SCOTTISH OPEN: With all due respect to the John Deere Classic, the epicenter of the golf world this week can be found across the ocean in North Berwick, a Scottish seaside town of only 7,000 inhabitants that is home to several world-renowned courses and, for the next four days, the Scottish Open.
Around the turn of the century more international players began to spend a week or two in the UK and/or Ireland in preparation for the Open Championship, and now the Scottish Open has become one of the European Tour’s premier tournaments, a Rolex Series event that features a world-class field and a hefty purse. As usual, a handful of the PGA Tour’s brightest stars have made the trip over, guys like Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas, and Collin Morikawa, so the market this week looks like what you’d expect at a WGC event, which is a far cry from where this tournament was in terms of prestige 30 years ago.
One thing that’s really helped this event raise its profile in recent years has been the decision to use only links courses for the competition, as opposed to somewhere like Loch Lomond, which has more in common with a course you’d typically see on the PGA Tour than a rough-and-tumble Open Championship track. Scotland is home to some tremendous links courses that aren’t on the Open rota and therefore lack the exposure of somewhere like Carnoustie or Turnberry, and this week’s venue, the Renaissance Club, is a perfect example: designed by Tom Doak and completed in 2008, the Renaissance Club may never attain the status of some of its older neighbors, but it’s already established its championship worthiness after hosting the Scottish Senior Open in 2017 and this tournament in each of the past two years.
A par-71 that now measures nearly 7,300 yards after an early 2020 renovation and redesign, Renaissance was a stiff challenge last year, as only three players reached double-digits under par for the week and winner Aaron Rai finished at just 11-under. It’s a true coastal links, meaning the scoring will be entirely dependent on the weather, but if early-week forecasts hold up it looks like the players will be spared the wrath of the golfing gods (for this week, anyway). But there will be other challenges– the green complexes are trickier than some links courses, with severe undulations in spots; the fairways are narrow around the landing areas and some of the rough is quite thick, putting a premium on driving the ball. Fairways-and-greens savant Tommy Fleetwood lost in a playoff last year, if that gives you any insight into what type of course this is, and 7 of the top 10 were from the UK or Ireland, so links experience is undoubtedly a factor. There are plenty of guys who seem to check both boxes this week, and after some deliberation I’ve narrowed my list of favorites down to these three:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Jon Rahm (8.8)- I know, I know– it’s no fun picking the favorite, and Rahm’s price here isn’t going to excite anybody. But that price will get a little more exciting if Rahm throws a 67 on the board on Thursday, and with the way he’s been playing lately, 67 may be conservative. Everyone knows he’s coming off a U.S. Open victory, but many seem to have forgotten about the many mistakes and missed opportunities he had to overcome on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before his brilliant Sunday. If he had cleaned things up a little and gotten a bit luckier over the first three rounds, the tournament could’ve turned into a runaway akin to his virtuoso performance at the Memorial, when he led by 6 shots before being forced to withdraw following Saturday’s round due to a positive covid test. Rahm is simply the best player in the world right now, someone capable of running away and hiding from the rest of the field. He’s experienced what that’s like on a links course, too, winning the 2017 Irish Open at Portstewart by 6 shots. I wouldn’t bet against him this week.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout (50.0)- Though he has yet to win in 2021, Bezuidenhout is a young player who has proven that he can close the deal, winning the Andalucia Masters in 2019 and then picking up back-to-back European Tour victories this past winter. He’s been playing solid golf lately, finishing 37th or better in each of his past four starts, and he’s one of the very best in the world around the greens right now, ranking 4th on the PGA Tour in both strokes gained around the green and strokes gained putting. The only real question here is links experience: he’s never had a great result on a links course, though he did finish T34 in this tournament in 2019, meaning he does have a feel for Renaissance. He was on the verge of breaking through at the Irish Open last week, finishing T23 despite a Saturday 74, and even though that wasn’t on a links course, it strengthens the feeling that something big is right around the corner for Bezuidenhout. I’m happy to take a chance on him this week at a price like 50.0.
Andy Sullivan (128.0)- Sullivan has been on a great run lately, finishing 12th or better in 3 of his past 5 worldwide starts, including a 5th-place showing at the BMW International a couple of weeks ago and a T12 in last week’s Irish Open. Unlike Bezuidenhout, he has a long and distinguished record on links courses, and he’s put together a couple of solid performances at Renaissance, finishing 26th in this tournament last year and 28th in 2019. Sullivan snapped a five-year winless drought with his record-setting victory at last year’s English Championship, when he finished 27-under and blew away the field by seven shots, and considering he’s 42-under in his past 16 European Tour rounds, there shouldn’t be any concern about his ability to keep pace should we get a birdie-fest this week. A win here would be huge for his career, and it would be unexpected, for sure, but not quite as unexpected as his price would indicate. Sullivan is a live longshot here and an excellent value at better than 125/1.