We're off to Royal St George's for the final major of the year and Steve Rawlings has everything covered ahead of Thursday's start with his comprehensive preview...
"Previous Open Championship form is a huge pointer and 14 of the last 15 winners have recorded a prior top-ten."
After a sensible change to the scheduling two years ago, the oldest and greatest of the four majors, the Open Championship, often referred to as the British Open, is now the final one of the four to be staged and it's been more eagerly awaited than ever this year.
The Open Championship was the only one of the four majors to be lost to the pandemic last year so it's two years since the famous Claret Jug was lifted by 100.099/1 chance, Shane Lowry.
Organised by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (the R&A), the Open Championship is the only one of the four majors to be played outside of the USA. Willie Park won the inaugural tournament way back in 1860 and this will be the 149th edition.
The Open Championship is always staged on a links course and this year we're off to Royal St George's in Kent.
Royal St George's, Sandwich, Kent, England.
Par 70, 7,206 yards
Stroke Average in 2011 - 72.86
Royal St George's has an extremely rich Open Championship history and it's been a great venue for famous multiple major championship winners.
More than 100 years ago, Harry Vardon won the third and the fifth of his six Open titles at Royal St George's, Walter Hagen won the first and third of his four titles here, and Henry Cotton won the first of his three victories here in 1934.
Bobby Locke would take the title three more times after he'd won here in 1949, Sandy Lyle won the Open here in 1985, three years before he won the US Masters, and Greg Norman won the second of his two Open titles here in 1993.
As a demonstration of just how pure a test Royal St George's is, 11 of the top-12 in 1993 either were, or would become, major champions. The cream often rises to the top here, but the last two winners were hard to spot.
Ben Curtis caused one of the biggest sporting shocks ever when he won the Open Championship here in 2003, having qualified courtesy of his 13th place-finish in the Western Open two weeks earlier. That was his best-ever finish as a pro and at the age of 26 he was the first player to win the first major he'd played in since Francis Ouimet won the US Open in 1913!
At 42 and playing in his 20th Open Championship, the 2011 winner at Royal St George's, Darren Clarke, contrasted starkly with Curtis, but he too was very much a surprise winner given he was matched at in excess of 300.0299/1 before the off.
Royal St George's is a typical links track and a tough test. Although soundly beaten since, Norman's 13-under-par total of 267 beat Tom Watson's old Championship record from 1977 and his performance was quite remarkable.
Gene Sarazen, the 91-year-old Open Champion from Prince's in 1932, was present and said: "Today, I saw the greatest championship in all my 70 years in golf."
Sandy Lyle's winning total in 1985 was 282 (+2) and Norman is the only winner here to better Darren Clarke's 275 (-5).
The official website's hole-by hole guide is here and well worth a look.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 6:30 on Thursday morning.
Last Ten Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
2020 - Championship cancelled
2019 - Shane Lowry -15 100.099/1
2018 - Francesco Molinari -8 38.037/1
2017 - Jordan Spieth -12 17.016/1
2016 - Henrik Stenson -20 25.024/1
2015 - Zach Johnson -15 150.0149/1 (playoff)
2014 - Rory McIlroy -17 19.018/1
2013 - Phil Mickelson -3 21.020/1
2012 - Ernie Els -7 50.049/1
2011 - Darren Clarke -5 300.0299/1
2010 - Louis Oosthuizen -16 480.0479/1
What Will it Take to Win the Open Championship?
Although the Championship is played at a different venue each year, links golf offers up broadly the same test whichever links course is used, so here's a look at the average stats from the last ten Open Championships.
Average key stats for the last 10 Open winners
Driving Accuracy - 36.2
Driving Distance - 28.8
G.I.R - 14.6
Scrambling - 20.8
Putting Average - 10.2
All Round - 8.1
Looking at the ten-year average rankings, no single stat stands out and the All Round stat has the lowest average ranking but if the last two renewals of the Championship at Royal St George's are anything to go by, Greens In Regulation is likely to be the key stat this week. Here's the top-four and ties in 2003 and 2011.
Ben Curtis -1 DD: 21, DA: 11, GIR: 16, Scr: 4, PA: 14
Thomas Bjorn Par - DD: 34, DA: 40, GIR: 1, Scr: 4, PA: 49
Vijay Singh Par - DD: 9, DA: 58, GIR: 3, Scr: 66, PA: 2
Davis Love +1 - DD: 45, DA: 54, GIR: 3, Scr: 24, PA: 47
Tiger Woods +1 - DD: 9, DA: 25, GIR: 22, Scr: 12, PA: 8
Darren Clarke -5 DD: 17, DA: 56, GIR: 2, Scr: 61, PA: 11
Dustin Johnson -2 - DD: 1, DA: 29, GIR: 6, Scr: 41, PA: 6
Phil Mickelson -2 - DD: 27, DA: 36, GIR: 3, Scr: 2, PA: 31
Thomas Bjorn -1 - DD: 33, DA: 6, GIR: 32, Scr: 13, PA: 4
A Scottish Start Could Prove Pivotal
Prior to the 2015 edition of the Open Championship, the five previous winners had all warmed up for the championship by playing in the Scottish Open the week before.
