he suitably prepared to go well this week.

The World No.2 has four worldwide wins since last October (two on the PGA Tour and two in Japan) and after adding a WGC to the collection, he will be desperate to add the major his form and talent level richly deserves.

Alex Noren 55/1 (Betfred 1-6 1/4 odds) 50/1 (General) 1pt e/w:

Alex Noren winning this year’s Open makes all the sense in the world, even after a missed cut last week at the Scottish Open.

Given the way the Swede has been playing over the last two years it is a shock to the system when he misses a cut but no matter how good you are, you can’t play well every week and as such the missed cut last week doesn’t bother me one bit. There is always added pressure and media attention when coming into the week as defending champion on top of the added expectation surrounding Noren these days. It wasn’t as if he played awful golf both days either, as he shot an opening round of 70 and followed it up with a 76. Harrington still managed to finish in a tie for 4th after a 3rd round 79, so we have no idea what could have been had Noren snuck inside the cut line.

His form on links courses is exceptional, boasting a win at the Scottish Open last year at Castle Stuart, where he also finished 3rd in 2012. At the Alfred Dunhill, Noren has finishes of 3rd, 11th, 17th and 21st to his name and also has a bit of history in the Open Championship. In 2012 he finished T9 but perhaps more importantly he finished T19 here in 2008. Noren was actually inside the top-5 after 54 holes but a final-round 77 put to sword any chances of him winning. It is very promising how well he played here to get himself in position after three rounds and gives plenty of reason for optimism.

All of Noren’s nine European Tour wins have come since that week at Royal Birkdale and six of them have come in the last two years, enhancing his reputation considerably, so improving on an already impressive result at this course nine years ago looks inevitable.

The next natural step for Noren is to contend on the final day of a major and I have no doubts now that should Noren find himself in contention come the weekend, he will be more than capable of converting and winning his first major. The Open Championship provides Noren with the best chance of winning a major, as he has struggled to make an impression state-side throughout his career. A T5 at the World Matchplay and a T10 at this year’s Players Championship suggests he’s heading in the right direction in that respect but there is no doubt that Noren feels much more comfortable in Europe, even at this stage of his career.

Statistically, Noren ranks 2nd in Scrambling on the European Tour and whilst he ranks a lowly 219th in Driving Accuracy, he has looked well in control of his ball off tee when winning and in contention, which has been more often than not this season. Taking driver out of his hand on many holes is only going to increase his chance of success as well.

At 55/1 you are getting the 9th best player in the world, who can boast six victories since the start of June 2015.

Zach Johnson 100/1 (General) 1pt e/w:

It has not been the best of seasons for the 2015 Open Championship winner, Zach Johnson but Royal Birkdale looks to a favourable venue for the American to build on his fine recent Open record.

Johnson did play here in 2008 and finished a disappointing T51 but I fully expect him to perform better second time around. Before playing here in 2008, Johnson’s Open record read MC-MC-MC-T20, so he was clearly not a fan of this event. Since his efforts here in 2008 though, his record has been solid with flashes of brilliance. He has now not missed a cut in this event since 2007 with his record from 2009-2016 reading T47-T76-T16-T9-T6-T47-1-T12.

His win came at St.Andrews where in the build up to the week, Johnson said “The Home of Golf” was not somewhere he envisaged he could contend as it was so long. Well Birkdale is barely over 7,000 yards and with the emphasis being on accuracy off the tee and Scrambling, I am happy to have the two-time major winner on board.

Johnson currently ranks 11th in Driving Accuracy and whilst he only ranks 92nd in Scrambling it has been a bit of a down-season for him and his recent upturn in form suggests those numbers will improve.

Statistically Johnson has been having a poor year but after finishing T5 at the John Deere last week he should be confident of a better week once again. He admitted after his final round on Sunday that his putter was hot on the front-nine and cold on the back and he just needs be more consistent on the greens as he was hitting some good shots all day.

After missing the cut at the Masters, Johnson greatly improved in the second major of the year, finishing T27 at the U.S. Open. Hopefully his form at the majors this year continues to trend in the right direction and he can put together a strong week here at Birkdale.

His average form this season has been factored into his price and I still think 100/1 is bigger than it should be, given his recent form in this major.

Total Points Staked this week: 11

Profit/Loss for 2017: – 10.5