The frantic re-scheduling, caused by the three-month PGA Tour layoff last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to six major championships being played in the past 11 months.
Of those six, zero of them were The Open Championship.
International travel restrictions made rescheduling the 149th edition of The Open an impossibility, but now, finally, golf’s oldest major is back, and sits at the end of a remarkable major season.
Even now, we have seen an unprecedented number of withdraws, including reigning Masters Champion Hideki Matsuyama, two-time Masters Champion Bubba Watson, and 2015 Open Champion Zach Johnson, all after positive COVID tests.
Matthew Wolff, Sungjae Im, Si Woo Kim, and Kevin Na are also out for a variety of reasons.
This year’s edition will be held at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, a venue that saw two of the most unlikely Open winners ever the last two times it hosted: Ben Curtis in 2003 and Darren Clarke in 2011. Is there another Curtis or Clarke in the field this year? We’re not ruling it out.
Here are six of the more intriguing storylines for this year’s Open Championship, beginning with the man who has been the defending champion for 24 months:
1. Shane Lowry Defends Claret Jug
Due to last year’s unfortunate cancellation, we have not seen an Open Championship played in two years. It has been even longer since we saw a competitive one.
That is because Ireland’s Shane Lowry absolutely mopped the floor with the field, to the tune of a six-stroke romp at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
Lowry even set the 54-hole tournament scoring record in the process. He snared his first career major championship in awful Sunday weather, where he shot a 1-over 72, while the five players behind him on the leaderboard going into Sunday shot a combined 33-over-par.
Lowry pumped up crowds along the way, gained about a million fans, and celebrated jubilantly for weeks afterwards. He was a popular Open champion.
At the time 32 years of age, Lowry was 33rd in the OWGR going into that Open, 11 spots higher than the spot he occupies now. From that victory until last August’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Championship, Lowry’s only top 10 anywhere was a runner-up in an Asian Tour event in Hong Kong, although his record sheet was far from a disaster, with six results in the 11-20 range.
His game seems to have peaked again in 2021. Since March, he has four top 10s in nine PGA Tour starts, including a T4 at the PGA Championship. He was also T6 at The Memorial Tournament, which features one of the best fields outside the majors.
Most recently, he was T23 two weeks ago at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. He was T34 in that event the week before he won at Royal Portrush.
Statistically, 2021 has been his usual: great ball-striking, but poor putting. If he can at least move steady with the putter, he stands a good chance of becoming the first back-to-back Open Champion since fellow countryman Padraig Harrington accomplished the successful defense in 2009.
2. England’s Home Favorites
England did not end up getting the Henri Delaunay Trophy after losing Euro 2020 to Italy on penalty kicks, but they should feel good about their chances of landing a Claret Jug.
This will be a home open for a number of players, and with seven in the top 50 of the OWGR, England should make a good run at their first Open Champion Golfer of the Year since Sir Nick Faldo won at Muirfield in 1992.
Here are some of the more notable Brits in attendance:
Tyrrell Hatton (No. 10): Just two players from outside the U.S. are in the current top 10: No. 2 Jon Rahm and No. 10 Hatton. He’s a 29-year-old who does not take himself too seriously, which makes him easy to root for, although it also makes him prone to extended funks… Hatton has 22 top 10s in 83 career Tour starts, with one victory (2020 Arnold Palmer Invitational), but has yet to contend deep into a major… He has been very hit-or-miss at The Open, with a T5 and a T6, but otherwise five missed cuts and a T51.
Paul Casey (No. 21): At 43 years old, Casey’s major window is getting a little tighter. Fortunately, he has figured out how to really step it up in majors, contending in three of the five that have occurred since last August, including a runner-up at the 2020 PGA Championship… Casey has eight top 10s in 2021 between the PGA and European Tours. He last won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in January.
Justin Rose (No. 47): The gold medal winner at the last Olympic games got off to a ferocious start at this year’s Masters, eventually finishing 7th, which he followed up with a T8 at the PGA Championship… Rose first burst onto the golf scene when he finished T4 at the 1998 Open Championship as an amateur… He has never gotten the Open victory he was expected to have, but he is the only player mentioned in this segment so far who has won a major before, taking the 2013 U.S. Open.
