Pro Golf Weekly continues its preview of the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Links in this week’s 6 Open Championship Storylines To Watch.
With The Masters and U.S. Open in the PGA Tour’s rear-view mirror, the attention of the golf world turns to the inimitable Carnoustie Golf Links in historic Scotland this week for the 147th playing of The Open Championship. First won by Willie Park, Sr. in 1860 the event has undergone a stunning evolution that has transmuted it from an eight-man fight for a belt, to the most thorough and daunting test of skill in the sports world.
With no shortage of enthralling storylines, here is what to watch especially closely when the best of the best tee it up at the birthplace of their tantalizing livelihood:
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.
The then 23-year-old had just pulled off his third major championship, and joined the legendary Jack Nicklaus as the only players in Tour history to capture three legs of the Career Grand Slam before the age of 24.
One year later, the golf world is wondering what went wrong.
No, Spieth did not completely fall on his face, but the affable Texan is surprisingly winless over the past 12 months, and his game has trended precipitously downward; something nobody saw coming. In 2018, Spieth has suddenly become a very bad putter. The man who finished second on Tour in strokes gained: putting in 2016 is a shocking 175th in 2018.
Over the first half of the season, Spieth was able to maintain first-rate ability and performance in the other functions of his game, but since The Masters, he has found that difficult. With the rest of the system shutting down, Spieth has seen his results plummet.
In his past six starts, he has three missed cuts, and a T21 is his only top 40 among the three cuts he did make. A Thursday 78 even prevented him from playing the weekend at the U.S. Open.
Strangely, Spieth has actually had some tangible improvement in his putting lately, finishing in the positive in strokes gained: putting over his last three starts, but now other parts of his game are struggling.
Still, it’s Jordan Spieth and it’s a major: two things that have been a joyful, cohesive fit. He proved his resiliency in this event last year, when he bounced back from a cataclysmic 13th hole on Sunday to lose his lead, only to play the next four holes in 5-under and win by three strokes.
In the right mindset, his current slump could be his 13th hole, and Spieth hopes this will be the week that he bounces back.
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).
In addition, he has two third-place finishes, and three other top 10s. All that, in addition to his mountain of accomplishments outside The Open, and it seems shocking that Tiger only qualifies for this year’s edition at Carnoustie on one exemption category: being a former champion under the age of 60. That is the same amount of exemptions as Grant Forrest and Rhys Enoch, and one fewer than Satoshi Kodaira.
The 2018 Tiger Woods Comeback Tour is now 11 events in, and there has been a lot of positives to take from it. Forget the T4 in his last start, the field at the Quicken Loans National was too weak to take seriously, but he looked great in a T2 at the Valspar Championship and a T5 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. There was also the T11 at THE PLAYERS that included a 65-69 weekend. Tee-to-green, Tiger has been consistently good, ranking third on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green, and fourth in strokes gained: around-the-green.
Those two statistics alone would signal that Tiger should not be too down on his chances at Carnoustie. He has also seen a considerable improvement in his driving accuracy, which had been abysmal early in the season. Carnoustie’s style of play means a lot of irons off the tee anyway, but Tiger has gotten at least to the point where the crowd is not holding its collective breath when he pulls out the longer clubs.
Suddenly, Tiger’s achilles heel has become something fundamental that used to be among the strength of his strengths: putting. The tape of his ghastly flatstick performance at The Memorial last month should be burnt 20 times over, but the problems in Columbus extended onto Shinnecock Hills, with the putter again playing a large negative role in a first-round 78 that was responsible for him missing the cut.
Tiger is going to have as much going on in his head as anyone in the field as he attempts to put an end to one of the most famous winless droughts in professional sports. He will have his many supporters and many detractors, but there is no debate that a Tiger victory would have the sports world buzzing more than any possible outcome.
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).
