With the U.S. Open in the books, the major championship focus now shifts across the pond to the 2017 Open Championship. For the tenth time, Royal Birkdale will host golf’s oldest major.
So, what can we expect? Well, it’s difficult to gauge any expectations off the past British Opens contested at Birkdale. The last two have been won with fairly modest scores. In 1998, Mark O’Meara defeated Brian Watts in a playoff after both men completed 72 holes at even par. In 2008, Padraig Harrington finished three-over par, but won going away. On the other hand, the previous seven champions at Birkdale were all won with scores of four-under or better. Lee Trevino won at 14-under in 1971.
As is so often the case, the conditions will tell us a lot about what kind of Open Championship this will be.
So, who are the favorites?
Dustin Johnson is the world’s top-ranked player. Is he one of the players that we should be taking seriously? What about No. 2 ranked player Hideki Matsuyama, or No. 4 Jason Day?
What kind of chances to Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka have at adding a second major in 2017? Can Henrik Stenson repeat? Can Justin Rose win at the same venue where he introduced himself to the world in 1998? Is Rickie Fowler ready to finally get the major championship monkey off of his back?
The following are our top-10 favorites for the 2017 Open Championship.
Just to be clear, we’re not going to be looking exclusively at the top-ranked players in the world here. Still, it’s hard to start anywhere else.
Johnson is the No. 1-ranked player in the world for a reason. He’s won five times since claiming the 2016 U.S. Open and earned two points for the American team at the 2016 Ryder Cup.
Now, there is a retort to that. All but one of Johnson’s career wins came in the United States, with the other coming in Mexico. While Johnson has shown that he can win on many different kind of courses in North America, none of them really resemble golf in the United Kingdom.
That’s true. But while Johnson hasn’t won in the United Kingdom, he’s not exactly a novice there, either.
DJ has made the cut in seven straight British Opens and has a tie for 14th (2010), tie for 12th (2014), two ties for ninth (2012 and 2016) as well as a tie for second (2011) to his name. So, Johnson’s game does travel overseas.
The 2017 Open Championship will be the 146th contested in the history of this great event. So, we have to be careful to avoid being too hyperbolic.
With that said, in 1998, Rose delivered one of the most iconic moments in the history of the Open Championship — especially for a non winner. The final shot he took there produced a deafening roar.
— The Open (@TheOpen) February 25, 2016
Conveniently enough, that occurred at Birkdale. But Rose was far from a one-hit wonder that week. As a 17-year-old amateur, Rose was a serious contender in 1998, finishing only two strokes out of the O’Meara/Watts playoff.
Rose has been one of the best, most consistent players in the world for a long time. He won the gold medal at the Rio Olympics and narrowly lost the Masters to Sergio Garcia in April. He has to be considered a serious threat any time he steps on the course for a big event.
In 1998, the world was introduced to Rose at Birkdale. It would be certainly be fitting for him to win his first national championship at the same venue 19 years later.
We know that golfers winning the U.S. Open and the British Open in the same year is quite rare. It hasn’t been done since Tiger Woods in 2000 and before that, Tom Watson in 1982.
So, why should Kopeka be taken seriously?
First off, Koepka’s history at the Open Championship is limited, but strong. He’s played in three British Opens, made the cut in his most recent two and finished tied for 10th in 2015.
Additionally, while Koepka is American, he’s played extensively in Europe. In fact, he has four Challenge Tour wins in Europe, with one of those in the United Kingdom. So, he’s not only familiar with that style of play but has shown himself capable of winning in those settings.
Lastly, we can’t completely glaze over what winning the U.S. Open could do for a player mentally. Koepka had always had obvious talent, but his results have been scattered. He had four wins on the Challenge Tour, but prior to Erin Hills, had only one win each on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Japan Golf Tour. Now, he knows that his game is good enough to win the big one.
We’ve never doubted Koepka’s talent, only whether he could put that talent together on a consistent basis to win golf’s biggest events. Now, that’s not such a concern.
So, while it would be rare, don’t sleep on Koepka pulling the “Open” double in 2017.
At one glance, it looks like Casey just struggles at his national championship. He has two top-10 finishes but has only finished better than tied for 27th on one other occasion.
Still, we have a few reasons to be optimistic.
The first is simple. He’s playing great golf right now.
.@Paul_Casey's last 5 starts:
He's tied for the lead at the U.S. Open. pic.twitter.com/b7GKj4ioSp
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 17, 2017
Another is that one of those top-10 finishes came in 2008 at Royal Birkdale when Casey finished in a tie for seventh place. It was well off the lead but that doesn’t change the fact that at the Open Championship’s most recent trip to this venue, he was one of the best players.
Lastly, we know that while Casey was tied for the lead at the U.S. Open, that didn’t turn out so well.