Matt Fitzpatrick (No. 20): Fitzpatrick has just one top 10 in a major, but has had consistently good results the past two seasons, and is coming off a runner-up at last week’s Scottish Open, where he reached a three-man playoff… He combines accuracy off the tee with excellent putting, a good combination anywhere.
Lee Westwood (No. 29): The 48-year-old has been snakebit in majors, with 12 top-5 finishes without a victory, including nine times in either second or third… Westwood got hot in March, and finished runner-up in back-to-back PGA Tour events, but has struggled during the major season… He has 25 career victories on the European Tour.
Tommy Fleetwood (No. 35): Fleetwood was the second-place finisher to Shane Lowry at the last Open Championship. Over the past five seasons, the 30-year-old has 18 top 10s in PGA Tour events, but is still looking for that first victory… He has improved his result at each of the past three Opens. He cannot do that for a fourth in a row, unless he wins.
Ian Poulter (No. 50): Another Brit in his 40s without a major title, Poulter was the Open runner-up in 2008… A European Ryder Cup legend, Poulter comes into Royal St. George’s off a final-round 63 at the Scottish Open, allowing him to finish T4… He often struggles to put four rounds together, but finds the leaderboards often.
Richard Bland (No. 98): Bland is currently one of the hottest golfers in the world, and with a win, a T3, a T4, and a T15 among his last five starts, he has improved his world ranking from 218th to 98th in a short time… The one result outside the top 15 in that stretch for the 48-year-old was at last month’s U.S. Open, where he became the oldest 36-hole leader in tournament history.
Others: Matt Wallace (No 60), Andy Sullivan (No. 85), Aaron Rai (No. 109), Danny Willett (No. 115)
3. Red-Hot Jon Rahm
One player who has not been struggling as of late though, is Spain’s Jon Rahm. The 26-year-old made international sports waves when he was forced to withdraw from last month’s Memorial Tournament after holding a six-stroke lead at the 54-hole mark, due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Rahm rebounded from that disappointment by winning the U.S. Open, the first major of his career. He jumped to No. 1 in the world rankings, but fell back to second last week. That was in spite of a solo-seventh at the Scottish Open, where he was just one stroke off the lead heading into the final round.
On the season, Rahm has a Tour-leading 11 top 10s in just 18 starts. He has missed just one cut and sits third in the FedExCup standings.
His current form is making him the overwhelming betting leader. He has the best scoring average on Tour, leads in strokes gained: total, and is second in both strokes gained: off-the-tee and strokes gained: tee-to-green.
In his last ten major starts, Rahm has six top-10s, including in all three majors this year. The Open Championship is the one where he has not finished as high, though, with a best result of T11 in 2019.
With seven European Tour victories, it isn’t like he doesn’t have the game for an Open.
4. Four Struggling Tour Superstars
The cream tends to rise to the top at the majors, but for a number of the Tour’s bigger names, they will need to play much better than they have been as of late if they want to leave Royal St. George’s with the Claret Jug.
Here are some of the more notable players looking to get their games back on track:
After how unbelievable DJ looked late in 2020, where he won four events worldwide after the pandemic layoff, including a four-stroke win at The Masters, it is shocking that we are in this place with him now.
He regained his spot atop the OWGR, but that was in spite of not even playing the last two weeks.
In his last ten Tour starts, dating back to February, his only top 10 was a T10 at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree, against a weak field in his native South Carolina.
DJ missed the cut at both The Masters and the PGA Championship, becoming the first world No. 1 to miss the cut in the first two majors since 1997. He was better at the U.S. Open, finishing T19, although still not contending.
He is always a threat to go off at any time, but he has not looked like the golfer with 24 career PGA Tour victories in 2021.
JT ranks third in the world rankings, but Tour life has been difficult for him since he won THE PLAYERS Championship in impressive fashion in March. He imploded at The Masters after a rain delay softened the course, and in his last eight PGA Tour starts, he has failed to finish better than T13.
Looking for a second career major (2017 PGA Championship), he will need to recompose himself.
