The Open Championship stands on a pedestal as the Major Championship that professional golfers covet the most. The 2017 Open Championship returns to Royal Birkdale in Merseyside, England for the 146th running of golf's oldest Major Championship. The tournament, which runs from Thursday 20th July to Sunday 23rd July 2017, will feature the most international field of the 4 Majors, with 156 players all striving to lift the Claret Jug. A Birkdale Open champions list that contains Peter Thomson (1954 & 1965), Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983), Ian Baker-Finch (1991), Mark O'Meara (1998) and Padraig Harrington (2008) highlights that 5 of the 9 previous champions hailed from the United States with a further 3 from Australia. Harrington redressed the balance in a wind-swept 2008 edition though where 3 of the top 4 finishers were European.
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We move from the Ayrshire coast and Royal Troon to another pure links test set on the Merseyside Irish Sea coastline in the shape of Royal Birkdale. Holes which meander through imposing sand dunes make for a difficult tee-to-green challenge, with only one of the 2 par-5s reachable with a prevailing westerly wind. If that prevailing wind is unkind, Royal Birkdale becomes a nasty challenge with Mark O'Meara (1998) and Padraig Harrington (2008) winning with scores of Even Par (280) and +3 (283) respectively in the last two Opens hosted here.
The Open Championship is always a stern test of any golfer, but Royal Birkdale is regarded as the fairest test on the Open course rota. Yes the Open's last 2 visits to Southport haven't seen par broken by champions Mark O'Meara or Padraig Harrington. But the 1998 and 2008 Open Championships saw some of the worst weather of any renewals across the past and prior to that Ian Baker-Finch won the title in 1991 with a -8/272 total in the only other Open visit where the course played as a par 70.
Birkdale links sets its stall out from the start with perhaps the most demanding Open rota 1st hole, but the overall level of difficultly is intrinsically linked to the local weather conditions. As Padraig Harrington summarised on his last visit in 2008, "This is a really pleasant golf course for everybody. I can understand why a lot of players would rate it very highly. It's not tricky, there's nothing funky about it. Everything is there in front of you. This is much, much more straightforward than Carnoustie. The fairways are flatter; the greens are not severe and if there's some slopes off them, there's not too many."
What to Expect at Royal Birkdale
We're in a privileged position this year as Royal Birkdale, unlike Royal Troon 12 months ago, will play pretty much as it did back in 2008. Prior to Harrington's second Open triumph here, Martin Hawtree had overseen a huge course re-development with the key goal of allowing the renowned golf links a fair chance of providing a stern challenge to the world's best players. Hawtree's grandfather and JH Taylor had re-designed the course back in 1935 when the famous white art-deco clubhouse was built and Martin became the third generation of the Hawtree family to have an input on this Open Championship venue. In all, 6 of the 18 holes were changed with over 150 yards added to the course. The 17th received a new green complex, with other work focussed on bunker re-positioning and the addition of undulations around green complexes where required.
The course, which can play anywhere between 7,150 to 7,170 yards, is made unique by the way it's framed by the topography of the sand dunes. As Tom Watson puts it, "There is more elevation involved in the tee shots and green complexes like the 6th green which rides up out of the dunes. The western side of the golf course is just lovely, playing along the dune structure down there which is just gorgeous."
A 34-36 split par-70, players have to wait till the 15th to get their first view of a par-5.
In all, you get the feeling that Birkdale is a more than scorable test if conditions allow. From a driving perspective, the course sets up well with no blind tee-shots (certainly different to 2017 U.S. Open venue Erin Hills) and the statistics from 2008 suggest that missing fairways by a small margin offers little penalty. Fairways are flat and the real trouble from off the tee is hitting fairway bunkers which in the main are penal. Green complexes are flat and quality approach shots get rewarded with makeable putts. However if the wind blows then watch out!
Below are some revealing comments about the course in 2008 from the players:
Mark O'Meara (1998 Champion - Pre-Event): "Everyone talks about the major changes but I think the course has only been lengthened by 150, 155 yards. Probably the biggest changes that I saw out there were some of the mounding, narrowing up the golf course a little bit, some of the new bunkering and pushing the bunkers out a little bit farther to combat some of the length that the younger players have. The lengthening of 16, I know the green configuration of 17. But other than that, it seemed very similar to the way it was in '98. So much depends here at Birkdale on the weather, as we know from past Open Championships. In '98 the weather was pretty severe, pretty windy, of course out of the southwest, and of course played quite demanding you might say, and the scoring reflected that. I think this week a lot depends on what the wind does and how severe it blows. If it doesn't blow that hard, even though the rough is a little bit deeper this year because it's been a little wetter of a spring, I imagine these players, as good as they are, will shoot some pretty low scores. If the wind blows, even par will be a good score come Sunday afternoon."
