You’ll read plenty about the 151st Open Championship and the changes to Hoylake since 2014, but essentially here we are at the best of all four majors, The Open.
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We have a pair of elongated par-5s, bookmarking a new short and tricky short hole but, essentially, the Wirral venue relies entirely on the coastal winds for difficulty, without which it may turn a tad Royal St George’s when Collin Morikawa turned the course into a pitch-and-putt. Not bad for one of the worst putters at the time on the PGA Tour.
Tee-to-green was absolutely vital for Morikawa to gain his second major in eight starts, and past history here dictates that we should look firmly in that direction again.
Apologies to any centenarians reading this, but the majority will solely remember Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as course winners – in 2006 and 2014 respectively – and the links between the two modern-day legends are pretty clear.
Tiger was, of course, the undisputed number one when winning by two shots, whilst Rory became world number two after his victory by the same margin some eight years later.
The Northern Irishman found himself a hair away from OWGR leader Adam Scott after the latter held the top spot with a fifth-placed finish at Hoylake, finally taking over after successive victories at Bridgestone and the PGA Championship, then the final major of the year.
In terms of how they played the course, both welcomed the longer holes.
Tiger’s 18-under was made up primarily of his 14-under for the par-5s while Rory recorded 12-under for the same holes on his way to a winning total of 17. Both players hit a large percentage of fairways, ranked highly in greens found and ball striking. Call it tee-to-green if you like. Furthermore, both got it up and down on the odd occasion they missed the short stuff.
Indeed, golf has moved on even from those years, and they’ll try and beef up the rough. However, everything points to this event, at this course, being the preserve of the elite (or those with pretensions to be).
Of course, The Open is about the weather. Currently, the forecast is set for plenty of rain but average wind, putting the title very much in the hands of the better drivers. From a position on the fairway, the top-grade mid-to-long iron players will come to the fore.
Notable amongst the comments from 2014 are the repeated mentions of 2-irons, the club of choice for Rory, Phil Mickelson et al at the time, and those experienced in Open conditions must surely have an advantage.
As for current form, playing in Scotland looks useful, with Cam Smith, Morikawa (who looked quite useless in links conditions the week before his demolition) and Henrik Stenson coming off outings at the various tracks. It isn’t necessary to have played that way though, with Frani Molinari and Zach Johnson having won after a decent run of form that included medalling at the John Deere.
What is important seems to be season-winning form. Since 2010, 10 of the last 12 champions here have won an event in the championship year.
Smith won at Sawgrass, Morikawa at Muirfield (fascinatingly, a one-off replacement for the John Deere) and Lowry at Abu Dhabi. Before them, both a back-to-form Frani and Jordan Spieth were winning their third event of the year when victorious at Carnoustie and Birkdale.
Here are the best bets in the regular win market:
Tiger was circa 5/1 when winning here, and Rory just about double that price when doing his job eight years later, so it makes sense to take one from the very top.
World number one, Scottie Scheffler continues to dial it in, recording his seventh consecutive double-figure gain for tee-to-green last week.
It’s a remarkable run of long-game prowess that must see him over the line very soon, but he continues to be let down by the flat stick, sticking up his fifth minus figure in 10 starts.
That loss of confidence on the greens has likely cost him both the US Open and PGA Championship, Charles Schwab, Memorial and, potentially, last week’s Scottish Open. He looks an absolute steal for those wanting to play short in the top-10 market but, at that price, I need to believe he can win. I don’t.
Jon Rahm isn’t telegraphing a victory, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Patrick Cantlay look as if they need to fall over the line at the moment, and, as such, both US Open champ Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith are fancied to push hardest for victory.
The defending champion arrives off a decent enough win on the LIV circuit, and made the top 10 at both Oak Hill at LACC to boost his major record to eight top-10s in 28 majors. I’d rather he was at a more scrambling-heavy track, though he has the look of a player peaking at the right time.
