Pro Golf Weekly previews the third major of the season at Carnoustie Golf Links in this week’s 2018 Open Championship Primer.
The 147th Open Championship takes place this week in Scotland at Carnoustie, with a better-than-average chance that this will become an event that defines how the 2018 year in golf is remembered.
All majors are important. But, right now, there simply is no obvious storyline that is driving the headlines for the season. Many interesting moments have been logged, but none of them as yet seem to add up to a trend. Success at Carnoustie by the right player could obviously change that.
It also is a stage-setter for a much-anticipated emotional Ryder Cup coming up in France in September.
A victory at the Open Championship for either of the two major winners in 2018 would put them front and center in the golf world.
Masters champ Patrick Reed has shown a majors mentality of late, with his three best career finishes in his last three major starts. If he can feed off likely hostility he will hear from at least some British fans — leftovers from his “Captain America” performance against Rory McIlroy in the 2016 Ryder Cup — this could become the year where Reed’s self-assessment in 2014 as “a top five player in the world” actually becomes fact.
Brooks Koepka, who last month added his second straight U.S. Open title to his resume, is already in the world top five, currently standing No. 4 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and would almost certainly crack the top two with a win at Carnoustie (and even No. 1 if Dustin Johnson were to finish outside the top 5). You’ve also got the enigma factor in defending champion Jordan Spieth, who triumphed in Cinderella fashion a year ago but hasn’t won an event he’s entered since.
Two others who with a win could become dominant stories for the year are a pair of veterans on the comeback trail: Bubba Watson, the only three-time winner thus far on the PGA Tour this year, and Francesco Molinari, the hottest golfer in the world over the last two months.
Speaking of hot, it’s been abnormally warm and dry so far this summer at Carnoustie, to the extent that more brown than green will greet the field as they try to sort out strategy on how to play a course many consider to be a contender for the title of the toughest links layout in the world. The course was green and lush the last two times the Open visited, in 2007 and 1999. Dialing in distance control on fairways that are reportedly running faster than the greens will be of utmost importance in these unusual conditions.
Imagination paired with control will be necessary to succeed at Carnoustie this week. The Open Championship has with some regularity produced champions that few would have given a chance as the week began. With as deep as the international talent pool is in golf at the moment, it would be no surprise if the winner turns out to be a big name, nor would it be a total surprise if the Claret Jug was hoisted on Sunday by a no-name.
The constants are that the galleries will be among the most knowledgeable and appreciative in all of golf, and that no player will be able to complain that a course that’s been in play since 1867 has been “tricked up.”
And perhaps the most important constant of all is that the phrase “it’s not over until it’s over” is never more in play in golf than when the Open Championship comes to Carnoustie. The final three holes are very difficult, and in an informal BBC poll of players last week, the 18th at Carnoustie was voted the toughest hole on any of the courses in the Open rota. That’s where the epic Jean van de Velde triple-bogey meltdown transpired to cost him the crown in 1999, and it’s also where Padraig Harrington in 2007 put two balls in the water before somehow saving a double-bogey to get in a playoff, where he ultimately triumphed over Sergio Garcia.
Let the fun begin, as the players and the fans see Carnoustie as perhaps they have never seen it before. We don’t know who it will be yet, but the final holes on Sunday almost certainly will be a stress test for one or more players grappling with history in the air and uncertainty underfoot.
2018 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP PRIMER
Tournament: The Open Championship
Dates: July 19-22, 2018
Where: Angus, Scotland
Course: Carnoustie Championship Course
Distance: Par 71, 7,402 yards
Architect: Allan Robertson/Tom Morris Sr./James Braid
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Winning Share: $1,890,000
Defending Champion: Jordan Spieth
Marquee Players: Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, Louis Oosthuizen, Sergio Garcia, Etc
FOLLOW THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Round 1: Thu 1:30 am-4:00 pm (GOLF)
Round 2: Fri 1:30 am-4:00 pm (GOLF)
Round 3: Sat 4:30 am-7:00 am (GOLF), 7:00 am-3:00 pm (NBC)
Round 4: Sun 4:30 am-7:00 am (GOLF), 7:00 am-2:30 pm (NBC)
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THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP HISTORY
The oldest of the four majors, The Open Championship has humble roots that date all the way back to 1860. The inaugural tournament featured a small handful of professionals playing three 12-hole rounds in one day at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland.
