And here we are – the long-awaited 150th Open Championship.
As Andrew Coltart so eloquently put it last Saturday, links golf is all about what’s between the ears, and whilst this isn’t Carnoustie in October, the vagaries of coastal Scottish courses make The Open what it is.
In fast conditions, apparent good drives can take a rotten bounce into a pot bunker, or into the fescue. From there finding the right spots on the huge, undulating greens becomes a challenge, let alone getting up-and-down from 80 feet.
In contrast, the infamous Open conditions can lead to players facing 6-irons to 120yard pins, before needing to use 9-iron to travel 160 yards.
Players can simply be unlucky. A quick perusal at the first two rounds of last week’s Scottish Open saw a first round three-shot advantage to the morning wave, and whilst the advantage was not so pronounced on Friday, there was a distinct one-and-a-half-shot tilt again to the early starters.
Moving onto Saturday and in calm conditions, links supremo Branden Grace and classic course stalwart Max Homa found the opening holes a breeze (ahem), whilst let’s not forget the likes of world number one Scottie Scheffler, Justin Thomas and Will Zalatoris had the weekend off.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the big names. Last season saw Open rookie Collin Morikawa play appallingly at The Renaissance Club before coming onto a benign Royal St. George’s and winning by two shots from the huge Open experience of Jordan Spieth and Louis Oosthuizen.
This week’s venue, St. Andrews, classic though it is, is a gettable golf course – the three championships held here since 2000 have been won with scores of 19, 16 and 15-under the card, whilst the late-season Alfred Dunhill Links has seen many rounds in the low 60s.
What The Pros Say
Lee Westwood, runner-up in 2010, said, “well, I think this golf course needs a fair breeze blowing. Obviously none of us like playing in rain, but I think you want a 15, 20 mile-an-hour wind blowing on this golf course, otherwise the players just murder it, basically.” Whilst Graeme McDowell, 11th, 23rd and 49th in three Opens here admitted, ” you start to see an old test like this one and start wondering what they can do with it to keep it up to sort of modern times. I mean, like I say, the bunkers are just not really in play.”
Those comments are at least seven years old, so if players were doubting the course defence back then, there will need to be significant thought to pin placements this week.
The track isn’t completely defenceless – note this from Jordan Spieth, a player that relishes a test, commenting on the toughest hole on the course, the ‘Road Hole’.
“And then 17 today, you purposely try and miss the green on the second shot. There’s almost no other way around it. That kind of takes away the point of the hole, but at the same time, it’s the Road Hole at St. Andrews, and today’s pin position is really the only time you can’t really play the hole,” he said.
This is about the wind, experience in tough conditions when it arrives, and patience when the fairways and greens don’t quite give the result expected.
Previous winners at St. Andrews have had significant experience of major competition, many of them either winning or being in strong contention at The Masters or the US Open.
The 2015 leaderboard (without amateur Niebrugge) contained five winners at Augusta, with the other five players all recording top-10 finishes. That board also lent itself to the winners of four U.S Open and a pair of runners-up.
Back to Louis Oosthuizen’s victory in 2010 and Rory McIlroy, Retief Goosen (twice) and Martin Kaymer have all won the US Open, whilst the winner himself has had a pair of second-place finishes and a third.
Viewing will be fascinating, and hopefully at least one selection will take us through to Sunday afternoon.
Tommy Fleetwood - 8 Places
With absolute appreciation for most of the top 15 or so in the betting, nobody makes more appeal at the prices than the popular 31-year-old from Southport.
"Tommy! Tommy! Tommy!"
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 9, 2022
Apart from being “my favourite golf tournament on my favourite course”, Tommy’s form backs up his chance, a week after a closing three-under 67 saw him finish in the top-5 at the Scottish Open for the second time in three runnings at The Renaissance Club.
Three lifetime top-20 finishes at Augusta sit nicely with most of the names on the 2010 and 2015 leaderboards, whilst a fourth and second place at the U.S Open also contribute to the evidence of him being able to not only compete, but contend in this major class.
It’s encouraging to note that the latter events, both won by Brooks Koepka, were played in contrasting styles – a winning score of 16-under at Erin Hills in 2017 being followed 12 months later by one-over at Shinnecock Hills, a links-style course on which Fleetwood recorded a 7-under 63 for the final round.
