In an era when the phrase “fake news” is bandied around in conversation almost as much as “Rory has missed the cut again” there were a couple of developments on the eve of this week’s Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
The first was that Rory McIlroy missed the cut again, this time courtesy some mediocre ball-striking at the Scottish Open and a six-foot putt on his final green on Friday that left the putter blade with about as much hope as Donald Trump catching the eye of the Nobel Peace Prize jury.
The second was the circulation on Twitter of a “weather report” for this week on the Lancashire coast that promised hurricane winds of up to 75mph – disastrous for ice cream sales in Birkdale, perhaps, but pretty good news for all those European Tour players in the field who are much better acquainted with playing golf in miserable conditions than their American counterparts.
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 17, 2017
So far, so good. After last year’s Ryder Cup debacle, at which Darren Clarke’s team was embarrassingly thrashed, the last thing we needed was for some Yankee Doodle Dandy to come over to this side of the pond and walk off with Europe’s only “home” major. Nothing a little hurricane wouldn’t put an end to.
Give or take a rare except, the pride of PGA Tour don’t like it up ‘em, as old Sir Bufton-Tufton used to say in the R&A Clubhouse (and probably still does).
Alas, the imminent hurricane was fake news, the figment of some social media fantasist with too much time on his hand. Bad news for those among us who like their Open Championship golf mixed in with a healthy serving of brutality. Meanwhile, a generation of pampered PGA Tour pros breathed a sigh of relief. With the sky as blue as a Hollywood set and the forecast set fair, this week at Birkdale threatens to be a “normal” Open week.
This isn’t to suggest it will be easy. All other things being equal, Birkdale is the toughest lay-out on the Open rota (Padraig Harrington was three-over par when he won in 2008) and with the fescue looking thick and juicy this week don’t expect anyone to tear the joint apart.
What you can expect, however, is a high quality winner. Like all the great major championship courses, Birkdale has a habit of identifying only the best. Of the nine previous Opens held here only one winner Ian Baker-Finch, who won in 1991, can’t be described a truly great player. Otherwise, you’re looking at a list that includes Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and, yes, Harrington.
In other words, there are no flukey winners around this Lancashire coastal links. Only the best need apply this week, which narrows the field pretty swiftly into those currently in form – Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler – and those who can be expected to raise their game to meet the challenge of a major championship, the likes of Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and, of course, the mercurial McIlroy.
The Irishman arrives at Birkdale having missed two successive cuts and in search of a putter that will bring his sputtering game to life. “I’m close” is his mantra. It is ever the case in professional golf, where optimism is required lest the player succumbs to the deadly alternative, abject pessimism. But with McIlroy, you just never know.
His career trajectory has hardly been what your friendly neighbourhood mathematician would described as ‘linear’. More than once through the years he has followed long stretches of looking average with a week of unutterable genius.
Like George Best, he can turn on a dime. Still, the sense lingers that he remains under-cooked after a season disrupted by injury.
Of the other contenders, many will be tempted by Rahm after his powerful victory at the Irish Open and by Dustin Johnson, who remains at the top of the world rankings and has shown in the past he can contend on this side of the Atlantic. Padraig Harrington will attract some sentimental money, while Tommy Fleetwood will carry the weight of England’s hopes, not to mention every each-way bet of the casual punter.
He might not be a household name but if Danny Willett can win a Masters then Fleetwood can certainly win an Open, especially on a course he knows better than anyone in the field.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) July 18, 2017
No-one can sensibility rule out any of the above. The 2017 Open Championship really can be described as the most open in recent memory. It an enticing prospect, frankly, but it is one that leaves the aspiring soothsayer with a problem when it comes to identifying a winner.
Who to go with and why? It’s the eternal conundrum and on this occasion it calls on the least scientific measure of all – a hunch.
Earlier this week, Justin Rose tweeted out a lovely little video of a pitch shot in the the theatre of Birkdale 18th green, recreating the shot he hit as a teenager on the final day of the 1998 Open, when he finished as leading amateur.
“Where it all began,’’ noted Rose.
Where it all began! pic.twitter.com/1awJkSIDMm
— Justin Rose (@JustinRose99) July 10, 2017
It did indeed. And in 2017, it could be whether Rose writes the next chapter of the story.