Once upon a time, not-so-long-ago, picking a winner on the eve of a major championship was a two-word dawdle – “Tiger” and “Woods” – but, in this slippery era of transition in professional golf, there is nothing less reliable than a stonewall certainty, nothing more precarious than the status of pre-tournament favourite.
Still, as we stand on the eve of the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie, the wheel of fortune has stopped spinning and the arrow points to Dustin Johnson, currently ranked world number one and listed for your pleasure at 12-1 to lift the Claret Jug on Sunday.
The powerful American arrived at the course over the weekend and, by all accounts, has been making mincemeat of it ever since. Johnson is a man of few words but somehow mustered up a tweet that will have lightened the hearts of those who backed him early. “Feeling good for this week and will be hitting driver quite a bit,” he said.
Johnson’s promise to deploy the driver provoked surprise given the challenge he and the other leading contenders face this week. Traditionally, Carnoustie has been the mean-spirited sibling in the family of Open Championship venues, with narrower fairways than the rest, thicker rough and more punitive natural hazards.
The hazards remain intact but this summer’s long stretch of glorious weather has produced a baked-out golf course with generous fairways and rough that is thinner than Jordan Spieth’s combover.
Over the weekend, social media was filled with accounts of players hitting practice round drives in excess of 400 yards, among them Padraig Harrington, who hit his tee shot on the notorious 18th into the Barry Burn in front of the green – a 420-yard knock, for those who are counting.
The last Open Championship venue to play this hard and fast was Royal Liverpool in 2006, when Tiger Woods won while famously only hitting one driver all week. That victory goes down as one his greatest, not least because it illustrated perfectly the cerebral side of Woods’ brilliance.
He was similarly cautious at the Old Course in 2000, when he won without hitting a ball in a bunker over the course of 72 holes. No one thought their way round the golf course like Tiger back then.
Johnson, for all his athletic gifts, has never been known as a deep thinker, which might explain his determination to use driver when he might be better advised to leave it in the bag – or indeed, out of the bag, as Phil Mickelson plans to do this week.
A hard and fast course such as Carnoustie this week, and that Royal Liverpool was 12 years ago, will play shorter than the yardage on the card. There is no need to hit drivers off the tee. To do so only invites the possibility of trouble.
Yet Johnson is not alone in his intentions. Rory McIlroy is another determined to be bold off the tee. “If you can fly the ball 300 yards then you can take the trouble out of play on a lot of the holes,’’ he said after his practice round on Monday.
Johnson and McIlroy have made their choice. Mickelson has made his and so, we can assume, has Woods, who will surely stick to the strategy that has served him so well in 2006 and 2000.
So, which approach will prevail? And, more to the point, who will prevail?
The answer is the player who can harness power and control, who combines bravery with intelligence. There are plenty of players in the modern game who have power to spare, who are brave enough to take on any challenge the PGA Tour cares to offer from week to week and who are richer than God.
Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, John Rahm, Jason Day, Justin Rose and, of course, McIlroy are all capable of overpowering any golf course. That’s why they are all gathered near the top of the world rankings. That’s why they are listed amongst the favourites this week.
The problem they face is that Carnoustie doesn’t need to be overpowered. It needs to finessed. It needs to be respected. It needs to be out-thought, not out-muscled.
This isn’t to say a bomber can’t win. He could get lucky for a long stretch of play and hope that is enough to carry him home, but such is the relentlessness of Carnoustie’s challenge, the chances are calamity will catch them in the end.
This will leave an opening for those who favour brains over brawn. Into this category fall players like Matt Kuchar, who was unlucky to finish second last year, and Jordan Spieth, the man who left Birkdale with the Claret Jug last summer. Spieth’s form has left him this year but this week’s challenge could not be better suited to his particular gifts.
The same goes for Masters champion Patrick Reed, and for an incremental battler such as Ian Poulter, who doesn’t hit the ball far by modern standards, but who will be encouraged to discover he won’t need to this week. A victory for the Englishman would be a popular one but it would hardly be the most popular one of all.
As we said at the start, this major championship prediction game used to be a piece of cake. You could pick anyone you liked as long as his name was Tiger Woods. He had all the physical tools – raw power, pure ball-striking, deadly putting – but more than anything he had the brains to meet any challenge, to understand what was needed to win.
Of course, Woods’ physical gifts have diminished in recent years, though not to the extent that he can no longer contend at the highest level (as he has shown on the PGA Tour this season). But his mental acuity remains intact.
What was true in 2006 remains true today. No one in this week’s Open Championship field thinks their way around a golf course better than Tiger.
It is his perpetual gift. It is his singular advantage. And what if it was enough to win him his 15th major championship? Now that would be a story for ages.