That first Open was won by Willie Park Sr., who finished the event in 174 strokes (this was back even before pars were a thing).
The early winners were awarded a red belt, known as the Challenge Belt, but the event had to come up with something new after the legendary Young Tom Morris was able to invoke a myopic condition where a player with three consecutive Open victories gets to keep the belt.
The belt became a medal, and as the tournament increased in prestige and participation, the ultimate prize became the Claret Jug, one of the greatest symbols of achievement in the world of elite-level sports.
The Open Championship’s illustrious list of winners includes both of the Tom Morrises (Old and Young), Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth, among others.
Vardon is the tournament’s all-time leader in wins with six, followed by James Braid, John Henry Taylor, Peter Thomson and Watson with five a piece. In all, 27 players have won multiple Open Championships.
2017: Jordan Spieth (-12)
2016: Henrik Stenson (-20)
2015: Zach Johnson (-15)
2014: Rory McIlroy (-17)
2013: Phil Mickelson (-3)
2012: Ernie Els (-7)
2011: Darren Clarke (-5)
OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORDS
264 – Henrik Stenson (2016)
-20 – Henrik Stenson (2016)
6 – Harry Vardon (1896, 1898-99, 1903, 1911, 1914)
5 – James Braid (1901, 1905-06, 1908, 1910)
5- John Henry Taylor (1894-95, 1900, 1909, 1913)
5- Peter Thomson (1954-56, 1958, 1965)
5- Tom Watson (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982-83)
DEFENDING CHAMPION GOLFER OF THE YEAR
Jordan Spieth’s victory in the 2017 Open Championship will long be remembered as one of the great rallies in the history of the event.
Showing remarkable resiliency, Spieth survived a poor Sunday start; a disastrous 13th hole (that could have easily been a 2017 Masters 12th hole redux); lost his lead; and then absolutely exploded when he was at his lowest – playing his next four holes at 5-under to reach 12-under and become the Champion Golfer of the Year.
With the victory, Spieth advanced is career total to three major championships, with only he and Jack Nicklaus taking three legs of the Career Grand Slam before the age of 24.
Holding a three-stroke lead to begin the final day at Royal Birkdale, Spieth’s win was an unsurprising result, but how it happened was anything what golf fans expected.
With an uncharacteristic three bogeys over his first four holes, just one fewer bogey than the number he had in his first 54 holes, it basically became a de facto match-play battle between Spieth and Matt Kuchar by the fifth hole.
Then came the hole that would have lost the tournament for many. Tied with Kuchar on the 13th tee box, Spieth hit likely the worst drive of his professional life: a wicked slice that sent his ball careening 100 yards right and into a mound that Spieth said, after the round, he did not even know existed.
Despite a large crowd of spectators in the area, it took considerable time for the ball to even be found, and once it was, Spieth was forced to take an unplayable lie.
Then, in a 20-plus minute spectacle that had Spieth running around like a World Cup midfielder, an acceptable drop area was finally established, out by the driving range and behind some equipment trucks.
With a gutty seven-foot bogey putt, Spieth did phenomenal just to lose only one shot on the hole, but that embarrassingly public debacle, combined with a Kuchar par, had Spieth in second place for the first time all weekend.
Spieth walked up to the 14th tee box, a 201-yard par-3, facing the reality that he may have just lost the championship. Many golfers in his position would have imploded from there, but Spieth took out a six-iron and hit an unbelievable tee shot that was an inch from being a hole-in-one.
He tapped in for birdie, but did not take his foot off the accelerator, sinking a 60-foot eagle putt on 15, a 40-foot birdie putt on 16, and then another birdie on 17 to suddenly go 5-under in a four-hole span, immediately following one of the worst holes of his life.
His lead swelled back up, and a two-foot par on the final hole was all Spieth needed to clinch the Claret Jug for the first time.