Fortunately for Thomas, he posted a T8 at last week’s Scottish Open, giving him some much needed momentum.
Ten months ago, DeChambeau used unprecedented power to conquer the U.S. Open by six strokes, his first career major victory. He also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and was T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Since then though, the world No. 6 has made more news off the course (feud with Brooks Koepka, firing his caddy on the first day of the Rocket Mortgage Classic less than two weeks ago) than on it. In his last nine Tour starts, his best finish was a T9 at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he made the cut on the number.
He grabbed the Sunday lead at last month’s U.S. Open, but then imploded on the back nine, shooting a 77 to finish T26. He also shot a 77 on Sunday at the PGA Championship, and had three rounds of 75 or worse at The Masters. Now he’s trying to break in a new caddie.
Down to 11th in the world rankings, McIlroy seems to be missing the killer instinct that won him four major titles, including the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
The 32-year-old has been sitting on three legs of the career grand slam since that win, and has not won any majors since the 2014 PGA Championship.
Prior to missing the cut at the last Open Championship, he had posted four consecutive top 5 finishes.
This is a good event when he’s feeling confident, but he has not shown much confidence this year. He has played in Europe the past two weeks, chasing a T59 at the Irish Open with a missed cut at the Scottish Open.
5. Phil’s Phenomenal Major Season
If you care enough to still be reading, you probably know that Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship in May, becoming the oldest major winner in Tour history (50 years, 11 months).
At the time, Mickelson had been horribly slumping, falling well out of the top 100 of the world rankings for the first time since 1993. While he smashes the ball as good as he even did, he was struggling to maintain the stamina to compete consistently. He looked like he was done contending, not just in majors, but on the PGA Tour period.
His Champions Tour play had gotten off to a tremendous start, however, as he won his first two tournaments against the 50+ age field.
Then Kiawah Island happened, and Phil stared down the likes of Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen, and Paul Casey to win his sixth career major, and 45th career Tour event, the latter of which ranks 8th all time.
Mickelson has played in four events since the PGA Championship, with the results… not good. He made the cut in three of them, but none resulted in better than a T61.
However, he will still be arriving at Royal St. George’s with a tremendous amount of confidence from what he proved in May. As for The Open Championship, it was once thought to be the major that just “wasn’t his”. He proved that to be wrong when he won the 2013 edition at Muirfield by three strokes. He then finished second at the 2016 edition, where he played some of the best golf of his career in an epic duel against Henrik Stenson.
It should also be noted that Phil was among the two runner-ups to Darren Clarke in 2011, the last time the tournament was held at Royal St. George’s.
Most recently, he played in Montana last Tuesday, teaming up with NFL legend Tom Brady to lose 3&2 in the latest edition of ‘The Match” where they played Bryson DeChambeau and Aaron Rodgers. It probably means absolutely nothing, but was still notable.
Really anything is possible with Phil this week.
6. Big-Game Brooks Koepka
Anyone who knows anything about the PGA Tour knows that Brooks Koepka is really, really good in the majors. The 31-year-old world No. 8 has taken four titles, going back-to-back at the U.S. Open in 2017-18 and back-to-back at the PGA Championship in 2018-19.
In his last 15 major starts, Koepka has 11(!) results inside the top 7. In 2021, he has continued to show his incredible competency on the biggest stages. He did miss the cut at The Masters, which was excusable in this case as he was battling a knee injury (not everyone can be Tiger at Torrey Pines), but rebounded by finishing co runner-up to Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship.
Then at last month’s U.S. Open, he was T4, as a difficult final hole prevented him from taking the clubhouse lead at the time.
Koepka, who got his start on the European Tour, has shone in big events outside the U.S. as well, posting top 10s in three of his last four Open starts, with a best result of T4 in 2019.
He has even been showing up at the non-majors, winning the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February, finishing T2 to Collin Morkiawa at the WGC-Workday Championship at the Concession, and most recently finished T5 at the Travelers Championship three weeks.
All this was accomplished while frequently trolling Bryson DeChambeau. Assuming his knee is still some semblance of healthy, it would be shocking if he did not get himself into the mix again this week.