“To me, the Open is the tournament I would come to if I had to leave a month before and swim over.” — Lee Trevino, clearly a fan of the world’s oldest major.
Three majors down and Golf’s signature tournaments have already given us a hat-trick of memorable occasions. At Augusta, Jon Rahm added a Green Jacket to the US Open he won in 2021. May brought a USPGA win — and a first (and possibly last) major trophy for an active LIV player — for Brooks Koepka, who became only the seventh player to win five majors before the age of 34, hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy at Oak Hill. A month ago, Wyndham Clark landed his maiden major, securing the US Open at the Los Angeles Country Club, with major champions filling the second, third, and fourth place berths.
Clark becomes Superman
Though not nearly as well-known as his two predecessors on Golf’s roll of honour, Clark, who was sent off a 60/1 chance — wasn’t entirely a shock winner at the LACC. He’s been in the top 40 in the PGA Tour’s key statistical categories for most of the season and landed one of the tour’s elevated events — the Wells Fargo Championship — six weeks earlier. It’s no surprise that all three majors have gone to in-form players. In addition to Clark’s solid bank of form prior to the US Open, Rahm had tucked away three trophies before winning at Augusta, and Koepka preceded his Oak Hill victory with five consecutive top-15 efforts, including a win in Orlando. For all the talk of tricking-up the courses to stop players overpowering the tracks, Golf’s three signature events in 2023 have gone to big hitters. Both Rahm and Clark sit in the top 10 in Driving Distance on the PGA Tour and Koepka is another of the game’s longer drivers.
It’s a young man’s game
This year’s majors have gone to the younger brigade, with Rahm, Koepka, and Clark all aged between 28 and 33. In Ryder Cup year, it’s advantage America, two-one in major terms, though Koepka isn’t expected to be allowed to take part in Italy at the end of September, as he’s not a member of the PGA Tour.
Although Clark walked off with the US Open trophy, there were three historic rounds at the US Open. Rickie Fowler broke the tournament record with a first-round 62 — a record that he enjoyed sole possession of for less than an hour. Shortly after Fowler had signed his card, Xander Schauffele matched his accomplishment. In Round Four, England’s Tommy Fleetwood had a putt to join them on 62 but he narrowly failed to convert it — the second time in his career that Fleetwood had missed a five-foot putt for a 62 in a major.
After the SoCal sunshine of the LA Country Club, now it’s the turn of the oldest of all the majors: the Open Championship. The game of Golf was born in these isles and ever since 1860 a player has been announced as the champion Golfer of the year, upon winning this prestigious title.
Beginning in 1873 the Open Champion has been presented with the Claret Jug, though Young Tom Morris — the champion in 1872 — is the first player to have his name etched on one of sport’s most recognisable prizes. Originally, the champion was presented with The Challenge Belt but, perhaps in recognition of the way that the original Golf societies were formed to play a round and dine afterwards, a Claret Jug was chosen as the winner’s accolade. Champions received the original trophy until 1927. The following year — perhaps concerned by the way that the sport’s other famous trophies kept going missing — organisers retained the original trophy and began the tradition of awarding a replica to the winner, which they get to keep for a year.
Not only is this tournament the oldest of Golf’s four majors, The Open Championship is the oldest Golf tournament in the world. Over its storied history, the championship has provided several examples proving that a tournament is not always remembered for the player who won. Sometimes it’s about the ones who let the trophy slip from their grasp, or two players without both of whom the event would not have been nearly so memorable.
There but for the grace of God
In 1970, American Doug Sanders stood over a three-foot putt on the 72nd hole. Hold it and he would be etched into history as the Open Champion. You can imagine that the engraver was ready to go to work. Sanders missed. “There but for the grace of God,” BBC commentator Henry Longhurst commented. Sanders was then faced with what was in those days an 18-hole playoff which he lost to Jack Nicklaus. Not surprisingly, his miss from adjacent to the hole haunted Sanders. Asked if he thought about it often, he replied: “Nah, not too much. Sometimes five or six minutes can go by in a day without me thinking about it.” As we prepare for this year’s event on a Golf course which uses land from an old racecourse, this was Golf’s Devon Loch moment.