FINAL TOP 10
1. Jordan Spieth -12
2. Matt Kuchar -9
3. Hao-Tong Li -6
4. Rory McIlroy -5
4. Rafa Cabrera-Bello -5
6. Marc Leishman -4
6. Matthew Southgate -4
6. Alex Noren -4
6. Branden Grace -4
6. Brooks Koepka -4
THE FIELD AT THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Where to start. How about at the top?
Dustin Johnson enters the Open Championship just as he did the Masters and U.S. Open – as the clear world No. 1.
There is little doubt he has the talent and tools to add a second major championship to his resume, to go along with his 2016 U.S. Open title. But will his extraordinary length be a good match for the extraordinary dry conditions at Carnoustie this week? DJ is one of those guys who will have to figure out when and where to dial it back at times.
This will be his tenth Open Championship, and he’s done reasonably well, with three top 10s, highlighted by a tie for second in 2011 at Royal St. George’s. He’s the betting favorite for the week, but he hasn’t played in a month, since the conditioning debacle at Shinnecock Hills knocked him off balance when he took the lead into Saturday afternoon, and he ended up in solo third.
The Justins are right behind him — world No. 2 Justin Thomas and No. 3 Justin Rose.
Thomas has not been as sharp lately as he’d been earlier in the season, when he posted a win and two other top fives in three consecutive starts, but he did play solidly in his last appearance, posting a T8 three weeks ago in the HNA Open de France.
Rose has been in top form in his most recent starts, highlighted by a win at the Fort Worth Invitational in May. He’s added three straight top 10s since — a T6 at the Memorial, T10 at the U.S. Open and T9 at last week’s ASI Scottish Open. While there’s no doubt he would cherish winning his national championship, his record in the Open has been surprisingly pedestrian — in 16 appearances, he’s managed only two top 10s, with his best showing being his inaugural start as an amateur in 1998, posting a T4. Rose did log a tie for 12th in the Open’s last visit to Carnoustie in 2007.
The 2018 Open offers a chance for a statement week for world No. 4 Brooks Koepka. Despite his breakthrough U.S. Open victory last year at Erin Hills, he slipped off the radar for a lot of fans while he battled a wrist injury during the first part of 2018. Once he returned, though, he moved almost instantly back to elite form, posting a T11 at THE PLAYERS, his second tournament after the injury, followed by a solo-second finish at the Fort Worth Invitational.
Koepka capped that run, of course, by repeating as U.S. Open champ on a slippery links course at Shinnecock Hills. He also showed his mental toughness a year ago, making the Open Championship his first appearance since the U.S. Open breakthrough and posting an impressive T6. His previous Open appearance before that, in 2015, saw him post a T10.
With Koepka only in a tie for eighth spot in the betting lines, he would appear heavily underrated by some. To win, though, would be fighting history — only six players have ever won the U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same year, with the last to do it being Tiger Woods back in 2000.
The remainder of the world top 10 all look like guys who would not surprise anyone if they emerged as Sunday’s winner. You have No. 5 Jon Rahm, who may be showing signs of shaking off a bit of a lull by posting top fives in his last two outings on the European Tour.
No. 6 Jordan Spieth gets the benefit of the doubt as the defending champ, but there certainly is some doubt given that he is in the midst of his worst slump since he assumed his place among the world’s elite players.
Rickie Fowler at No. 7 has the talent to match anyone, but while he often contends, he rarely wins. His last full-field PGA Tour win was the 2017 Honda Classic. Were he to win not just again, but actually gain a major title, it would be very interesting to see how Fowler would be impacted.
No. 8 Rory McIlroy is another one who almost seems to be in a battle to control his raw talent. He missed the cut in the two biggest recent tournaments he’s played in: THE PLAYERS and the U.S. Open, but he’s also bounced back between those two events with a second at the BMW PGA Championship in front of the home fans in Surrey, England, and a T8 at the Memorial. McIlroy also has the mental edge of knowing he can win the Open – having done so in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, and he’s been a serious contender each of the last two years, posting two-straight top-five finishes (T5 in 2016, T4 last year).
