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And before we knew it, the British Open / Open Championship was here.
Call it whatever you like, but this is one of the best weeks of the year. Early golf here in the States, windswept links, iron shots 10 feet off the ground, sideways pitches from sodded bunkers, Peter Alliss, streakers, and a whole host of other fantastic things make The Open must-see TV. And this week we return to one of the more unpredictable courses in the rota, Royal Liverpool, commonly known as Hoylake.
Hoylake is similar to Royal Birkdale in both look and feel, which makes sense as they're separated by only one hour on the UK coast. The big difference is the four par-5's at Hoylake in championship layout, which will result in lower overall scoring. But the yardages and aesthetics of the courses are similar, although Hoylake has a modified '9 holes out, 9 holes in' routing that can allow for more shots either straight into or with the wind. If the wind blows straight in off the sea, as it normally does, the players will close with three realistic birdie chances the last four holes -- a 160-yard par-3 and two downwind par-5's. Coupled with danger and OB everywhere, no lead will be safe down the stretch. It's produced plenty of drama in the past… Who can forget when Sandy Herd closed with an 81 to claim the Open crown in 1902? Me either.
Of course, Bobby Jones did win here in 1930 during his grand slam season and was famously welcomed back to the States with a ticker-tape parade in New York. But that just illustrates how winners during the previous 11 Opens hosted here are all over the board. From Peter Thomson and Walter Hagen to Alf Padgham and Arnaud Massy, the list of champs is an uneven one. Side note: Herd played in 46!?!?! Open Championships over 54 years, and his Aught-Two victory came over James Braid and Henry Vardon, who both missed putts to tie him on the 72nd hole.
So what key factors should we look for this week? First off, the last three Open winners -- Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson -- were each on the wrong side of 40 years old. There's something in that. Seasoned vets who, with the possible exception of Clarke, have a lot of shots (Clarke does, but not at the same level as Els or Lefty). Next, distance really isn't much of a factor here -- the rough is high so players aren't going to hit the big stick much. Billy Horschel tweeted out that he only hit one driver during a practice round; Horschel ranks 97th in driving distance on Tour. So that brings in a lot of players who can contend. But holes No. 1, 3, 5, 6 and 8 play into the prevailing wind, and Nos. 1, 3 and 8 are long and/or tricky par-4's… so don't freak out if your guys turn at +2 or even +3 after their opening nine holes.
Third, the factors above make me opt for shotmakers and/or ballstrikers. Hoylake offers tough angles and the requirement to land shots in small areas and let them run out. It's also worth noting that despite a checkered past, the last two winners at Hoylake were either No. 1 or 2 in the world: Tiger Woods (2006) and Mark O'Meara (1998).
Without further ado, let's get to the picks. In keeping with the format of golfmanna's Pick-6 game (register here -- it's a lot of fun), this is the team I'm playing:
1. Henrik Stenson. The big Swede is on fire, with T7, 5, T4, and T2 in his last four events worldwide. Throw in that he has three top-3’s in his last 5 Opens, plus a solid showing at the US Open recently, and he’s primed to contend this weekend. He's also No. 2 in the world.
2. Jim Furyk. He certainly fits the pattern of players age 40-or-older who have won Opens the last three years, plus he has a good record at Hoylake (top-5 in 2006) and neighboring/similar Birkdale. He’s back to his ‘Top-15 Machine’ form -- he has 16 of them in his last 35 events, including this year's Masters and US Open.
3. Adam Scott. The No. 1 player in the world is on the list until he lays an egg in a major more than once in a year. He's finished in the top 15 in 11 of his last 14 majors, with a win and a pocketful of top-5's mixed in. Also finished T8 at Hoylake in 2006.
4. Zach Johnson. His last three Opens: T16, T9 and T6 last year. That's taking it in the right direction. With distance not a huge factor and the penetrating ball flight he plays, I like his chances. Remember, if he could've gotten a couple of putts to drop on Sunday last year he would've been right there with Mickelson.
5. Justin Rose. His recent form can't be ignored, coming off two consecutive wins, including last week's Scottish Open -- which give him the chance to claim No. 1 in the world with a win this week. But I just like the setup for his smooth ballstriking game. Considering that the driver has been his weakest club this year, and that putting typically holds him back, the ability to hit irons off the tee and putt on relatively flat greens should play in his favor. One warning flare is that he's missed the Open cut in three of the last four years, but I'm banking on the setup and recent form.
6. Miguel Angel Jimenez. It seems a little odd to have a 50-year-old in my top six, but his Open record has been solid (T13, T25, T25, T9, T13 the last five years). He was also -7 after 36 holes at Hoylake in 2006 before faltering on the weekend (T41). He's won twice in Europe, once on the Champions Tour and finished 4th in The Masters this year. And Miggie is to shotmaking what Katy Perry is to the on-stage bikini. Stay thirsty, my friends.
Player to avoid: Lee Westwood. Usually a perennial contender, Westwood's game has fallen off the map the last three months. He's a great ballstriker, but he's too big of a risk to start this week.
- Most folks will probably pass on Tiger this week, and it's hard to blame them. But I could see the 2006 Hoylake winner hanging around all weekend. He won't be hitting many drivers, reports are that his iron game looks good, and all he needs is some timely putting. I could see him making the cut around the number and then going low one day on the weekend to backdoor a top 10. There's no better shotmaker on the planet than Tiger.
- Speaking of the backdoor top 10 (see most big events the last two years), Rory McIlroy's last three Opens, in order: MC, T60, T25. He can obviously win any week and is on decent form, but his driver has actually been his best club and it will be somewhat negated this week, and he's heading the wrong direction in The Open.
- I like Sergio Garcia's game for this layout, and he finished T5 here in 2006, but I don't think anyone has much confidence in his ability to close out a big tournament.
- Martin Kaymer's game is tough to criticize, but he only has one top 10 in The Open in his career (2010, 7th) and has been very hit or miss this year in reality. He wasn't spectacular in his two most recent Euro events (MC, T12). And winning the US and British Opens in the same year has only been done by guys named Tiger, Watson, Trevino, Hogan, Sarazen and Jones. That being said, is an uneasy feeling leaving the PLAYERS and US Open champ off my team.
- I think a big part of what Jason Dufner does well (driver accuracy) will be neutralized this week, and he hasn't proven (yet) that he can seriously contend in the wind and firm conditions.
- Ian Poulter has a good record at Birkdale, but that certainly hasn't carried over to Hoylake (MC in 2006). I like him on majors courses where the winning score is closer to par anyway, and it should be in the teens this week.
- I like Ernie Els this week, coming off a final-round 66 last week in Scotland, having made the cut in both majors in 2014, and being a shotmaker and two-time Open champ. Wouldn't be shocked to see him contend.
Others I considered but couldn't pull the trigger on: Keegan Bradley or Matt Kuchar (just not feeling it despite a couple of good results for each at The Open), Jason Day (history at the Open), Mickelson (2014 form), Jordan Spieth (no real track record, although I do like him in the top 30), Brandt Snedeker (switch to Butch Harmon has him confident), Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson (ehhhh), Stephen Gallacher (a top 30 OWGR guy, but nothing great in the majors), Rickie Fowler (really like him this week), Graeme McDowell (nothing good in recent majors, especially the Open), Jamie Donaldson (ready for him to show up in a major -- it's going to happen soon), Angel Cabrera (wildcard) and Paul Casey (too scary).
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