Nicklaus was again front and centre seven years later when he was denied the opportunity of winning another Open title by a fellow titan of Links Golf: Tom Watson. Through three rounds the two players couldn’t be separated — unusually, they shot identical scores on each of the first three days. So, in glorious weather on day four, they embarked on what would come to be known as The Duel in the Sun. With the two so far clear of the field, it seemed that the whole of the Turnberry crowd was following their two-ball, and the thousands of fans scrambling to get the best vantage point to watch their heroes caused play to be delayed several times and some concern for player safety — “I thought for sure Jack was going to get trampled,” Nicklaus’ caddie, Angelo Argea recalled.
Aware of the significance of what was happening, Watson turned to his adversary on the 16th tee: “This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” “You bet it is,” came Nicklaus’ reply. Watson led by a single shot with one hole remaining. After seeing his rival split the fairway on 18, Nicklaus knew he needed to make something happen. Opting to take a driver, his tee shot nestled in the Turnberry rough. Watson knocked his approach to within two feet. There was no guarantee Nicklaus could get his golf ball back on the fairway, let alone the green. But somehow the Golden Bear powered his ball onto the putting surface. Despite Watson facing a putt to win the title that even Doug Sanders would have been confident of knocking in, Nicklaus fired one more shot, as he willed his 35-foot putt to drop. This time his adversary made no mistake, and Watson sealed his victory. Nicklaus would go on to win 18 majors but had to give best on this occasion to Open Championship specialist Watson, who rattled up five Open Championships between 1975 and 1983.
That Rocca fella
In the same way that the 1970 renewal would be remembered for the exploits of Doug Sanders, the newspaper headlines were about the runner-up, as much as the champion, in 1995 and 1999. In the former, requiring a birdie to force a playoff with American John Daly, Constantino Rocca had found the fairway with his drive. However, the Italian duffed his chip, advancing it only a matter of a few yards. 65 feet and St Andrews’ Valley of Sin stood between Rocca and a playoff, as the television cameras were trained on Daly — waiting to capture the moment the Wild Thing was confirmed as the champion. However, Rocca would make the cameras wait, as he drained the putt from the edge of the green and beat the ground in joy. Daly would triumph in the playoff, but the tournament will always be synonymous with Rocca’s reaction to his great chip.
You’re never home and dry
The final round in 1999 had threatened to be an anti-climax. Frenchman Jean van der Velde had secured himself an unassailable looking five-shot lead with just 18 holes remaining. Scotland’s Paul Lawrie was 10 shots back of the leader. Lawrie carded a 67 in Round Four and settled down to see if his strong finish might grant him a place in the top 10.
With van der Velde in possession of a three-stroke lead as he stood on the 72nd hole, — a hole named “home” — it looked like it should have been called “home and dry”. But the Frenchman wasn’t home and wouldn’t finish the hole dry either. Standing on the tee box, he only needed to put a cautious tee shot in play. However, he took driver. He found the fairway alright…..the only problem was that his errant drive was so far wide of the mark that it was on the 17th fairway. Such was his lead that there was no need to panic. But rather than put it back in the short grass, his second shot found only Carnoustie’s deep rough. From there his third found its way into the Barry Burn. He had no option but to take a drop. Or so we thought.
Incredibly, the Frenchman waded into the burn to size up an attempt to chip it out. In a rare outbreak of common sense, he thought better of it but, after a penalty drop, the resulting chip found only the bunker. His up and down from there meant he signed for a triple-bogey seven. His mistakes had opened the door for Lawrie and 1997 champion, Justin Leonard to face van der velde in a four-hole playoff. Lawrie prevailed with a birdie on the final playoff hole. His win from 10 shots back after 54 holes, is the greatest comeback seen on any of the major golf tours.
Just when it seemed there couldn’t be another battle to match The Duel in the Sun, along came Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson. The two began Round Four of the 2016 Open vying for the lead. Mickelson played near-flawless Golf and carded a 65. Stenson produced a fantastic 63. The sequel is rarely as good as the original but, after viewing Stenson and Mickelson’s epic battle, Nicklaus admitted that Duel In The Sun II was an even finer display of Golf. “I thought we played great and had a wonderful match. On that day, Tom got me, 65-66. Our final round was really good, but theirs was even better.”
Age is just a number
To say that Greg Norman wouldn’t have been close to the top of most punter’s list of likely candidates to win the 2008 Open Championship would be a huge understatement. A pre-tournament 500/1 outsider, having failed to make a cut on the PGA Tour since 2005, The Great White Shark, as the Australian was known, had seemed on the verge of extinction. He arrived at Royal Birkdale having formed sport’s ultimate power couple by marrying former Tennis superstar Chris Evert. Norman survived the adverse weather conditions so commonplace during the great British Summer and on Saturday night he had become the oldest player to lead or co-lead a major championship after three rounds. Given his age, and his dramatic collapse at the business end of the previous major he had led after 54 holes — The 1996 Masters — it was no great surprise when he compiled a closing-round 77. Pádraig Harrington was the beneficiary, successfully defending his title, with a round of 69.