Koepka, on the other hand, has been relatively quiet for a change when coming into one of the big four. He was pedestrian at the PGA and, whilst a different beast now, had his worst result of three majors here in 2014.
Of course, none can be discounted, and along with the still untapped potential of Viktor Hovland (you’ll need to forgive his short game), are not far from being a selection.
Rory McIlroy, for me, is the hardest of all the top 10 to rule out.
Rather like his rival for the top spot, the world number two should be holding more than just two titles for his efforts through 2023.
After a mid-season wobble with his long game, the Irishman is back pounding the driver and his irons, demonstrated beautifully with his final two birdies on Sunday to win his second Scottish Open.
Those two iron shots – a dinky punch forward on the par-3 17th, and a drive and stunning iron into the last – were a signal to the rest of the field that the game was back.
The jolly comes here having ranked top-10 for tee-to-green on five of his last six outings, leading that stat at the US Open and at the Renaissance Club, and it was those final two 10-foot putts that said he is ready to defend his Hoylake crown.
Going awry slightly during the third round, McIlroy gave the field a chance before showing his class on Sunday, sadly giving Bobby Mac the cruellest of finishes to what had otherwise been a stellar display. Given the missed putt at the final par-5, his final two holes were him showing us all the lot.
Yes, he’s the winner of four career majors but among the seven further top three finishes, there should be at least two or three titles, including at St. Andrews last year.
Having won his first, and only, Open so far around here, the lengthening of the par-5s is surely of even more benefit to this huge hitter, he is here knowing he is the one to beat, and, quite honestly, if they played this 70 times in a row, I’d expect him to win far more than 10.
He has to be in your plan, whether as a saver, trade, whatever.
29-year-old Wyndham Clark was threatening to win an event well before his surprise victory at the Wells Fargo, but it’s been all systems-go since then.
Chances came and went at Valspar, Corales (twice), in Canada, Houston and Phoenix but, finally, the four-shot victory at Quail Hollow saw the Scottsdale resident beat Xander Schauffele, with the likes of Hatton, Fleetwood, Adam Scott and McIlroy amongst those trailing well behind.
If that is too much of a one-off, take a look at the roll-call of contenders at the Wells – this week’s favourite is a three-time winner, Rickie Fowler beat McIlroy in 2012, Tiger (of course) is on the winner’s list, and even shock 300-1 winner of the 2003 Open, Ben Curtis, finds the list of silver medallists, alongside Cameron Young and Dustin Johnson, all relevant in Open leaderboard history.
That might have been it but, after an understandable reaction at the PGA, the selection went into the final round at The Memorial in fourth place before fading into 12th. The follow-up, though, was a breath-taking victory at the US Open, leading at halfway and holding off McIlroy, Scheffler and Smith by a single shot.
The positives from that first and totally unexpected major victory are plenty.
Until the 68th hole, Clark was the best player on the park by some way and it was only stage-fright that cost him back-to-back bogeys coming home. These things are marginal – look at Mito Pereira at the 72nd hole of the 2022 PGA – but a solid par at the last saw him home and into the top-15 in the world.
Again, the reaction was extremely acceptable, not at it with his irons but finishing with four rounds of 68 and under at River Highlands before last weekend’s eye-catching 25th at Renaissance.
Already a fan of links from his amateur days (and top-10 at the US Amateur behind Matt Fitzpatrick) Clark returned a healthy 25th, posting figures of 6th for driving distance and 18th for greens. In new money, top-20 for off-the-tee, approach and tee-to-green.
Glaringly, it was the selection’s putter that let him down, returning his worst numbers of the year. Look behind that, though, and he improved significantly as the week went on.
135th in strokes-gained-putting on day one, Clark then went 126th, 54th and 21st, similar to his first outing at the Scottish Open in 2022, when progressing from 51st to 16th on the greens.