Zach Johnson, who had finished third in the John Deere Classic prior to winning in 2015, halted the run but Henrik Stenson made it five from six in 2016. How quickly it all changes though. Only one of the last five winners of the Open Championship have played in the Scottish Open but I would still consider teeing it up at the Renaissance Course last week as a big plus.
Shane Lowry didn't play in the Scottish in 2019 but he did play in the Irish Open two weeks before he won and with hindsight, that was the better strategy. Lahinch is a similar venue to Portrush and Paul McGinley, the Irish Open host, carefully set up Lahinch to replicate Portrush.
The circumstances were quite unique two years ago so it was understandable that Lowry didn't play the week before, but he was only the second winner in ten years to take the week off before the Open (Jordan Spieth in 2017 the other) and historically, playing in Europe has been far more favourable than the States.
Before Zach won at St Andrews six years ago, just one winner in almost 30 years had played in America the week before they'd won (Todd Hamilton in 2004) so I'm still convinced that playing last week at the Scottish Open and familiarising yourself with links golf is the way to go.
The Scottish Open has been played on a links course since 2011 and it's proved to be a fabulous warm up ever since.
Matt Kuchar, who finished fourth in the Scottish Open four years ago, came agonisingly close to winning the Open the following week, trading at just 1.341/3 in-running, and seven of the top-ten at Birkdale in 2017 had played at the Dundonald Links the week before. The first four home at Troon in 2016 had all played at Castle Stuart the week before and even though four of the last five haven't warmed-up in the Scottish Open, six of the last ten Open winners have.
The chance to acclimatise yourself again with links golf ahead of the world's biggest event has clearly been beneficial over the years and winning the Scottish is no bad thing either. Phil Mickelson doubled-up at Muirfield in 2013 having won the Scottish Open the week before, although an under the radar performance in the Scottish is arguably the best prep...
In the last year before it was played at a links venue, Louis Oosthuizen missed the cut at Loch Lomond in 2010 before scooting up at St. Andrews. Both Darren Clarke and Ernie Els, the 2011 and 2012 winners, made the cut but finished down the field at Castle Stuart and in 2014, Rory McIlroy, having led at Royal Aberdeen after round one, finished 14th in the Scottish Open before winning at Hoylake. And, as already mentioned, Stenson won at Troon in 2016 after a never in the hunt 13th in the Scottish.
Current Form Has Been Key of Late
Having won the Abu Dhabi Championship in January, Lowry went on a bit of a run before he won at Portrush, finishing third in the RBC Heritage, eighth in the USPGA Championship and second in the Canadian Open. He cooled off a bit with a 28th at the US Open and a 34th place-finish in the Irish Open in his last two starts before he won but he was clearly in form and the three winners before him had all won in one of their two previous outings,
As many as five of the last seven Open winners had won in one of their five previous starts and only Ben Curtis, Stewart Cink, Ernie Els, and Zach Johnson, have won the Open this century without winning on either the PGA Tour or the European Tour in the 12 months previously and a high finish in a previous Open is almost an essential prerequisite...
Open Championship Form is a Huge Plus
Previous Open Championship form is a huge pointer and 14 of the last 15 winners have recorded a prior top-ten.
Somewhat quirkily, Lowry won the championship having finished ninth in 2014, a year after Francesco Molinari had won at Carnoustie, having finished ninth in 2013, and Oosthuizen is the only recent winner not to record a previous top-ten. In three appearances prior to his victory in 2010, the South African had failed to make it through to the weekend.
Lowry and Molinari's ninth-place finishes could even be construed as slight anomalies given 12 of the last 15 winners have finished inside the top-six in an Open prior to winning and that a remarkable eight of those had finished inside the top-three!
The lack of a previous top-ten is a sizable negative for the favourite, Jon Rahm, as well as Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau, Viktor Hovland and Patrick Cantlay, which begs the question, why weren't the last three named at least acclimatising in the Scottish?
Desert Form is a Good Angle In
The Qatar Masters was played at Doha Golf Club prior to 2020 and form there has been a good pointer for this event. It's not a links course but it's very exposed and wind-affected and year after year the leaderboard there is jam-packed with links specialists.