60 is the new 50
As incredible as Norman’s effort was, when it came to Golf’s elder statesmen, Tom Watson was out to prove that 60 is the new 50. A year later, and just weeks before that landmark birthday, the American rolled back the years to lead after three rounds. Hopes were high for an English victory on the Scottish Links. Ross Fisher opened up a three-stroke lead during the final round before befalling the sort of calamity that can happen at an Open, as he ran up a Quadruple Bogey eight on the fifth hole. His compatriot, Lee Westwood also led during the final round before falling away, as so often happened late in the day in his major tilts.
Most observers expected Watson to run out of steam, as Norman had done. But he arrived on the 72nd hole needing only a par to seal a hugely unlikely sixth Open title. However, he left himself an eight-foot putt, considerably longer than the one Doug Sanders had missed decades before. Like Sanders, Watson couldn’t convert the opportunity. The effects of his exertions began to tell, and he was comfortably beaten by Stewart Cink during the four-hole playoff. Cink’s is the name on the trophy, but Watson will forever be the man most associated with the 2009 renewal of this great championship.
The Links effect
First and foremost, the Open Championship features Links Golf. Courses that are referred to as Links Courses are built on sandy coastland, and the weather is often changeable and provides the course’s main defence against the greatest players in the world. As Phil Mickelson, commented prior to the 2006 event here: “…..the winning score, I think, will ultimately be fairly low…..If we get a strong wind, that all changes. If we get a strong wind and rain, that changes even more.”
Links Golf requires a slightly different skill set to other types of course assignments. There is usually more wind to contend with when driving the ball, which can suit players with a lower ball-flight. Nine-time major champion, Gary Player, summed up the difficulty that the climate brings. “Wind is part of (the Open). It is an examination, and it took me a long time to pass the examination. Eighty per cent of the fellows out there have not passed the test.” Errant drives can often find the Pot Bunkers, which are much deeper than most sand traps. Find the areas around the green and a bump-and-run shot is often required, using the course’s contours to get the ball adjacent to the hole, rather than flying it all the way across, what are often huge greens, as you would on Parkland or Stadium courses.
The Royal And Ancient (R&A) Golf Club organises the Open Championship and holds it at a different venue each year. Most used has been St Andrews — the home of Golf — which has held the championship 30 times, including every five years between 1990 and 2015. This year, for the 13th time, the Open will be hosted by the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, at Hoylake. A regular host in the early 20th century, Hoylake disappeared from the rotation after the 1967 championship before returning for two recent renewals won by two of the greats of the game. In 2006, Tiger Woods won the Claret Jug, and eight years later Rory McIlroy was the Hoylake hero. Royal Liverpool was supposed to host the Open in 2022 but its hosting duties got pushed back a year, due to the cancellation of the 2020 event due to COVID.
Royal Liverpool is the second-oldest English seaside Links. Many courses have a historic background but Hoylake itself has set many firsts within the game. Royal Liverpool was the first course to host the Amateur Championship, the inaugural venue for the Walker Cup — the biennial battle between amateur teams from the United States and Great Britain and Ireland — and the first course to host an international match — between England and Scotland.
Horses for courses
Royal Liverpool was founded on land with strong links — no pun intended — to Horse Racing. The land was originally the Liverpool Hunt Club’s racecourse. Horse Racing can be traced back as far as 1846 in the Hoylake area. By all accounts Horse Racing was tremendously popular with the 19th century residents, who were not impressed by Racing being “jocked off” in favour of the sport from Scotland. But the Horse Racing fraternity were fighting a losing battle, and by 1875 the hunt was on for a new Racing venue, and the Liverpool Hunt Club moved to Tarporley in Cheshire.
Appropriately enough for a course with such strong equine connections, the man who redesigned the course during the early 20th century was Harry Colt. Ever since then, Hoylake has never been afraid to make bold changes. Royal Liverpool’s Chairman Of Green, Andrew Goodwin said ahead of alterations made to the course in 2020: “The decision to make changes to a course like Hoylake wasn’t taken lightly, but throughout the club’s 150 year history alterations have been made and Royal Liverpool has continued to evolve and improve, ensuring it remains a wonderful challenge for both amateur and elite professional golfers alike…..We believe the changes will make Hoylake even better.”
