The Open is still by far the best major for older players
In an era increasingly dominated by younger players apparently taking golf to new heights, the Open continues to buck the trend. Whereas five of the last six Open champions were aged over 40, nobody in that age range has won any of the other three majors during that period, with over half won by players under 30.
Evidently, experience of the unique challenges of a classic links course is a pivotal factor in this major and there's no reason to think Royal Birkdale will prove any different. No winner here since 1954 was aged under 30 and when it last hosted the Open in 2008, 53-year-old Greg Norman led through 54 holes before finishing third.
Birkdale presents a very different test to the last three Opens
Form in this unique major is obviously important to consider but remember the different conditions between each renewal. For three years, the Open has produced historically low scoring with winning totals between -15 and -20. Last year at Troon wasn't an easy test but Stenson and Mickelson made it look so. 2016 at St Andrews was a birdie-fest on softened greens. Calm weather and relatively light rough barely tested these players at Hoylake in 2015.
Whatever the weather, Birkdale is never easy. Lee Trevino shot -14 back in 1971 but nobody else has ever recorded double-digits under par here. Rather than stacking up birdies, this challenge requires resilience and navigating wind directions that change from hole to hole. If it gets up to any extent, par is a good score on most holes. It certainly did in the last two Opens here, yielding winning scores of level par and +3. The latter from Padraig Harrington was good enough to win by four.
The Scottish Open has historically proven a poor guide
Logically, one would expect a warm-up played every year on a links would prove a great indicator but the stats say otherwise. In the 16 years since it took this place on the schedule - whether at various links venues or Loch Lomond - the only champion to follow up in the Open was Phil Mickelson in 2013 and Thomas Levet in 2004 the only other top-ten finisher.
However don't assume that opting out of competition this week, in favour of Birkdale practice, is a better plan. The last Open winner to arrive 'fresh' was Stewart Cink back in 2009. Perhaps it just the burden of seriously contending two weeks running in these conditions that has proven too much. A solid result outside serious contention - like Stenson's 13th or McIlroy's 14th in 2016 and 2014 respectively - may be best.
It is not essential to be close to the pace early on
In stark contrast to the likes of St Andrews and Hoylake that tend to favour front-runners, catch-up golf at Birkdale is perfectly realistic. The last three champions here were between five and seven shots back after the opening round.
Plus one should never write off the possibility of a dramatic weather change turning the leaderboard upside down, with low scoring early starters storming through the field as the leaders struggle. Things can change very fast on this particular links course - over half of the 15 top-10 finishers in 2008 were outside the top-50 after day one, four of whom were below 90th.
Scoring is much easier at the end of Birkdale rounds than the beginning
Here's the key in-running angle to follow. If you're planning to bet in-running, it makes no sense to back selections before they start their round, because they'll do very well to get through the opening six holes in par. Most notably, the 1st and 6th were the two hardest holes in 2008.
Anyone well positioned after that stretch will have plenty of chances to move forward, although the run from 10 to 13 consists of four of the eight hardest holes. The name of the game here is to survive the first 14 holes before taking advantage of the two reachable par-fives at 15 and 17. Those holes will produce eagles and stacks of birdies so clubhouse leaders may not be in quite the strong position they first appear.