Open winners, Henrik Stenson and Paul Lawrie have won at Doha and so too have three players that really should have won one. Adam Scot, Sergio Garcia, and Thomas Bjorn have all traded at odds-on in an Open Championship before ultimately failing to get over the line so that's a tournament to look at, and so too is the Dubai Desert Classic, which is another event often won by a fine links exponent. And we also need to consider form at other links events too.
As already alluded to, look at the Scottish Open over the last ten years, the Irish Open in 2012, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019, and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which is staged each autumn over three different links courses.
The Veteran's Major
Experience is everything and Phil Mickelson is the best player to highlight that. For 11 years he turned up and missed the cut or finished down the field and then something clicked at Troon 17 years ago when he finished third. The penny had dropped. Since then, he's gone on to win the Championship and contend a couple more times and him and Stenson's Open five years ago is arguably the best in living memory. He matured into an incredibly good links player but it took him a long time to get there.
Lowry was only 32 when he won two years ago but he's played links golf all his life. He famously won the Irish Open at the County Louth Links as an amateur way back in 2009 and 12 months before Lowry won at Portrush, Molinari became the ninth player aged 35 and above to win the Open in 12 years. Veterans figure in this championship year after year.
Stenson had turned 40 just three months before he won in 2016 and the 2015 winner, Zach Johnson, turned 40 eight months after he'd won. Had he been born a little earlier, five of the last nine Open winners would have been aged 40 or above and it would have been five from nine anyway if Kuchar had won four years ago. He turned 40 a month before Spieth edged him out at Birkdale.
In addition to Stenson winning five years ago, 46 year-old Phil Mickelson finished second and 49 year-old Steve Stricker finished fourth and yet they were mere pups in comparison to a couple of fairly recent contenders...
At Royal Birkdale 13 years ago, 53-year-old two-time Open Champion, Greg Norman, led the field by two strokes after three tough, windy days and he was the oldest player to ever lead the Open Championship through 54-holes but only 12 months later, 59-year-old, Tom Watson, smashed that record when he took a one-stroke lead into round four at Turnberry. Both men were eventually collared but they emphasise the point I'm labouring. This is clearly a tournament where plenty of experience is a huge plus and age is no barrier.
Given how well experienced players fare, it's perhaps not surprising that debutants have a woeful record. Ben Curtis, here in 2003, was the last champion to win on debut and before him it was Tom Watson in 1975.
Even though it's played at a different venue each year, the examination is always similar and it's totally unique to anything else encountered so previous tournament experience is very important.
Think very carefully before backing someone that's only played in the Open a couple of times and make sure you're getting a huge price about a debutant.
Outsiders have a decent record in the Open and last year's winner, Shane Lowry, was matched at a high of 140.0139/1 before the off so given the last two results here have also produced a big priced winner, don't be afraid to back an outsider.
Last Six Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four
2019 - Shane Lowry - led by four strokes 1.635/8
2018 - Francesco Molinari - solo fifth, trailing by three 16.015/1
2017 - Jordan Spieth - led by three strokes 1.42/5
2016 - Henrik Stenson - led by a stroke 1.768/11
2015 - Zach Johnson - tied sixth, trailing by three 38.037/1
2014 - Rory McIlroy - led by six strokes 1.21/5
Molinari sat tied for 29th and six off the pace at halfway three years and he was still three off the lead with a round to go but off the pace winners have been fairly common at the 2018 venue, Carnoustie. That's not the norm though.
Molinari, Harrington in 2004 and Stenson five years ago are the only winners in the last 16 years to be outside the top-ten after the opening round and five strokes is the furthest any winner has trailed after round one this century.
Lowry was a much more typical winner given he sat second and only a stroke off the lead after round one before leading all the way after that.
Ernie Els was seven shots adrift at halfway in 2012 but he was still only tied for 11th and that's the furthest number of strokes made up this century after 36 holes. David Duval also trailed by seven in 2001 but nine 36-hole leaders have gone on to win this century, 14 of the 20 winners were inside the top-five places at halfway and 15 of the 20 were within three strokes of the lead after 36 holes.
Unless the weather is poor, making up ground on links tracks can be difficult and looking at the early forecasts this week, we look like getting a lovely benign week.
We witnessed quite a bit of drama at the last two editions at Royal St George's. I still have vivid and painful memories of poor Thomas Bjorn blowing his chance in 2003 when he repeatedly failed to extradite himself from the greenside bunker on 16 on Sunday with the Claret Jug within his reach and although Clarke went on to win by three, it was a lot closer than the victory margin suggest.