The fourth hole now features a smaller green, but while the target has been reduced, the green has been flattened, lessening the chances of a hard bounce taking approach shots through the back of the green. Changes have also been made to the seventh and thirteenth holes. Alterations to the seventh green will improve visibility of the following hole, and there have been amendments made to the run-off areas on thirteen.
Thumbs up for Ebert
The changes, overseen by Golf Architect, Martin Ebert have been undertaken with the aim of ensuring that the event’s final furlongs will be a great finale. A short 139-yard par 3, the 17th hole is surrounded by bunkers and run-off areas, placing a huge premium on accuracy. With the winning post in sight, this is followed by an 18th hole which has been lengthened to 607 yards. The rough now intrudes much further, leaving a relatively slender landing area from the tee box. The R&A’s Executive Director For Championships, Johnnie Cole-Hamilton concurred: “We are very much looking forward to returning to Hoylake for the Open…..and the enhancements being made to the seventeenth and eighteenth holes will help to produce a thrilling and dramatic climax to the Championship for players and spectators.”
It feels like every major preview heightens the sense of how the host course is going to be a tough test. While Hoylake is not a walk in the park — or a good walk spoiled in the words of Mark Twain — this course has been slightly less demanding than many on the Open Championship rotation. Admittedly, there is a fairly small pool of recent data to work with, but McIlroy recorded a 72-hole score of 17-under Par nine years ago, and Tiger Woods four-round score was a shot better in 2006. Even back in 1967, champion Roberto De Vicenzo posted a winning score of 10-under Par.
Win, lose, or draw
The caveat with any Open Championship venue is that — even more than at other Golf courses — the weather dictates scoring. To continue the Horse Racing theme, if Jordan Spieth is to be believed, the Open is one event that features a significant draw bias. The Open Champion in 2017 once said of the tournament: “At this tournament (the weather) tends to fall on half the field. You kind of cut half the field, depending on the draw. Sometimes it’s more or less 75 percent. But most of the time there’s at least a group that gets the worst weather. And it’s almost impossible to win in that circumstance at an Open Championship.”
Hoylake is certainly a very exposed plot of land, and windy conditions can make a big difference to scoring. As Sergio Garcia commented after the 2014 Open Championship here: “The wind was blowing hard and (in a) different direction today. So, it definitely made it quite challenging.”
Hoylake is now a 7,383-yard Par 71 layout — which is a departure from the Par 72 the players faced in 2014 — and it comprises 4 Par 3s, 11 Par 4s, and 3 Par 5s. The fairways and rough feature Fescue grass, with Bentgrass greens. Water is not much of a factor on this track but out of bounds definitely is on several holes and — like many Open Championship courses the rough is likely to be punishing, with many a player likely to need a rescue from the Fescue this week. In contrast to the first major of the season, at Augusta, and the most recent of Golf’s signature events at the Los Angeles Country Club, Hoylake is much more of a flat track.
Since the US PGA Championship was moved from August to May — and adjusting the order for the changes necessitated by COVID — a strong showing in the preceding major has been a recurring theme among major winners. Of the past 18 winners of Golf’s signature events, 11 had posted a top-10 finish in the previous major. Wyndham Clark was an exception to the rule — he missed the cut at Oak Hill before winning his first major at LACC, last month. 15 of the past 20 winners of the Claret Jug had been in the winner’s enclosure earlier that season.
For all the talk about American players not getting to play Links Golf very often, US players won 10 of the 12 Open Championships between John Daly’s victory at St Andrews in 1995 and Tiger Woods’ last Open win in 2006. There has been a more international look to the recent Open roll of honour, with Americans only winning five of the past 13 renewals.
So, let’s take a look at some of those who will be facing the starter this week.
As a course and distance winner — who came close to winning the last major — and a winner last time out, it’s little surprise that Rory McIlroy is towards the head of the market at 6/1. The four-time major winner has racked up six consecutive top-10 finishes, including in two majors. McIlroy produced a 2-3 finish to hold off the challenge of Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre in landing the Genesis Scottish Open on Sunday. He was favourite for much of the final round in the US Open, before being denied by Wyndham Clark. In fairness, McIlroy’s score of 271 was the lowest in the history of the US Open by any player who didn’t win the trophy. Nevertheless, the Ulsterman has endured a nine-year wait for another major triumph, though anyone seeking a positive omen need look no further than the fact that his last major win came after a win in his previous event. He has also recorded an incredible 19 top-10 finishes since he last won one of Golf’s signature events — including posting top-10 efforts in six of the past seven majors.