The world’s No. 9 player, Jason Day, has had a very solid year with two Tour victories, although the Open does not appear to be his favorite event – in seven previous starts, he’s placed inside the top 20 only one time. No. 10 Tommy Fleetwood has only one made cut in four previous Open appearances. However, he does probably still have everyone’s attention from the closing round 63 he posted at the U.S. Open a month ago, which earned him solo-second honors behind Koepka.
The next three players in the world rankings all merit special mention: No. 11 Alex Noren has climbed seven spots in the world rankings in the last 10 weeks, aided by a T3 in the BMW PGA and a win two weeks ago in the HNA Open de France. No. 12 is Masters champion Patrick Reed, who we discussed above. He came over a week early to get a feel for the challenge of links golf, and posted a respectable T23 at the ASI Scottish Open. Reed missed last year’s cut at the Open, and has yet to crack the top 10 in four previous appearances.
No. 13 Bubba Watson has also found the Open to be a traditional struggle, with no top 20s in nine career appearances. But it’s usually impossible to predict what makes the light go on for Bubba, as best exemplified a month ago when he missed the cut at the U.S. Open, only to turn around the next week and win the Travelers Championship title.
Lurking in a very interesting position not far behind that grouping is 35-year-old Italian Francesco Molinari, who has been in truly rarified air his last five starts. It started with a victory in the BMW PGA, which he considered the biggest win of his career, followed by a second-place showing the next week in the Italian Open. He fared respectably two weeks later with a tie for 25th in the U.S. Open, but then picked right back up with a victory by eight shots in the Quicken Loans National and then a tie for second last week at the John Deere Classic. Molinari’s career includes only one top 10 in nine previous Open starts, but if he can get off to a good start before the weekend, he’s got the momentum to be dangerous.
Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia are always names to keep an eye out for in the Open. Stenson set the all-time Open scoring record in winning his only career major in 2016, but he’s also posted a second and two thirds among his 13 career Open starts. He tied for 11th last year, and in the majors this year, has a tie for fifth at The Masters and a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open.
Garcia has never won the Open, but has finished second twice, including losing the playoff to Padraig Harrington in 2007 at Carnoustie. Altogether, this will be his 22nd appearance in the Open Championship, and he has an impressive ten top-10 showings on his career record.
Finally, you can never count out the 40-something mainstays of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Woods appears to be maintaining the healthy form that has surprised so many this year. Making the cut would seem to be a goal that would show progress, as he’s played only one weekend, this year’s Masters, in the last five major championships he’s entered. He does have a decent record, though, in his two previous appearances at Carnoustie, with a tie for seventh in 1999 and a tie for 12th in 2007, and his record does include three Open Championship titles, along with six other top 10 finishes.
Phil was the one who thought his game was least suited to winning the Open out of the four major championships, but then came his magical win in 2013. He’s actually played the Open better as he’s gotten older, with three of his four top-three finishes in the event coming since 2011, including a second-place showing in 2016 in the classic two-man duel he staged with Henrik Stenson.
THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP ODDS TO WIN
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OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP STORYLINES
1. Jordan Spieth Defends at The Open
When Jordan Spieth finished off an historically inspiring victory at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago, everyone wondered just how high he could go.
2. Tiger Seeks Fourth Claret Jug
Tiger Woods has missed the past two Open Championships due to injury and injury rehab, but most would say it feels much longer since we last saw the 79-time PGA tournament winner at the season’s third major. In his illustrious Open history, Tiger has won three times, with one coming by 8 strokes (2000), one by five strokes (2005), and one by a paltry-by-comparison two strokes (2006).
3. What’s Wrong With Sergio Garcia?
Since 1975, just two editions of The Open Championship have been played at Carnoustie, in 1999 and 2007. Having played there so sparsely, arguably only two players in this year’s field can claim to have excellent course history, among those who are no longer a shell of their former selves (see: Harrington, Padraig).
4. Can Phil Muster Some Mickelson Magic?
Phil Mickelson has made himself a nice little career at The Open Championship, quite an accomplishment considering how labyrinthine the year’s third major proved to him over the first decade-plus of his career.
Read Joel Cook’s 6 Open Championships…
Credits: PGA Tour Media, European Tour Media, Getty Images