He told reporters that, “I was kind of using this week as prep for next week. Kind of a great warm-up because it’s kind of like a links golf course. And you get the elements, but I’m focused right now on this week. And when we get to next week, we’ll get focused on that one.”
And does he believe, like we do, that he is where he deserves to be?
“I’d say if anything has changed since winning, it’s more just more belief in myself that I can do it,” Clark said. “Belief that I can continue to win at the highest level.”
The first two selections comply very much with the ‘winner must have won that season’ theory. For the final two, I’ll turn to those with winning form just before the turn of the year, both that will be very comfortable with links conditions.
Ryan Fox has always looked as if he has something left in the tank.
Hugely frustrating at times, the last couple of years have seen the big Kiwi win the Super Six in windy Perth, Ras Al Khaimah Classic by five from proven links man Ross Fisher, and the ultimate, Alfred Dunhill Links.
Just 10 months ago, Fox shot 15-under to beat Alex Noren and Callum Shinkwin, both proven in conditions, the former being a past winner of the Scottish Open and two-time top-10 player at The Open. In behind sat our main man, McIlroy.
Mixing DPWT and PGA Tour duties in 2023, Fox started with a run of 20/11/17 through the desert and Singapore before stepping it up a notch with a 14th at always windy Bay Hill and 27th at The Players.
From April, Fox took in five US events, including the first three majors, finishing a respectable 26th at Augusta, 23rd at the USPGA and T43 at LACC, when 14th after the first round and just outside the top-30 going into payday.
Given recent Open champion Cam Smith missed the cut, and former winners Shane Lowry, Frani Molinari and Jordan Spieth were mid-table at their respective US Opens, these are results to be used as a springboard, something he did last week in Scotland.
Playing his first event in four weeks, Fox caught the eye with a mid-30 performance for tee-to-green and a top 20 for putting.
Sure to come on from that and with 2022 results that include second place at the Irish Open and third at the BMW International, an event won by future Open champ Henrik Stenson and Hovland (4th and 12th in this major) he’s a sneaky look at an each-way price.
Two-time DPWT winner Ewen Ferguson may have to raise his game a notch. But if he were to raise his game to the levels of just a few months ago, he could prove a valued each-way proposition, as well as a mainstay for prop bets.
Winner of a boys event around this course, and therefore on the honours board alongside Tiger and Rory, Ferguson ranked one of the best young players in Scotland before turning pro in 2016.
After a trio of second places, the selection graduated from the Challenge Tour, soon having a chance to win the Kenya Open. Unfortunately, Ferguson could not convert a third round lead but learned a lot, challenging again for a maiden title just three weeks later in Qatar.
During a tough and gusty weekend, the former Walker Cup player joined the likes of Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Paul Lawrie, Adam Scott and Stenson, all winners in Doha and top-level challengers at The Open across many of its courses.
Win number two came quickly, when in August 2022, Ferguson hosed up by three shots at Galgorm Castle before yet another opportunity a few weeks later in Denmark.
Sometimes there is nothing that can be done, even if the best tee-to-green player of the week, and facing an inspired Oliver Wilson, the selection (and bet) could only watch as the former Dunhill Links winner rolled in long putt after long putt.
2023 hasn’t quite reached those heights, but there are signs. A pair of top five finishes in South Africa, eighth and 14th through mainland Europe, and fourth place at The Belfry are sporadic shows of his best, but last week’s 12th in his homeland was the biggest hint yet.
Ranking sixth for approaches and 15th for tee-to-green, Ferguson caught the eye in 12th place alongside previous selection, Fox, and has been living a dream week.
Courted by the home press, Ferguson is happy to point out his place on the hallowed board. He is currently practising with new best friend Rickie Fowler and is undoubtedly comfortable in this part of the world.
If he was going to choose a place to host his first major, I suspect Hoylake may not be far from the top of his list. There are certainly enough positives to row in with a juicy each-way bet, with maybe an appearance in tomorrow’s specials‘ column.