Phil Mickelson: "I think it's a very fair test where good shots get rewarded, primarily the 30 or 40 yards short of the green. You get much more consistent bounces, so the well-struck shots are rewarded and typically end up about where you would anticipate. I think that's the biggest thing. There's also a good mixture of holes that move both ways. The bunkers are perfectly placed for strategy, and it just seems to use every club in your bag. Very few blind shots, a lot of straightforward golf, even though it's very difficult."
Padraig Harrington: "As regards to the weather, we started out Thursday morning and that rain was as brutal as you've ever seen from tee to green. It wasn't as tough on the greens because the greens had some moisture in them and the wind wasn't that strong even though it was affecting the play because of the coolness and the dampness. It was affecting the ball travelling. The ball went better through the wind on the last two days because of the fact that it was a little bit warmer. But I've never experienced the difficulty on the greens of the last two days. I found the greens quick. Even though they said they were trying to slow them up, I really found them quick, and it was difficult to get the ball to settle close enough to the hole that you had a tap-in. Every hole you seemed to have four-footers, five-footers, always trying to figure out the line. And many times changing what line you want to hit the ball on nearly as you go. So as tough as I've ever seen on the greens."
Geoff Ogilvy: "Yeah, I mean, you wait all day for a par-5 and you hit 15 straight into a 15-, 20-mile-an-hour wind, whatever it is. It's borderline reachable. I guess most guys could get there yesterday. Today the wind strengthened, and I don't think many will get there, I'm sure, a couple of the longer guys, but most of the field will be laying it up. You wait all day for that par-5 and it's a tough layup too, because you have to lay up with a really long club, and it's gorse on the right and long grass on the left. 15 and 17 are the obvious birdie holes so you've got chances to make birdies. 16 is a brutal hole. You can't see any of the fairway from the tee. It's quite narrow. I hit driver, 3-iron today and hit them both good. That's a pretty long - we don't have that many par-4s where we hit driver, 3-iron, and it could play longer. It's a windy day today, but I'm sure it can get windier here. It was windier in '98, at least for periods."
Graeme McDowell: "I have to say, this is up there probably in my top 5 favourite links courses around. I've been really, really impressed by it. It kind of reminds me a lot of some of the really good Irish links like a Waterville or kind of Ennis Anis Grove or even a Portrush, so it's got the real rolling dunes, the real classic links feel to it. It's not tricked up, it's just a solid, tough test, fair. You hit good shots, you get rewarded. The place is not tricked up in any way, shape or form. The 17th is a bit tricked up, that 17th green. It's actually just a very difficult tricky little green. Obviously it's a nothing tee shot. It's a pretty straightaway tee shot, it's a short par-5. There's going to be bad shots that end up stone dead and there's going to be great shots that end up in three-putt territory. It's a funky little hole. It's a funky little green obviously. Maybe a little bit out of character with the rest of the golf course perhaps in that the rest of the greens maybe aren't that difficult, and all of a sudden you walk on the 17th, and you go, "Who designed who this?" It's going to offer up some drama, no doubt about it. Like I said, there's going to be bad shots you get away with, rolling off slopes and end up stone dead. It's going to be interesting."
Royal Birkdale, home of the 2017 Open Championship.
Links Specialists Prevail
Let's take the final skill statistics from Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter, Greg Norman and Henrik Stenson from the latest 2008 Open Championship held at Royal Birkdale. This gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Naturally these statistics have to be taken in the context that the 2008 Open at Birkdale was played in rain (Thursday) and 30+ mph winds across the other 3 days of play. The fact that Ian Poulter was 7th for GIR by hitting 43 of 72 greens says everything about the difficultly that particular week. Clearly a plethora of missed greens over 72 holes even for players who are managing the course well from tee-to-green makes a top-class scrambling game 100% essential in anything but calm conditions.
Statistics do not always highlight the full story and indeed a detailed look at the results history of the top 4 shows a definite correlation that we need to take on board. The links history of winner Padraig Harrington and Greg Norman needs little explanation: Harrington was the defending Open Champion - he won at Carnoustie the previous year no less - and had an additional couple of 5th place finishes in the Open prior to arriving in Southport to defend his title. He'd also won the Dunhill Links Championship twice in 2002 and 2006. Greg Norman had won the Open Championship twice in 1986 (Turnberry) and 1993 (Royal St Georges), plus had an additional 7 Open top 10s to his name. Yes he was a complete shock contender, but nasty conditions at The Open give experienced veterans a chance to shine.
In Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter though we had 2 players ranked in the World's top 50, both of whom though had disappointed in Major Championships. Stenson had won the World Matchplay Championship in 2007 and finished 3rd at The Players Championship in 2005, but before arriving at Birkdale had finished no better than 14th in a Major Championship and 34th in The Open. Poulter, on the other hand, had finished 9th at the 2007 PGA Championship and had finished 11th at the 2005 Open Championship. He also had a proven record when it came to playing in the United kingdom across England, Scotland and Wales. Their detailed links/wind play pedigree can be seen below:
Another eye-opener is that 1998 winner Mark O'Meara had finished 3rd at The Open Championship twice prior to lifting the Claret Jug here. 1985 had seen the American finish 3rd behind Sandy Lyle at Royal St Georges and 1991 had seen him finish 3rd again behind Ian Baker-Finch here at Royal Birkdale. It's worth noting that he'd also won The Masters in April prior to his win in England, which was his first Major Championship success in his 19th season of Major appearances. In total, 8 of O'Meara's 16 PGA Tour titles were won by the coast and he was a 4-time winner at Pebble Beach.
Will World Number 1 Dustin Johnson win at Birkdale?
Tempted to get on the World Number 1 (at the time of writing) Dustin Johnson at the Open Championship? Well here's a word of warning for all those tempted to jump on. No World Number 1 since 2000 apart from Tiger Woods (who else) has won The Open. OWGR No.1 Johnson has undoubtedly taken golf by storm since he won the 2016 U.S. Open, whilst 3 straight wins earlier in 2017 mark him out as the man to beat currently. Add to that the fact that his Open Championship record is strong and he's sure to be a short price. For the record, Henrik Stenson was 6th when he won last year at Troon, whilst Zach Johnson was 25th, McIlroy was 8th and Mickelson was 5th in the OWGR at Muirfield in 2013. The 5 winners prior to that - Els, Harrington, Cink, Oosthuizen and Clarke - were all ranked outside of the World’s top 10 when triumphing.
|Year||Open Winner||World Golf Rank|
Recent Form Is Key
Henrik Stenson's imperious win at Royal Troon last year adds even more gravitas to the fact that in-form players are the guys to follow at the Open Championship. It makes sense that those who are struggling with their games are unlikely to find them on a links course and in the last 5 champions, namely 'Ice Man', 'Z-Money', 'Rors', 'Lefty' and the 'Big Easy' we can see a pattern that's easy to extrapolate.
Henrik arrived in Ayrshire fresh from a free-wheeling 13th at the Scottish Open played at Caste Stuart. 76 in Round 1 was then followed by rounds of 69-66-70. However a fortnight prior to the Scottish Open, Stenson had won the BMW International Open at Gut Larchenhof with a -17/271 total. His performance in Germany and his 3-shot winning margin was made even more impressive by the fact that he topped Driving Accuracy, Total Driving, Greens in Regulation and All-Round categories. He was also 2nd for Scrambling. Henrik had also finished 4th at Bro Hoff Slot in June. All of this made him very backable, especially as his Open record contained 2nd (Muirfield 2013), 3rd (Birkdale 2008) and 3rd (St Andrews 2010) place finishes. 30/1 was a cracking price to land.
Zach arrived at Edinburgh airport on the charter flight direct from Silvis, Illinois where he'd just finished a single shot behind Jordan Spieth at the John Deere Classic. 5th at Las Colinas and 6th at TPC River Highlands in his previous PGA Tour outings highlighted a player at the top of his game, so even now the fact that he was available at 110/1 to win at St Andrews is jaw-dropping!
Rory had won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, a track which had always been his nemesis, until his closing round of 66 destroyed the field. He then limbered up with a relaxed 14th at Royal Aberdeen the week before triumphing in Cheshire where a horrible 78 on Friday was surrounded by rounds of 64, 67 and 68. Rory was 18/1 second favourite prior to the tournament.
Phil Mickelson had already won at TPC Scottsdale and finished 2nd on the tough tests of Merion (US Open) and TPC Southwind before he touched down in Scotland in 2013. Arriving at Castle Stuart the week before The Open, Phil was a 20/1 shot to win the Scottish Open, which he duly did, before travelling down the east coast to Muirfield, where he shot an incredible -5/66 on Sunday to win by 3 shots from Henrik Stenson again at a healthy 20/1.
Ernie Els was available at 45/1 prior to Royal Lytham in 2012 and quite rightly we tipped him up as a great Top 20 bet in my Open Longshots column that year. With 4 top 5 finishes (Fancourt, Copperhead, Bay Hill and New Orleans) plus a 7th at Wentworth and 9th at the US Open just prior to the Open, he had huge momentum and was in the right place at the right time when Adam Scott collapsed over the closing 4 holes. It's fact that Ernie was the latest in a long line of in-form players to triumph at the British Open.
11 Champions from the last 17 renewals (65%) had won a tournament in the same season prior to triumphing at The Open. Tiger Woods (00, 05, 06), Ernie Els (02), Todd Hamilton (04), Padraig Harrington (07), Louis Oosthuizen (10), Darren Clarke (11), Phil Mickelson (13) and Rory McIlroy (14) had all won in the season prior to lifting the Claret Jug.
Open Championship Tips 2017