Winless since the Nedbank in 2019, the current world number 35 has had his issues over the last couple of seasons but there is a feeling that he is back to his best, something that could take him back to the top-20 in the world, a position he held from 2017 to 2020.
2020 also saw him lose a play-off to Aaron Rai at the Scottish Open before a 13th at Wentworth, a top-20 at the Lockdown Masters and a top-10 at the Dubai World Championship, an event at which he was runner-up the year before.
Tommy’s two wins, second and seventh in Abu Dhabi, sit alongside the afore-mentioned performances to suggest he is comfortable repeating form on certain courses, so examine his form at St. Andrews.
The five-time European Tour winner has never missed the cut in ten attempts at the Alfred Dunhill Links, an event that has St. Andrews as half of the four-round rotation. Two runner-up placings, three top-fives, a seventh, two top-15s, a 25th and an outlying 55th point to someone completely at home around here, whether exposed to a zephyr or severe gusts, and although he missed the cut in the 2015 Open here, he was in 18th after day one. A lot has happened since.
Let’s get right up to date.
Best results in 2022 include an 8th in Saudi (sat third after day three) 22nd at The Players (led after day one, fifth at halfway), 14th at The Masters (top-10 going into Sunday), top-5 at the PGA at Southern Hills, and another last weekend in Scotland.
Probably the most encouraging stat from last week was the consistency of his scrambling, something he will need to repeat this week.
Improving his tee-to-green figures from a ranking of 80th on the first two days to leading the field on Payday, Tommy also improved his putts-per-greens-in-regulation, an appalling first round the reason for his overall ranking just outside the top-30. Take that away and days one to three see him rank a satisfactory 21st.
As for that short game, the scrambling – or up-and-down from off the green – was never outside the top-25 leaving him in second place for the tournament, and with a putting average of 31st it looks as if it has all come together at the right time.
It’s all coming right for Tommy – he loves this place, loves the event, is in form, won’t mind wind, can play the ball either way, and has got better with the short game as the year has gone on.
And what a popular winner he would be.
Xander Schauffele - 5 Places
Come on, what did you expect?
Anyone listening to the Lost Fore Words podcast will have heard certain leanings to Xander at Augusta. Whilst he hasn’t done that yet, figures of 2,3 and 17 in just five starts sit well with recent leaderboards here, as does an incredible U.S Open record of six starts, three top-fives, two top-10s and a worst finish of 14th.
Whilst it’s only seven days since this column put up Xander as a strong fancy for the Scottish Open, there was nothing in his display that puts me off going in again.
Opening with a 72, the recent Travelers champion took advantage of easier conditions on Friday morning, eventually ranking 1st in tee-to-green and second in putting average, a lethal combination that saw him surge up the board after experiencing the worst of the weather during the opening round.
From there, he may have given backers a few moments of heart-break, but for 16 holes of Saturday’s round, he looked imperious, rattling off six birdies before a pair of wayward tee shots cost him shots at both closing holes.
Xander soon shook that off on Sunday, making birdies at the first two holes before a strange middle of the round saw him drop three shots in four holes.
However, just as he did at the Travelers, he kicked on again as the field sensed a chance, making two birdies and a crucial seven-foot par putt to leave a two-shot advantage coming down the 72nd hole.
Top the stats mentioned last week with one more line from Scotland – 15th off-the-tee, first in tee-to-green, seventh for approach play, 15th around-the-green and top-30 for putting. The ones that count in old money? 16th in driving distance, fifth for greens found and sixth in putting average.
Since winning with partner Patrick Cantlay in New Orleans, the reigning Olympic champion has an average finishing position, in six starts, of just over 8th.
The 28-year-old won his last two official events, the JP McManus Pro-An in-between, and has that runner-up finish from Carnoustie to remind him of being in contention for the final major of the year.
In an event where the classier players stand out, surely only fatigue can stop yet another challenge from a player with a record of 22 majors, nine top-10s and five top-20s.
Jordan Spieth & Matt Fitzpatrick
Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler make little appeal after a spell that suggests they are not completely on their game, so take a couple of last weekend’s top-10 to make up the main plan.
