The final major of the year takes place this week and excitement in Northern Ireland has reached fever pitch with the Open returning to the country for the first time in 68 years. Royal Portrush will host the tournament with the world’s best players competing at the Dunluce Links.
Royal Portrush will play to 7,344 yards with the par 71 expected to test the field with some windy conditions and showers forecast throughout the week. Experience of playing links golf and success at the Open carries significance while the likes of recent champions Francesco Molinari, Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth all came in with strong current form.
Rory McIlroy heads the betting and the 8/1 favourite will have huge crowd support on his side in Northern Ireland. McIlroy holds the course record of 61 at Portrush as a 16-year-old and is obviously respected but the pressure on his shoulders could weigh heavily on him and others are preferred.
Brooks Koepka has been a class apart in the majors over the last few years and the American has to be backed again this week. Koepka has won four of the last ten major championships, with his most recent triumph at the PGA Championship in May. The 29-year-old thrives in the biggest events and has not finished outside of the top two in the last four majors.
It is a remarkable record and mediocre recent results in humdrum PGA Tour events from the major machine can easily be ignored. Koepka tied for sixth place at the Open at Royal Birkdale two years ago and was also tenth at St Andrews in 2015. This is his first visit to Ireland but Koepka has the significant advantage of leaning on the knowledge of his caddie, with Ricky Elliott growing up in Portrush. Fifth on the PGA Tour for greens in regulation, Koepka can peak again this week and is a confident selection at 10/1 each way.
Irish specialist Rahm ready for major win
Jon Rahm of Spain plays his shot from the 12th tee during the first round of THE PLAYERS Championship at the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass on May 11, 2017 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
Jon Rahm could not have dreamt of a better build-up to this year’s Open and the powerful Spaniard heads in with a great opportunity to win his first major title. Rahm closed with a superb round of 62 to win the Irish Open in his last start. This followed on from second place at the Andalucia Masters, on an unsuitable Valderrama course, along with a tie for third at the US Open at Pebble Beach.
Rahm feels at home in Ireland and his record in the country during his burgeoning career is outstanding. The 24-year-old dominated to win by six shots in the 2017 Irish Open at Portstewart – a course which is only a few miles away from Portrush. Rahm also finished fourth last season in the tournament and clinched his second Irish Open title at the start of this month at Lahinch. He is ranked fourth on the PGA Tour for strokes gained off the tee and has never gone into a major with as much confidence or momentum. Rahm is a strong bet at 14/1 each way.
Xander Schauffele has made a hugely impressive start to his career and the American contended for the Claret Jug last year. Schauffele finished in a tie for second at Carnoustie 12 months ago, only two shots behind champion Francesco Molinari. It was only his second appearance in the tournament after a promising 20th place on debut in Southport two years ago.
Schauffele has already won twice this season with victories in elite fields at the WGC HSBC Champions in China and the Tournament of Champions. The unflappable 25-year-old appears to peak for the biggest tournaments with a record of five top-six finishes from just ten major starts. His latest came at Pebble Beach last month, with a tie for third, which was the last time he competed. Schauffele, who possesses immense composure and nerve in contention, can again threaten a maiden major triumph at 22/1.
Stenson peaking for Portrush
Henrik Stenson of Sweden in action at the 16th tee during Day 1 of the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open at The Renaissance Club on July 11, 2019 in North Berwick, United Kingdom.
Henrik Stenson has had a quiet season, by his standards, but the Swede has found his form at just the right time heading into the Open. Stenson finished eighth at the Canadian Open last month before a tie for ninth at the US Open. After a scouting trip to Portrush, he competed last weekend at the Scottish Open and finished joint fourth.
Stenson only dropped two shots all week, both coming on just one hole of the third round, topping the greens in regulations stats with 91.7 per cent. The 43-year-old was also second for driving accuracy and his long game was exceptional. Stenson, who won the 2016 Open at Troon with a brilliant performance on the links, was second in 2013 at Muirfield as well as third in 2010 and 2008. Top of the PGA Tour rankings for strokes gained approaching the green, Stenson appears to be peaking for Portrush and can win a second Open Championship at 28/1.
Eddie Pepperell has only made two appearances in the Open but has made an impact in both of his starts. The popular Englishman shot a third round 66 on his debut at St Andrews in 2015, briefly sharing the lead, to get into contention before falling away on the final day. After returning to the Open last year as a European Tour winner, Pepperell tied for sixth place at Carnoustie.
Pepperell showed his ability to handle windy conditions with his breakthrough victory at the Qatar Masters last year and was extremely impressive during his win at the British Masters in October. The 28-year-old posted his best result on the PGA Tour with third place at the Players Championship in March and made an eye-catching return from a back injury with fourth place at the Irish Open at the start of this month. Four under par rounds for a mid division finish at the Scottish Open was a solid tune up and links specialist Pepperell, who is second this season for par five scoring, is backed to mount a bold challenge in Northern Ireland at 70/1.
Links lover Li could challenge in Ireland
Haotong Li is a world class talent and the Chinese star should not be ruled out at three figure odds. Li burst onto the global stage with third place in his first Open start two years ago. A stunning final round 63 at Royal Birkdale was an exceptional showing and he also finished inside the top 40 at the major last year. Li made the cut at all three majors in America this season and looks increasingly comfortable competing at the highest level.
The two-time European Tour champion finished second in a strong field at the Saudi International this year and was also fourth at the China Open. A tie for 15th this month at the Irish Open was an encouraging warm-up and a missed cut in Scotland is not a concern, as he was unlucky not to make the weekend after a bogey free 65 in the second round. The 23-year-old leads the tour for putts per green in regulation and is 13th for scrambling. With his sharp short game a big asset around the challenging Portrush greens, links lover Li could threaten the places at 100/1 each way.