Given his recent form figures, it seems harsh to criticise his game, but if there is a chink in McIlroy’s armour, there is no doubting where it lies. Ranked in the top 10 in Strokes Gained: Total, SG Off-the-Tee, Tee-to-Green, Approach the Green, and a solid tied 11th Around-the-Green, there are 88 better putters on the PGA Tour according to the Strokes Gained: Putting metric. There have been some positive signs with the flat stick in recent months. His first two rounds at Memorial saw him record positive Strokes Gained: Putting in rounds one and two for the first time since last October. But even in victory at North Berwick, his form with that flat stick was up and down. 19th in SG: Putting on Thursday, he was 145th on day two, 45th during the penultimate round, before placing in the top 10 in Round Four.
Rahmbo Part III?
A missed cut at the Travelers Championship brought Jon Rahm’s run of six cuts made to an end, which included a second major win at Augusta. His two subsequent bids for a third major crown were both scuppered by one poor round. After an opening round 76 at the US PGA Championship a tie for 50th was about as good as he could have hoped for. It was signing for a Second-round 73 that effectively ended the Spaniard’s bid for a second US Open title, though he closed with a fine 65.
Stats-wise, Rahm is second in Strokes Gained: Total and third in both SG: Tee-to-Green and Approach the Green. If there has been a minor weakness, it’s around the green, where he sits 58th on tour. Nevertheless, overall, his stats give encouragement for an improved Open effort. Aside from a third-placed finish at Royal St George’s in 2021, Rahmbo hasn’t found the world’s oldest major to be a happy hunting ground. He has failed to record any other Open top-10s and will be seeing Hoylake for the first time.
One trend that works against world number one, Scottie Scheffler during the Open is the fact that he sits atop the world rankings. Since the turn of the century, only Tiger Woods has won the Open Championship while ranked number one in the world. That said, the New Jersey native has put together a run of staggering consistency since November last year. Over that period, he has played 18 Stroke Play tournaments, including three majors, and his worst effort has been tied 12th. These included wins in the so-called “Fifth Major” — The Players Championship — and in Phoenix, two second — or tied-second place — efforts, and four third or tied-third finishes. His three majors over that timeframe have seen him finish in a tie for tenth when defending his title at Augusta, a tie for second in the USPGA, and finishing third at last month’s US Open. His only Match Play performance saw him finish third in the WGC event in March.
Drive for show, putt for dough
It’s no surprise that this tremendous form is underpinned by first-rate statistics. He leads the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Total, SG Tee-to-Green, SG Off-the-Tee and SG Approach the Green. A top-five player in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green, it’s obvious where Scheffler’s weakness lies: putting. He is 137th in the SG: Putting category. If he’d putted well, Scheffler would have won the Memorial Tournament by half the track, but he lost 8.58 strokes that week, according to the Strokes Gained: Putting metric — ranking stone last in the field with the flat stick. A strong week on the greens would definitely put him bang in contention at Hoylake. Despite limited experience of Links Golf, there were encouraging signs in his tied-eighth effort on Open debut, in 2021, and he followed that up with a tie for 21st at St Andrews last year.
Brooks Koepka’s major pedigree is phenomenal. In winning this year’s USPGA, the 33-year-old became only the seventh man to claim five majors before the age of 34. The list of the others resembles a Mount Rushmore of the game: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, and Tiger Woods. The Florida native’s past 34 starts in majors have seen him record 18 top-10 finishes, including top-five efforts in the four majors that took place in 2019.
His most recent outing in a major saw Koepka finish tied 17th at the US Open. He missed the cut at St Andrews in last year’s Open Championship but can claim four top-10 finishes in Golf’s oldest major. He made the cut at Hoylake nine years ago and is a different player from the one who finished tied 67th back then. After a sluggish start to the season, Koepka has rattled off 10 top-20 finishes in all tournaments and got his head in front on the line in the LIV Tour’s event in Orlando. His most recent effort produced a tie for 17th in LIV’s London tournament.