Former world number one, Spieth, is ‘Mister Open’ after a nine event spell that has seen him win with a perfect links game at Royal Birkdale in 2017, two years after he bogied the Road Hole (his 71st hole) at St. Andrews to leave him one shot outside a play-off. Further close shaves occurred in 2019 when a poor final round saw him lose the overnight lead and eventually finish four shots shy of Francesco Molinari’s winning total, and after a loss of form for a couple of years, he bounced back to be the best of the rest behind a rampant Collin Morikawa at Royal St. George’s.
Overall, major form is top grade with a win, two runner-ups and two third-place finishes at Augusta, a victory at Chambers Bay for the U.S Open title, and a pair of top-three finishes at the PGA Championship.
Despite various swing and pre-shot changes,as well as experimenting with putters, Spieth is in a rich vein of form with his tee-to-green game.
Having led the ball-striking figures for Pebble Beach, Texas and at the Heritage, his ranking of sixth at North Berwick sees him with most of his game in rude health and the 28-year-old has also tidied up his off-the-tee game, ranking top-15 for six of his last eight completed starts.
Not only is Spieth the most entertaining of those that get mic’d up by the television companies, but he is also the most likely to play his own game when the going gets tough. It may not get as windy as we hope for The Open, but the course could run wild if it gets too hard and fast – at least we will have one of the most creative players in the game.
Since 2017, 3 players are gaining over 2 strokes per round at The Open Championship (min. 8 rounds)
Jordan Spieth +3.38
Brooks Koepka +2.25
Tommy Fleetwood +2.05
Tony Finau +1.98
Xander Schauffele +1.98 pic.twitter.com/EnaivqrMs6
— Mark Fox (@ThePluggedLie) July 11, 2022
Matt Fitzpatrick seems to have been around forever but the 27-year-old is still finding improvement as he finds length and, coming to St. Andrews after winning his first major, the U.S Open, there will be few more confident of putting up a real fight for the Claret Jug.
After 14 starts in 2022, Fitz comes here with a progressive year’s major record of 14th at Augusta, fifth at Southern Hills, and a victory at Brookline, the latter his first victory on the PGA Tour and meaning he has now one at least once in seven of the last eight seasons.
Surrounding that important win was a second place at the Wells Fargo, top-10 in Canada (won by McIlroy) and latterly a sixth place in Scotland, when he couldn’t get on top of his game at all on Payday. This was the first time he had lost strokes with his irons since runner-up in Dubai last November, leading to an unusually poor ranking for greens-in-regulation.
Despite that, the man from Sheffield compensated with a top-10 in scrambling (almost matched by around-the-green) allowing him to remain competitive throughout the weekend and fitting in nicely with his tournament leading figures at the Wells Fargo and at Bay Hill.
Less furtive in character than Spieth, expect Fitzpatrick to play his game whatever the conditions and to improve on a best Open finish of 20th.
Danny Willett - 8 Places
Whilst it will be difficult for an outsider to topple the lot of favoured players, especially in calm conditions, look to the 2020 Alfred Dunhill Links champion to make some waves in the place market.
The case for the 34-year-old, another player born in Sheffield, lies in his suitability for this course, which is a marriage made in heaven!
After 11 starts at the Dunhill Links St. Andrews, Willett has a win, second, fifth, sixth and two top-30 finishes, all leading to a St. Andrews scoring average of under 69.
Four recent missed cuts from his last five outings don’t inspire but after four missed cuts from six starts he won the pro-am Links last year off a tied-71 as his most recent result. Assume he can turn it on at any time.
Willett was one of a few that posted a bogey-free final round at the 2016 Masters despite being considered a fortunate winner after Spieth’s tribulations, all that just a year after finishing sixth at the 2015 Open around The Old Course.
Having made every cut since 2015, his best finish since that effort around here was an equalling top-6 finish at Royal Portrush in 2019, courtesy of improving throughout the event – having been 94th after the first round, Willett found himself inside the top-10 going into the last day.
Winner of eight events as a professional, Willett has trophies from Dubai, Crans, Germany and Wentworth, all leaderboards and venues that can point to a links-type bias, but it’s that recent-enough 12th at Augusta that catches the eye.
When it matters, Willett can raise his game as he has done before, and on a course he loves, take him to just show enough to land some place money.
Phil just wrapped up a practice round at the Old Course with Danny Willett. It’s his third straight day playing the course, he’s motivated to put in the work this week. #TheOpen pic.twitter.com/6nxy1oWbLc
— Phil Mickelson Tracker (@TrackingPhil) July 10, 2022