Phil Mickelson put in an almighty charge from five off the pace with a round to go and having turned in 30, playing the front-nine in five-under-par, and having birdied the 10th, he was matched in running at just 2.01/1 before missing a tiny par putt at 11 and coming home in 38!
Dustin Johnson also put in a run and he was matched at a low of 3.02/1 before he hit his approach shot on the par five 14th out of bounds to record a double-bogey seven.
With Open Championship form figures reading 59-44-MC-11, world number one and brand-new major winner, Jon Rahm, who won the US Open at Torrey Pines last month, doesn't have the seemingly all-important top-ten in a previous Open Championship but that doesn't put me off one iota. He's a magnificent links exponent and he's already won the Irish Open twice on a links layout - in 2017 and '19.
Having taken a month or so to adjust to fatherhood for the first time, the Spaniard has hit a rich vein of form of late, shooting six clear of the field at The Memorial Tournament before being forced to withdraw prior to round four due to a positive COVID test, winning his first major and contending yet again at the Scottish Open, where he shot four rounds in the 60s to finish solo seventh. He's the man to beat.
The 2014 champion, Rory McIlroy was the last man standing when Dave Tindall crunched the numbers in his excellent 10 - year trends piece and the mild weather forecast is in his favour.
He narrowly missed the cut at Royal Portrush in 2019 but since winning at Hoylake, and prior to that shock weekend off, he has Open form figures reading 5-4-2 so he must be considered something of an Open specialist, but he's not for me given his current form.
He lost his way in the final round of the US Open, where he finished seventh, was a tailed off 59th at the Irish Open and he's just missed the cut in the Scottish Open. He's drifted since but not enough to grab my attention.
With a pair of US Open and USPGA Championships to his name, Brooks Koepka is a major championship specialist, and his Open Championship portfolio is a strong one with form figures reading MC-67-10-6-39-4.
Koepka missed the cut at the Palmetto Championship three starts ago but he readily admits that he finds it hard to remain focused in run of the mill events. Strip that one out and his last three starts are second in the USPGA Championship, fourth in the US Open and fifth at the Travelers Championship last time out, when it's anyone's guess how hard he was trying. He's drifted in the market since that fifth in Connecticut and I can only assume it's because he hasn't played. He has a huge chance.
The 2017 winner, Jordan Spieth has been rejuvenated this year after a long spell in the wilderness but he hasn't broken 70 on a Sunday since he won the Texas Open in early April and he was very disappointing in-contention at the Charles Schwab Challenge in May when he was outbattled by Jason Kokrak around a track he loves.
Xander Schauffele is becoming increasingly hard to trust and he hasn't won in over two years now. He's easy enough to dismiss but I can't say the same about Justin Thomas, who is definitely starting to get to grips with links golf.
Thomas has Open form figures reading 53-MC-MC-11 but having finished ninth at the Scottish Open two years ago, a week before finishing 11th at Portrush, he's just put in another fine performance around the Renaissance Course to secure another top-ten finish. He's been well backed over the weekend but for good reason.
As already mentioned, Dustin Johnson came close to winning this title in 2011 here but after a promising start, his Open Championship form figures read an ordinary MC-14-2-9-32-12-49-9-54-MC-51.
His figures are strange and slightly misleading given in 2013, 14 and 15 he finished 32nd, 12th and 49th despite sitting second, second and first at halfway and that he's not contended since. He isn't in great form and I'm happy to leave him out.
I backed Jon Rahm at 12.011/1 for this as he won the US Open as I'd thought him more likely to break his major duck in this event than any other. Whether he's a value now at a single-figure price is debatable but he's a worthy favourite.
Brooks Koepka has drifted to a backable price given his current and major form and I've also added Tyrrell Hatton at 44.043/1. The world number ten has just finished the Scottish Open nicely with a six-under-par 65 and he's a two-time winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links.
Tyrrell Hatton missed his first four cuts in the Open Championship but his form figures since read 5-MC-51-6 and he's prolific enough to chance at the price given he's won four of his last 32 starts, including big events like the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the BMW PGA Championship, and the Abu Dhabi Championship in January - the event Lowry won in 2019 before lifting the Claret Jug.
I backed both Lee Westwood and Christiaan Bezuidenhout ante-post and I'll be back later in the week with a few more outsiders with the Find Me A 100 Winner column.
Jon Rahm @ 12.011/1
Brooks Koepka @ 22.021/1
Tyrrell Hatton @ 44.043/1
Lee Westwood @ 101.0100/1 (ante-post)
Christiaan Bezuidenhout @ 201.0200/1 (ante-post)
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
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