Twelve months’ ago, Australia’s Cameron Smith won his first major when collecting the Claret Jug at St Andrews. Prior to teeing off that week, his Open track record hadn’t promised much, with a tie for 20th his best effort in five previous Open outings. However, he came into last year’s tournament off the back of an encouraging effort at the Scottish Open, where he finished tied 10th, and earlier in the year he’d reached the winner’s circle twice in the Tournament Of Champions and in the prestigious Players Championship.
For now, at least, Smith calls the LIV Tour home and, with all the dollars being thrown at the players, Smith admitted that he had got a bit lazy at the start of this year. However, he has redoubled his efforts and, since the breakaway tour reached its stop in his homeland, Smith has been in fine form. A tie for third in the LIV Golf Invitational Adelaide has been followed by five other top fifteen efforts in LIV events. The last of these saw him open with a fine 63 as he made all the running to win the LIV London event. His efforts in this season’s majors have been trending in the right direction. He made the cut at Augusta, before a final-round 65 lifted him into a tie for ninth at the PGA Championship, and that was followed by finishing fourth at Los Angeles Country Club, last month.
To the Viktor, the spoils?
With Clark’s success in the US Open, 19 of the past 30 major championships have gone the way of first-time major winners, and Viktor Hovland would be towards the top of the list of major-winners-in waiting. Many observers felt that the LACC might give Hovland a good opportunity to finally break his major maiden. In the end he finished 19th, without really threatening to get the major monkey off his back. But, having failed to break the top 10 in his first 11 major appearances — including two as an amateur — the Norwegian has form figures of T4/T7/T2/19 in his four most recent starts in Golf’s signature events. The T4 came at St Andrews last year, when he and Rory McIlroy went out in the last group, four shots clear of the field, and seemingly with the title between them, only to see Smith putt the lights out and deny them both.
It’s not difficult to see which area of Hovland’s game requires an upgrade in order for him to get over the line in a major. His chipping has long been a weak link and he currently sits 128th in the Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green numbers on the PGA Tour. His putting is solid (74th), while he sits in the top 20 in all of the other main Strokes Gained categories.
Despite his chipping deficiency, you have to go back to July last year for Hovland’s last missed cut in a Stroke Play tournament on either the PGA, or DP World Tours. This sequence included a win in the Hero World Challenge, and he added another title to his collection in the Memorial Tournament at Jack’s place, Muirfield Village.
The champion at Royal Birkdale in 2017, Jordan Spieth has an outstanding record in the world’s oldest major. He has made the cut in each of the nine Open Championships in which he’s participated, including when finishing tied 36th here at Royal Liverpool in 2014. He came close to adding a second Claret Jug to his collection, with a second-place finish in 2021, and three further top-10 performances in 2015, 2018, and last year, when he finished in a tie for eighth at the home of Golf.
Spieth has had to battle a wrist problem this season, and that has been one factor in his recent inconsistency. He followed reaching a playoff in the RBC Heritage, with a missed cut at the Wells Fargo Championship. After a solid tied 29th effort at the US PGA Championship, he missed the cut a week later at the Charles Schwab Challenge, before bouncing back with a fine tie for fifth at Memorial. Nevertheless, he has failed to make the cut on his last two outings, in the US Open and Scottish Open. If his form is patchy, his stats are very balanced, with the Texas-native ranking between 22nd and 73rd in each of the main six Strokes Gained categories.
Call him what you like, as long as you call him in front
Xander Schauffele, brings a metronomic consistency to his major performances. The most mis-pronounced of golfers — it’s pronounced “zan-der shaw-flea” — the native of San Diego, racked up nine top-10 finishes in majors between 2017 and 2021. By his metronomic standards, a missed cut at Augusta last year was an outlier, but there has been a return to the usual consistency in his tied-13th, tied-14th, tied-15th, tied-10th, tied-18th, and 10th efforts in Golf’s signature events, since then. Across the 25 majors he has played in his career, Schauffele has produced an impressive 18 top-20 finishes.
He has completed 16 Stroke Play events on the PGA Tour’s 2022/23 schedule and is yet to win, with one runners-up effort and nine top-10 finishes. Although he can’t match the back-to-back victories that he brought into last year’s event — three wins in a row if you include the JP McManus Pro-Am, — current form figures of 4/T4/2/T18/T24/T10/T19/T42 suggest his game is in good shape. A newcomer to Hoylake, Schauffele has only contended once in the Open Championship, in the 2018 Open at Carnoustie, but it comes as no surprise that he’s played the weekend on all five occasions. You can’t post the consistent performances that Schauffele has without strong all-round statistics. Strong off the tee, on approach to the green, and on the putting surface, like Hovland, it’s around the green where he has lost ground, ranking 82nd in the Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green category this season.
