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OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP: This year’s Open Championship is already one of the most special in recent memory, if only because of what it represents: a return to a sort of blissful normalcy that many of us had taken for granted prior to the worldwide covid pandemic, and, in a grander sense, the victory of the human spirit over fear and despair. Maybe that’s being a little overdramatic, but in today’s society sports function as an outlet for camaraderie, passion, and communal joy, and to be robbed of this is to be robbed of some part of your humanity. The Open is golf’s oldest and grandest tournament, an event that predates everyone reading this article and will be around long after we’re gone, and it sure is nice to have it back in our lives.

Irishman Shane Lowry has held the Claret Jug for two years now after his triumph at Royal Portrush; he’ll be looking to become the first back-to-back Open champion since his friend and countryman Padraig Harrington pulled off the feat over a decade ago, but it will be a daunting task. The course, Royal St. George’s, is a par-70 measuring nearly 7,200 yards that last hosted the Open in 2011, when Darren Clarke prevailed. One of the more challenging tracks on the Open rota, it’s a traditional links featuring firm fairways, punishing rough, and difficult, penalizing bunkers. The green complexes are small and not particularly receptive, meaning the winner this week will have to display some wizardry with the irons, and as is always the case in this tournament, the weather will be a major factor. Forecasts currently call for dry conditions and a mild afternoon breeze, but things can change quickly on the coast, and sudden spells of inclement weather have cost many a player their shot at the Claret Jug over the years.

As mentioned, Royal St. George’s is no walk in the park– Clarke’s total of 5-under 275 in 2011 was the second-highest winning score this tournament has seen in the past 10 years, with only Muirfield in 2013 playing tougher, and in the course’s only other time in the Open spotlight this century, when journeyman Ben Curtis shocked the world in 2003, the unheralded American was the only player in the field to break par for the week, finishing at 1-under. This will be a proper major championship grind, and whoever comes out on top this week will have succeeded at controlling their emotions and exhibiting patience and discipline beyond what is required in your ordinary Tour event. If seeing the world’s best players put in stressful, unfamiliar situations is your idea of an enjoyable golf tournament, then you’re in for a treat this week.

U.S. Open champ Jon Rahm (10.0) heads BETDAQ’s Win Market, and with good reason– after his virtuoso performance at the Memorial, his triumph at Torrey Pines, and a stress-free top-10 in Scotland last week, Rahm is the best player in the world right now and the clear favorite here, though his poor Open record, frightfully short price, and the general unpredictability of links golf will understandably prompt many to investigate other options. The American quartet of Brooks Koepka (18.0), Xander Schauffele (20.0), Jordan Spieth (21.0), and Justin Thomas (25.0) sit right behind Rahm, with some of the other usual suspects like Rory McIlroy (27.0) and Dustin Johnson (27.0) also near the top of the market. As is always the case with a field this strong, there are plenty of quality players saddled with bigger-than-usual prices, and of course we’ve seen triple-digit longshots cash plenty of times in this tournament over the years… like the last two times it was held at Royal St. George’s, for instance. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking this week:

WIN MARKET

Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)

Jordan Spieth (21.0)- It’s been a big year for Spieth, as he’s returned to the pinnacle of the sport after a couple of years in the wilderness, but the former World No. 1 surely won’t feel that he’s truly “back” until he wins another major. He came close at the Masters back in April, finishing 3rd, and he’s continued to play great golf over the past couple of months, finding the top-20 in 4 of his past 5 starts and finishing runner-up at the Charles Schwab Challenge. His U.S. Open result (T19) was better than expected given his poor career record at Torrey Pines, and now he comes to a course that should suit his game nicely with its emphasis on quality iron play and creativity around the greens. Spieth has an excellent links record that includes his Open Championship victory at Royal Birkdale in 2017 and a runner-up at St. Andrews two years prior, and since 2015 he leads all players at the Open in scoring average (69.6), rounds in the 60s (12), and one-putts (145). He has a great chance this week and should be enthusiastically backed at a price like 21.0.

Branden Grace (70.0)- After struggling with a covid infection and bouts of inconsistency in 2020, Grace has responded with a big year that has included some flashes of brilliance, such as his victory at the Puerto Rico Open, which was his first PGA Tour win in five years, and his last two starts, a solo 4th at the Memorial and a T7 at the U.S. Open, where his Sunday 67 tied Jon Rahm for the round of the day. He’s been known to go low in majors before, most notably his third round 62 at the 2017 Open at Birkdale, when he broke the all-time single-day scoring mark at a major and went on to finish 6th. That’s his best result in nine Open Championships, but he’s only missed the cut once, and his penetrating ball-flight and proficiency in the wind has always made him a good fit for links golf. Given his recent form he feels like a dangerous player this week, and I’m happy to take a chance on him at such an inflated price.

Alex Noren (160.0)- At 39 years old, Noren is now entering the “grizzled veteran” stage of his career, and it must be pointed out that older players have thrived at the Open in recent years, with only 4 of the past 13 champions being under the age of 35. A lot of that has to do with the fact that links golf is its own animal, with challenges that are completely different from what Tour players contend with on a weekly basis, and it often takes time and experience to understand and master the intricacies. Noren seems to have caught on, finishing 6th, 17th, and 11th in his past three Open appearances, and he comes into this week in good form after a T4 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, when he closed with a Sunday 64, and a T13 at last month’s Memorial. He’s never won a major and he’s reached the stage where most think he probably never will, but you could’ve said the same thing about Darren Clarke the last time this tournament was held at Royal St. George’s, or about Henrik Stenson in 2016, or Stewart Cink in 2009. Point is, nothing about a Noren victory this week would be especially out of the ordinary, and given his price that makes him a must-bet in my book.