British Open 2017 preview: Royal Birkdale course, unpredictable weather add intrigue to wide-open field
Royal Birkdale is hosting the British Open for the 10th time and here's a preview of the main contenders for the championship.
Once upon a time, a glorious golf championship was known as the 'British Open', and then along came the R&A who followed fashion and rebranded it as 'The Open Championships'. A few years on, it came to be known simply as 'The Open'. It is the oldest (it was first played in 1860) and arguably the most prestigious professional golf championship.
Royal Birkdale is steeped in history. One of the newest entrants on The Open rota, it is hosting the championship for the 10th time since it first came to to this stunning layout in 1954. Only the hallowed grounds at St Andrews have hosted more in the same period. Ironically, Royal Birkdale was first awarded The Open in 1940, which was called off due to the onset of World War I.
Playing to 7,156 yards, a tight par 70, the course record sits in the name of Colombian golfer, Camilo Villegas — a 65 shot in 2008. Unlike many other links courses where the outward and inward 9's go in separate directions, this unique layout presents no par 5's in the first 14 holes, and then one each on the 15th and 17th which incidentally play in opposite directions. This golf course doesn't give away much, and if the rain and wind get up, the 146th edition will not yield a winning score under par — the last two championships here in 1998 and 2008 did not.
As world No 3 Jordan Speith (USA) quipped in the press conference on Wednesday, the draw pretty much eliminates half the field. Between the first two days, one half of the draw will catch the dreaded British weather and scores will sky rocket, and that eliminates half the field. Speith reckons if he is lucky enough to get the right weather, he has only 74 other golfers to beat and not 149.
Closer to our heart, Indian golfers Anirban Lahiri (world No 67) and Shiv Kapur (world No 300) will fly our flag. Anirban, who's best finish at The Open was a T31 in 2015, will be looking to top his best finish in a major, his T5 at the PGA Championships also in 2015. Anirban made his Open debut back in 2012, which was also his first major. Not only did he comfortably make the halfway cut but embraced the big stage making a memorable 'hole-in-one' in the third round.
This year Lahiri has had his share of ups and downs. He came alive at the Jack Nicklaus hosted 'Memorial' tying for second place and essentially stitching up his PGA Tour card for the next season as well. He played the Scottish Open last week and finished T32 with two low rounds, a 67 and a 66 in the second and fourth rounds, inter spaced with a couple of 76's. This indicates that he can be explosive and dangerous, and with the recently added 2 iron and tartan trousers to his arsenal, I fully expect fireworks from Lahiri this week.
Kapur, in the meantime, got in to The Open field before Lahiri did, hopping across from a brief vacation and training in Bulgaria to the UK and torching The Marquess' Course at Woburn firing at second round 65 to emerge medalist with a total score of 8 under, two and three shots respectively ahead of English pair Tobay Tree and Ryder Cup legend Ian Poulter.
Making his Open debut back in 2006, Kapur is an experienced campaigner who briefly led The Open on Day 1 of the 2013 edition sending global golf in to a tizzy (he eventually finished T73). Kapur is having a banner year, returning to the winners circle a couple of months ago with his Asian Tour win at the Yeangder Open, where he fired a stunning final round 64.
It's time to now stick my neck out and pick my favorites:
Justin Rose (England): For the 2014 US Open champion and gold medallist at the 2016 Olympics, a win this week would be a perfect bookend to his glorious career that was launched at this very venue in 1998 as a 17-year-old schoolboy finishing T4.
Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland): Recently married and seemingly struggling with injuries this year, he has oscillated between the sublime and ridiculous. Bookmakers have him listed at 20/1, but it would be stupid to rule McIlroy out.
Sergio Garcia (Spain): The reigning Masters champion wouldn't be the first to win the two biggest titles in the game in the same year, and neither at this venue. Remember Mark O'Meara's win in 1998? It was at Royal Birkdale.
Hideki Matsuyama (Japan): Matsuyama is the World No 2, the favourite from Japan, and an absolute rockstar. Everything seems in place for Matsuyama to give his golf-mad countrymen their first Major champion.
Other notables that we really shouldn't be leaving out of this conversation:
Dustin Johnson (USA): A freak back injury the week of the Masters this year forced the World No 1 to withdraw from the tournament and he has struggled to find the same form he displayed until April this year. However, Johnson is always a big threat and cannot be ignored.
Jordan Speith (USA): The double Major champion from 2015 needs his trusty putter to again be his best friend. Royal Birkdale suits his astute ability and he could plot his way successfully around a course that demands great strategy and patience.
Henrik Stenson (Sweden): The defending champion who out-duelled the mercurial Phil Mickelson (USA) a year ago at Troon may well find the inspiration this week to retain his coveted Claret Jug. He's promised to sky dive with it in hand whenever he wins it again.
Also in contention will be the omnipresent Rickie Fowler (USA), the prodigal son Jon Rahm (Spain) and the sentimental choice Lee Westwood (England).
Let the games begin with 1998 'Champion Golfer of the Year' Mark O'Meara (USA) hitting the opening tee shot of the 146th edition.
The author is a golfer who represented India from 1988 to 1991 and captained the West Zone from 1996 to 2001
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