Although Schauffele’s regular Zurich Classic playing partner, Patrick Cantlay hasn’t made the winner’s enclosure since the BMW Championship last August, he’s only missed one cut in America during the 2022/23 PGA Tour season. Since failing to make the weekend in Phoenix, he’s had six top-10 finishes, including two third-placed efforts and a trio of tied-fourth places. However, he narrowly failed to make the cut at the Renaissance Club last week. Like his partner in crime Schauffele, Cantlay’s Strokes Gained metrics are first-rate, though his around the green stats are his least impressive. The best of Cantlay’s four Open performances came last year at St Andrews, where he finished in a tie for eighth.
Like Schauffele and Cantlay, Collin Morikawa will be getting his first look at Royal Liverpool. But then he had no Open Championship experience — and very little Links Golf experience — when he teed it up for the 2021 Open Championship. Four rounds later, he had plenty of it. As well as winning the Claret Jug in 2021, the LA native won the PGA Championship a year earlier. He has posted a top-five finish in each of the four majors. Morikawa’s recent form has been somewhat erratic with five missed cuts and one withdrawal from his last 14 outings. However, the Rocket Mortgage Classic saw a welcome uptick in form, with a tied-second-place finish. A top-class iron player, it’s no surprise that the two-time major winner ranks 2nd in the Strokes Gained: Approach the Green category. His issues have been closer to the pin, ranking 101st in SG: Around-the-Green and 113th in SG: Putting.
The Summer of ’69
You have to go back to Sir Nick Faldo, in 1992 for the last Englishman to win The Open Championship. Each of Faldo’s three Open triumphs took place north of the border. The last time an English player was crowned the champion Golfer of the year in his home country was eight days before man first set foot on the moon, and back when England still held the FIFA World Cup. That occasion was a victory for Tony Jacklin, conqueror of Royal Lytham in 1969.
Looking to ensure that the sky’s the limit this week are Tommy Fleetwood, Matt Fitzpatrick, and Tyrrell Hatton who head the home contingent. Last month, Fleetwood found himself on the wrong end of a player ending his country’s long wait for a home champion. The man from Southport reached a playoff against Canadian Nick Taylor, who was seeking to end Canada’s 69-year wait for a home win in the Canadian Open. Fleetwood had to settle for second after Taylor drained a 72-foot eagle putt on the fourth playoff hole. Those exertions took their toll as Fleetwood began the US Open with a three-over Par, 73. However, that incredible Round Four 63 lifted him into a tie for fifth. Fleetwood followed this with a missed cut at the Travelers but, despite a two-over Par closing 72, he bounced back with a tied-6th effort in the Scottish Open.
This will very much be a home game for Fleetwood, who is relishing the prospect of being on familiar terrain, telling Golfnews: “I think it’s an amazing opportunity. The Open at Hoylake is very special. I’ve said it many times. For me personally there’s three Opens: there’s Birkdale, there’s Hoylake, there’s Royal Lytham. They’re all within 30-40 minutes of where I grew up…..It’s very special for me, and I completely see it as an opportunity.”
A much-improved performer from the player who missed the cut on his Open debut here in 2014, he was runner-up to Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush four years ago and finished in a share of fourth in last year’s Open. A man with no obvious weakness to his game — showcased by his being ranked in the top 40 on the PGA Tour in each of the main six Strokes Gained categories — and with six top-five finishes in majors since 2017, it’s just
a question of getting his head in front in a major.
That’s something that Matt Fitzpatrick has achieved during his short career. The hero of last year’s US Open, the oldest major is the only one in which the Sheffield star is yet to produce a top-10 effort. That said, he’s displayed excellent consistency with form figures of T20/T26/T21 in the last three renewals. Like Fleetwood, there’s no apparent deficiency in Fitzpatrick’s game, though SG: Approach the Green is the only area where he doesn’t find himself in the PGA Tour’s top 50. In recent months, he’s had bursts of form punctuated by occasional missed cuts. After failing to play the weekend at the Players Championship and the Valspar, he made the cut in four straight events, with a win in the RBC Heritage. After missing the cut in the US PGA Championship, he made four cuts on the bounce, including a tie for ninth at the Memorial Tournament and a solid defence of his US Open title, finishing tied 17th. However, a Second-round 73 saw him fail to make the weekend in the Genesis Scottish Open.
