Royal Birkdale plays host to the world’s best golfers for this year’s third Major of the year the Open Championship. The last time the Championship was played at Royal Birkdale in 2008 it was Padraig Harrington that lifted the Jug with a score of 3-over-par leaving one to believe that scoring will again be difficult. Golf365 and Matt Cooper give you the low down of the tournament including all the favourites.
Good luck to this year’s field equalling, never mind topping, last year’s drama because Royal Troon witnessed possibly the greatest Open Championship in its history as Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson embarked on a head-to-head duel for the ages which the Swede, of course, ultimately won.
The best way to place Stenson’s brilliance in context is to list what Mickelson achieved in defeat. In round one he equalled the major championship record low score of 63, on Sunday he posted a flawless 65, throughout the week he tied the second-lowest aggregate in Open history, he defeated the field by 11 shots…and he watched someone else lift the Claret Jug!
Stenson, it need hardly be said, was sensational. He found fairways, he peppered flags and he dropped birdie putts from every distance.
Can this year’s Championship live up to the hype? The plotlines are bubbling and suggest the tournament is wide open. Rory McIlroy has missed the cut in both the links golf warm-ups, Jordan Spieth has rediscovered his mojo, Dustin Johnson is now a stuttering world number one, Hideki Matsuyama dreams of becoming Asia’s first Open winner, Stenson, despite average form, should be inspired by memories of 12 months ago whilst Mickelson may be motivated to go one better.
The Royal Birkdale crowds are always huge, the weather is appropriately unpredictable, the field is simmering. It should be a cracker.
The course – Royal Birkdale GC
One of the most picturesque courses on the Open rota, it is probably the finest for on-course spectators, with a series of high dunes offering huge panoramas across multiple holes. If the wind blows it is a brutal test. In 2008 it did just that on the Saturday and not one player in the field broke par. Depending on the wind, there will always be stretches when the field can attack the course, but also runs of incredibly difficult holes. It’s a superb test of links golf, with into-the-wind, down-wind and cross-wind shots; draws and fades required, sometimes on the same hole (the first, for example); wonderful bunkering; and subtle greens.
The Last Open at Birkdale
A tale of three golfers. The first was 53-year-old Greg Norman who withstood Saturday’s conditions to claim a two-shot lead after 54 holes. Alas, he slipped backwards on Sunday, and initially a charging Ian Poulter seemed ready to set a target no-one would match. He stumbled down the final two holes and at the same time defending champion Padraig Harrington came alive on the back nine, confirming the win with a sensational 249-yard 5-wood approach to the 17th which he converted from three-feet for eagle.
Tournament pedigree matters. Nine of the last 10 winners had finished T6th or better at a previous Open Championship. Experience often counts too because five of the last six winners were aged between 39 and 42. Birkdale also favours multiple Open winners: it’s hosted nine Championship and six times the winner had won the Claret Jug before or would so again.
Nineteen years ago Mark O’Meara completed the Augusta National-Birkdale double and he’s not the only Birkdale winner to have thrived in the Masters ahead of his win. Tom Watson in 1983 was T4th, Ian Baker-Finch was T7th in 1991, Padraig Harrington was T5th in 2008 and even back in 1961, Arnold Palmer was second at Augusta. Good news for Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose (who was famously T4th as an amateur at Birkdale in 1998), but also Paul Casey, who fits all three of these trends (and he’s also finished T7th at Birkdale).
The Open Championship 2017 Favourites
The American has finished T14th or better in five of his eight previous Open appearances and in 2011 he seemed destined to win the tournament at Royal St George’s, only to go out of bounds midway through the back nine. Two years ago he was widely tipped to win at St Andrews and opened with a 65 to have backers licking their lips, before he closed with two rounds of underwhelming 75s. His form has petered away since the hat-trick of wins pre-Masters. Missed the cut in his last two starts.
The Northern Irishman can clearly play links golf – he won at Royal Liverpool, was fifth last year and third in 2010. But that latter result included an 80 in round two that was played in high wind, since when his ability to play links golf when it’s not calm has been called into question. It’s a little unfair given he got the rough end of the draw 12 months ago, but his inability to play four rounds at Portstewart and Dundonald Links in the last two weeks does not bode well.
His fifth Open appearance and whilst he has made the cut on each previous occasion, he has only once contended for the title, when chasing the Grand Slam in 2015 and having a genuine chance of winning during the final round at St Andrews. Rediscovered the winning touch at the Travelers Championship and in style, too, with that spectacular holed bunker shot in the play-off. Has the knack of doing special things.
Hoping to follow O’Meara as the winner of the first and third majors of the year, and has every reason to believe he can do it. A links specialist with 10 top-10 finishes in 20 starts, including T6th or better in each of the last three years (whilst the closest he has come to victory was play-off defeat in 2007). Finished T28th at Royal Birkdale in 1998 and T51st 10 years later so not played his best seaside golf on the venue, but would be foolish to think good golf in this track is beyond him.
The Australian’s Open record is much like Spieth’s. In Day’s case he has made six, rather than five, starts and the only time he was in contention was 2015, when he finished T4th alongside Spieth. In fact, other than that week in St Andrews, Day has never gone sub-70 in The Open. Now 23 starts since his last win and missed the cut in his last two events, including the U.S. Open.
Can he emulate Harrington and successfully defend his title on the Lancashire coast? Can he also become another of Birkdale’s multiple Open winners? He was tied third in 2008 so had course form, but he’s not in the form he was heading into last year’s tournament and the added pressure of being a major champion is wearing him down. He recently said: “There’s a lot of things to do off the golf course and that takes a lot of energy and focus away from the game. It’s hard to keep 100% focus.” The questions and off-the-course duties will continue this week.
Bafflingly the 26-year-old from Southport has never made the cut in The Open in three tries (even more oddly, he has shot 76 in every second round), but if he is to turn that around surely Birkdale is the place? His links pedigree is not in question (he’s a three-time top-five finisher in the Dunhill Links Championship), he’ll have the crowds on his side, he was fourth at the U.S. Open and he used to sneak on Birkdale for a few shots with his dad when he was a kid. Will be a popular man all week.
About Matt Cooper
Matt Cooper is a contributor for Golf365, which has all the latest from tour events, plus news, features and course reviews.