One of those is Rory McIlroy, who finished T42 in 2007, but was an 18-year-old playing in his first career major, sitting in third place after the first round and finishing as the low amateur. The other is Sergio Garcia, who nearly went wire-to-wire in that 2007 event, not finishing a day out of the lead until the Sunday playoff against Harrington forced him to settle for runner-up honors, the third straight year he finished in the top five without a victory.
Fast-forward 11 years, the shockingly just 38-year-old Garcia finally has a major championship, the 2017 Masters, but he would still love to add an Open Championship to his legacy, an event where he has 10 top 10s without a win.
Unfortunately for the now more mature Spaniard, a hot start to his 2018 season was thwarted by one of the worst holes in Masters memory (a 13 on the par-5 15th in round 1), and he has not been able to get back on track.
In his last six PGA Tour starts, he has five missed cuts and a 70th place, and in his four major rounds, he has shot a combined 29-over-par.
However, he has shown some positive signs in Europe, with solid finishes of T12 and T8 in his past two starts overseas, although the latter was largely aided by one really low round, a third-round 64 that was the field low for the week.
If the World No. 19 is confident again, he has the game to finish what he quite couldn’t in 2007, but nobody knows if he is quite there.
4. Entering Carnoustie Red Hot
A lot has been said about those whose game has not been all there as of late, but this year’s Open Championship field also features a number of red-hot athletes who have moved themselves into the conversation with that torrid recent play. Here are a few to watch extra closely at Carnoustie:
Going back-to-back at the U.S. Open, on two diametrically opposite tracks at best, speaks volumes of Brooks Koepka’s grit and big stage mental fortitude. He carried himself with an incredible level of confidence in his Shinnecock Hills triumph, and he should be feeling great about his Open chances, having gone T6 and T10 in his past two attempts. Now No. 4 in the World Rankings, Koepka should be well-rested at Carnoustie, with his last start being a T19 at the Travelers Championship the week after his U.S. Open victory. His week at TPC River Highlands featured a final round 65.
Possibly the hottest player in the field, Francesco Molinari’s last four starts include two impressive victories: one at the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship, their flagship event, and an 8-shot landslide at the Quicken Loans National, plus runner-up finishes at two other events. The 35-year-old has not contended at many majors, but a T2 at last year’s PGA Championship may have signaled that he is ready. A phenomenal tee-to-green game places Molinari high on the list of Carnoustie favorites.
Brandon Stone, the 25-year-old South African, has not made many headlines with his play over the past two years, but suddenly, he is the talk of the golf world after an unbelievable Sunday 10-under 60 at last week’s Scottish Open, an event that has correlated with Open Championship success in the past. That epic final round very nearly became the first 59 in European Tour history, but a birdie attempt on the 18th skidded just past the hole. Stone does not have as much as a top 30 in a major yet, although that will not cool his hype coming into the week.
While Brandon Stone was making history in Scotland, Michael Kim came out of nowhere in the U.S. to win the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic by an astronomical eight-shot margin. His first career victory earned him a spot at Carnoustie this week, where he will be teeing up in a major for the first time as a professional. His only other major experience was a T17 at the 2013 U.S. Open that took low amateur honors.
Like Stone and Kim, Kevin Na’s most recent outing was a dominant blowout effort, with a final round 64 at A Military Tribute to The Greenbrier leading to a five shot win that got him into the win column for the first time since 2011. The win propelled Na 50 spots up the world rankings to No. 41, and he hopes his good feelings can engender a career-best major performance. He has just two career top-10s in majors, neither of which came at The Open.
5. 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.
The surprise 2013 victory at Muirfield, where Phil came from five strokes back on the final day was the pinnacle, but he also was co-runner up at Royal St. Georges in 2011, and solo-runner up at Royal Troon in 2016, the latter being a 17-under performance that would have won nearly any other year.
Looking back to the early parts of his career, it is shocking in 2018 that this has become the major he loves, while the U.S. Open has been his white whale.