The PGA Tour’s Strokes Gained: Total category is unsurprisingly headed by many of the game’s leading players. Scheffler and Rahm head the list, with Messrs McIlroy and Cantlay in the top five. The other player in such exalted company is Tyrrell Hatton. The man from High Wycombe also sits in the Tour’s top-10 players off the tee and with the flatstick. Hatton’s best Open was his tied-fifth performance at Royal Troon in 2016, closely followed by ending the Open at Royal Portrush in a tie for sixth three years later. He has five top-10 efforts in majors and his form has been strong since major season began. He has made all nine cuts going back to The Masters in April, including six top-20 finishes. Favourite at one stage on Sunday at North Berwick, his challenge was derailed by a pair of 6s in the closing three holes.
As Golf’s most famous exponent, Tiger Woods, continues to recuperate from ankle surgery, Will Zalatoris, who has played such a big part in recent majors, is also on the sidelines. Despite those absences, there are plenty of other dark horses looking to add their name to the trophy’s famous roll of honour.
Orange is the new black
In addition to the protagonists already mentioned, the phalanx of US stars includes the likes of Rickie Fowler, Tony Finau, and Cameron Young. Fowler has looked like a player who could win the Open Championship, ever since he recorded tied-14th and tied 5th-place finishes in his first two outings in this tournament, which proved he is comfortable in windy conditions and capable of shrugging off the bad bounces that seem to go with the territory in this form of the game. His major record includes no fewer than 12 top-10 efforts in Golf’s signature events, which included his Annus Mirabilis — 2014. In that year, the Oklahoma State product posted a top-five effort in each of the four majors.
A year ago, at the nadir of his recent problems, Fowler was languishing at 173rd in the world rankings. Since reuniting with former coach, Butch Harmon, there has been a distinct uptick in Fowler’s form. A missed cut at the USPGA aside, Fowler has made every cut dating back to last October.
Having flown out of the gates with his major-record equalling 62 in Round One of the US Open, Fowler went out in the final group on day four, resplendent in his customary final-day orange — the colours of his alma mater Oklahoma State — only to fade down the home stretch. His closing 75 was the worst effort of any of the contenders — his was the poorest final round of any of the non-amateur players.
Just when many were starting to question whether he finds much off the bridle, the Rocket Mortgage Classic finally saw Fowler get his head in front, and no-one could have begrudged him ending his four-year drought without a title, given his excellent recent form. He’s posted 12 top-10 finishes and his current form figures read: T6/T9/T5/T13/1/T42. Fowler will also be familiar with Royal Liverpool, having chased Rory McIlroy home when the Open was last here.
It would seem a tall order for Wyndham Clark to go back-to-back in majors and he would be the first man since Jordan Spieth in 2015 to complete that achievement. At 50/1 he is only a slightly shorter price than he was in the US Open, but he has already expressed his love for Links Golf. After a 68-67 start at North Berwick last week, he went on to finish tied-25th.
The Phantom Of The Open
With numerous places having been secured via a number of regional qualifiers there will be plenty of lesser-known competitors looking to emulate Michael Block, the journeyman who became the star of this year’s US PGA Championship. Famously, in the case of also-ran Maurice Flitcroft, all he required was the brazen cheek to pretend. Despite never having a recorded handicap — on account of never having played a full round of 18 holes — the Lancastrian blagged his way into the 1976 Qualifying event, only to shoot a round of 121. After the Stewards’ Enquiry that followed, in subsequent years, Flitcroft repeatedly attempted to circumvent the R&A’s efforts to stop him entering the event again. Sadly “the world’s worst golfer” failed to qualify for the Open despite numerous attempts, under various pseudonyms, though his exploits were immortalised in the film, The Phantom Of The Open.
You complete me
This year’s competitors will have their credentials thoroughly examined both prior to teeing off, and by the course and the weather once play begins. For the players who have earned their way into the tournament, the Open is the pinnacle of the sport. “I never felt I could be a complete professional without having won the…Open. It was something you had to do to complete your career.” Those were the words of Arnold Palmer, whose seven major titles included two Open Championships. Palmer was known as The King, and whoever is crowned champion at Royal Liverpool on Sunday evening will become part of Golf royalty. The Royal Liverpool Golf Club’s motto is “far and sure”, but with the Open Championship the major most likely to produce a longshot winner, the outcome is far from certain and there are no sure things.