THE OPEN: Golf’s most storied championship returns to Royal Birkdale this week, a place that has produced some great champions over the years and should provide a stern test for what has a chance to be a fantastic 146th Open Championship.
There is no clear-cut favorite this year, but there’s a pack of young, rising stars with momentum on their side who seem primed to kick down the door and claim their first Claret Jug. And I’m not talking about the traditional “Big Four” of Johnson, Spieth, Day, and McIlroy, though those guys might very well make some noise this week. No, I’m referring to players like Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, and Tommy Fleetwood– big-time talents who have been playing very well over the past few weeks and seem to have that certain hunger that players like McIlroy and Day might lack at the moment.
Of course, it’s probably wise to remember that the Open has been very kind to veterans over the years, as the patience required to persevere through the unpredictable weather, unrelenting pressure, and unique challenges of links golf often takes years to acquire. Last year we saw forty-somethings Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson battle it out at Royal Troon, with the Swede eventually coming out on top after a memorable final-round 63. And Birkdale is the type of course that should give the older players an excellent chance, considering it’s not particularly long and is full of forced layups due to bunkers and doglegs, which means everyone will be hitting their approach shots from the same area on many holes. Consummate grinder Padraig Harrington was crowned champion the last time the Open came to Birkdale, in 2008, and prior to that it was Mark O’Meara (1998), a fairways-and-greens type who was never known for his length off the tee.
Neither Harrington nor O’Meara broke par for the week, and you have to go all the way back to 1991, when Ian Baker-Finch won, to find a champion who finished under par at Royal Birkdale. So it may be a bit of a change from what we’ve seen in the Open in recent years, with the last three champions all reaching 15-under or better. This is particularly true if the wind picks up, as the course is very tight in spots and the penalty for missing the fairways can be severe. The green complexes are fairly straightforward and there are scoring opportunities if you can put the ball in play, but there’s a double-bogey lurking around every corner and few true “birdie holes”. As we saw in both ’08 and ’98, nothing comes easy at Birkdale.
Speaking of nothing coming easy, I’ve had a bit of trouble narrowing it down to three selections this week. This is precisely because I have a strong feeling that the winner will be one of the five young players listed above: Rahm, Fowler, Matsuyama, Koepka, or Fleetwood. Koepka sports the longest odds of the bunch but I also feel like he’s the least likely to win, while the other four are bunched near the top of the market, making it seem a bit silly to recommend them all. So I’ve followed my gut and have gone with the two I like best, plus a wily old vet who might just surprise some people:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Hideki Matsuyama (24.0)- Matsuyama has been a frequent contender in majors over the past few years and he’s been at it again in 2017, finishing 11th at the Masters and runner-up at the U.S. Open. He took some time off after Erin Hills but was back in action two weeks ago at the Irish Open, where he finished 14th, shooting 68 or better in three of the four rounds. That he performed well on a links course shouldn’t be the least bit surprising when you consider his record in the Open, where he has a top-10 and two top-20 finishes under his belt in just four career starts. And as one of the finest ball-strikers in the world, Royal Birkdale should be right up his alley– a rigorous tee-to-green test where his machine-like consistency will be richly rewarded. It’s only a matter of time before Matsuyama wins a major, and this week sure looks like a golden opportunity. He’s well worth a bet at a price like 24.0.
Tommy Fleetwood (27.0)- Fleetwood is a popular pick this week, and for good reason– he’s been playing great golf lately, finding the top-10 in each of his past four starts and picking up a win at the Open de France, and he’s a local Southport kid who grew up just down the road from Royal Birkdale, so he probably knows the course better than anyone in the field. Being the hometown guy can bring its own unique set of pressures, however, and it’s true that Fleetwood has a poor record in the Open, never making the cut in three career appearances. But all the ingredients are there for a magical week: he’s playing the best golf of his life, he’ll have an enthusiastic gallery behind him, and he’ll be playing a course that he’s played his entire life, which should help keep him grounded if the pressure turns up. There’s a lot to like here, and the price is reasonable enough to draw me in.
Lee Westwood (106.0)- Westwood is really flying under the radar this week after missing the cut at the Irish Open, but he had been playing some good golf prior to that, rattling off three consecutive top-15 finishes before the disappointment at Portstewart, so I’m more encouraged than alarmed about the state of his game. He’s had plenty of success at the Open, finding the top-5 four times, and he was in the field the last time the championship came to Royal Birkdale (2008), making the cut before fading over the weekend. But it seems like Birkdale should be Westwood’s kind of place considering how good he is off the tee, and a grizzled vet like him is well versed in the intricacies of links golf. Though he’s 44 years old now, Westwood still unquestionably has the physical ability to get the job done, and, as mentioned above, the Open has been very kind to veterans over the past decade. If you asked me, “who’s going to be the Sergio of the week, the decorated veteran who finally gets the job done after coming up short so many times?”, I’d answer, “Lee Westwood”. He’s certainly worth a bet at better than 100/1.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Justin Thomas (1.91) vs. Padraig Harrington (1.91)
While Thomas is one of the most talented young players in the world, a birdie-making machine who hits the ball nine miles, he has limited experience with links golf and wasn’t particularly impressive in his Open debut last year, finishing 53rd. Royal Birkdale is a true links that takes the driver away from the longer players– Phil Mickelson, for example, won’t even carry a driver this week, while Dustin Johnson has said that he only plans to his “three or four” drivers– so in that sense I don’t think it’s a great fit for Thomas. Harrington, meanwhile, will have nothing but positive memories after winning here in ’08, and he’s been sharp lately, following a 17th-place finish at the Travelers Championship with a 4th-place showing in Scotland last week. Recommendation: Harrington at 1.91
Rory McIlroy (2.0) vs. Sergio Garcia (1.76)
Look, I realize McIlroy is an unbelievable talent who has an unbelievable record at the Open. No argument here. But there’s no hiding his recent struggles– missed cuts at the U.S. Open, Irish Open, and Scottish Open– and so we’ve come to a point, however brief, where the name exceeds the game. That’s certainly not the case with Sergio, who has found the top-30 every time he’s teed it up since February, a span of 8 events that, naturally, includes his win at the Masters. He finished runner-up at the BMW International in his last start and has a tremendous Open record, finishing 6th or better in each of the past three years and logging ten top-10s over the course of his career. He’s a good bet to beat Rory this week and may be worth a look in the outright market. Recommendation: Garcia at 1.76