Phil’s 2018 season has been stellar as a whole; he won the WGC-Mexico Championship to end a drought that dated back to that 2013 Open, and he has five additional top 10s. However, his recent results have lagged behind somewhat (T48, T65 in his last two), and his most recent attempt at the U.S. Open, and the Career Grand Slam, was as up-and-down of an affair as they come, with two 69s cancelled out by a 77 and an 81.
There was also the bizarre Saturday penalty that caused controversy, and created a situation that Mickelson is still trying to pacify.
One thing Phil did do well at Shinnecock Hills: he was hitting his fairways, and if that work off the tees continues into Carnoustie, he could be tough to beat. His always pristine short game is at its usual elite level in 2018: he ranks second on Tour in strokes gained: putting.
As long as he avoids the temptation to hit moving putts, his work on the greens should again provide him a considerable advantage.
6. The Best Seeking Maiden Major
The PGA Tour is currently in a stretch where eight of the past ten majors have been captured by a player winning his first career major championship. An extraordinary, but majorless subset of the Carnoustie field would love to see that trend continue this week. Among the more notable are the following players:
Stop us if you have heard this one before. The madly popular Rickie Fowler is ranked inside the World’s top 10, but another year has gone by without him adding a major championship to his resume. His standing among the elites will be strongly questioned if he keeps missing the winner’s circle on the biggest stages.
For legacy’s purpose, it is possible that nobody needs this week more than Rickie. With top five finishes in three of his past five majors, the World No. 7 Fowler now has eight such finishes to his name. Now 29 years old, he needs to close the door on one of these. He put up a great effort at this year’s Masters with a 65-67 weekend, but it came up one stroke short of Patrick Reed. At last month’s U.S. Open, a 73-69 start gave Fowler a shot going into the weekend, but the bad round of all bad rounds on a Saturday full of bad rounds (he shot an 84) made his final round 65 strictly cosmetic.
Rickie has shown an affinity in his career for links style golf, and a T6 at last week’s Scottish Open could signal that the environment is finally conducive to the result people have expected from him for years. This could be his week.
The well-traveled Englishman turns 41 this Saturday, and would love to celebrate with a first career major championship the following day. With nine career top-10s in majors, the story on Paul Casey has been an exasperating inability to close. A win at March’s Valspar Championship was Casey’s first on the PGA Tour since 2009, but hopes that he had put his troubling closing woes behind him have risen again, after he squandered the 54-hole lead at last month’s Travelers Championship.
Renowned for his Ryder Cup prowess, it is easy to forget that the ostentatious Brit is still looking for major championship No. 1 at the age of 42. In his current form, Carnoustie could be Ian Poulter’s best chance in some time. His iron game is on, his results have been mostly commendable, and an impressive victory at April’s Houston Open may have gotten his subconscious mind set to his previous winning ways. In the past 18 months, Poulter has seen his world ranking climb precipitously from 207th to his current position of 29th; a major would cap an inspiring career comeback.
At last year’s Open Championship, the steady South African Branden Grace shot a third-round 62, the first 62 in major championship history, putting an end to the strangest 30-way tie in sports. The reasonable next step on Grace’s career track is to finally pull through on a stage where he has finished in the top 6 five times in the past four seasons.
At 23 years of age, Jon Rahm is easily the youngest player mentioned in this section, and while the major pressure is not exceptionally overpowering yet, he has proven himself among the best in the world with five victories in the past year and a half, and impressively, a major is one of the only things missing. Now No. 5 in the world rankings, Rahm has been hit or miss this season, winning the CareerBuilder Challenge and taking solo fourth place at The Masters, but he missed the cut by a mile at the U.S. Open, and has been substandard in his recent WGC starts. His win is coming, but is this the week?
With sharply declining results in recent years, many believe the major window of 45-year-old Lee Westwood has closed. They could be right, but there is no doubt that the man with 18 career major top 10s without a win, with 11 of those being in the top 5, would like to at least go down swinging. Surprisingly, this is the first major Westwood has even qualified for in 2018. His odds are long, but a victory would be a tremendous story.