Still, he finished tied for 10th at the 2016 PGA Championship and solo sixth at the Masters. The 26th place finish at the U.S. Open wasn’t great, but he was a factor for most of the week. Casey has been playing some of his best golf at the major championships.
That bodes well for a weekend at Birkdale.
Sergio is having a nice year for himself. He of course won the Masters and also claimed the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February.
In addition to his 2017 success, Garcia will have experience on his side. He be one of the few serious contenders in the field to have played at both of the most recent Open Championships held at Birkdale. He didn’t contend in either, but he did make the cut both times. There’s no telling how much the added experience will help him throughout the week.
Also, while Sergio has never contended at Birkdale, the same can not be said at British Opens in general. Garcia has notched 10 finishes in the top 10. Half of those were top fives. That’s a stretch that covers plenty of low scoring Opens, as well as high scoring events.
He knows how to compete there. Not unlike Koepka, Sergio now knows that he can win a major.
How much will that will help him as he attempts to go from frequent Open Championship contender to Champion Golfer of the Year? We don’t know. But it’s certainly not going to hurt.
We’ll start with a trivia question. Who has the lowest scoring average on tour throughout 2017?
If you guessed Fowler, give yourself a pat on the back.
Scoring average leaders on TOUR
Rickie Fowler – 69.322
Sergio Garcia – 69.359
Jordan Spieth – 69.559
Justin Thomas – 69.614 pic.twitter.com/hxq0ayrkww
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 21, 2017
There are a few different ways to look at Fowler’s career in majors.
One is that he’s been disappointing. He’s had several chances to close the door but hasn’t done it. Heck, he finished in the top five at all five majors in 2014. In 2017, he entered the final round of the Masters only one back but finished eight shots out of the playoff between Garcia and Rose. At the U.S. Open, meanwhile, he started the final round two strokes back but finished six shots behind Koepka.
That certainly points to a guy who struggles to close the deal.
On the other hand, we can’t ignore that he’s been there so many times. Do you know who else had a problem closing the deal at majors? Jason Day before the 2015 PGA Championship. Dustin Johnson before the 2016 U.S. Open. Henrik Stenson before the 2016 British Open. Garcia before the 2017 Masters.
That’s not such a concern for any of them anymore. Fowler certainly has the game to follow in their footsteps and win his first major.
We know that Stenson can contend at the Open Championship. He’s finished tied for third or better four times at this major. We also know that he can compete at Birkdale. One of those strong finishes was a tie for third in 2008. So, the venue isn’t going to catch him by surprise.
Additionally, we know from 2016 that Stenson can win the British Open.
Wow. Henrik Stenson has won #TheOpen!
He's claimed his first major title with a 63 to finish at -20. pic.twitter.com/yugwuk7AgL
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 17, 2016
He faced consistent pressure from a red hot Phil Mickelson and was simply better last year. Not many people can say that they got the best of Phil Mickelson when Lefty was on his game. Stenson can. There’s really no way to measure how much something like that helps.
Additionally, Stenson has played good golf over the last year. No, he hasn’t won since the 2016 Open Championship. Still, Stenson has 10 top-10 finishes worldwide since his victory at Royal Troon a year ago. That doesn’t even include his silver medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
We haven’t seen a repeat winner at the British Open since Padraig Harrington in 2007 and 2008. We’re not predicting Stenson to repeat, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise.
When he won THE PLAYERS Championship in 2016, Day was the best player in the world and seemed poised to go on a long, sustained run. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Day hasn’t won since then, and a few other golfers have played well over that stretch, knocking Day down to No. 4 in the world.
But to not think of Day as one of the favorites would be a dramatic overreaction.
Day has six top-10 finishes since the win at THE PLAYERS. He may not be winning, but he’s not far behind the winners, either. If you put yourself in contention enough, the wins will follow, especially when you’re as talented as Day.
Something else that appears to work against Day is a relative lack of success in the Open Championship. He has at least three top-10 finishes at the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship. But at the British Open, a tie for fourth in 2015 is Day’s only top-10 finish.
Still, he’s played six Open Championships and made the cut each time. With the exceptions of Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy (whose injuries in 2017 keep him off of this list), no golfer can really hang with Day when he’s firing on all cylinders.
We know that Day can get himself to the weekend at the British Open. If a golfer as talented as Day is playing the weekend, he’s got a chance to win.
Harman’s complete lack of major championship success ahead of the 2017 U.S. Open is pretty well known. More often than not, when Harman does compete in a major, it will go a lot like his final round against Koepka did. He’ll hang in nicely and make some nice shots, but ultimately, his lack of firepower will keep him from getting over that last hump.
We say more often than not because three of the four majors are contested in the United States and American major championship venues tend to favor the long hitters. But obviously, the British Open is not contested in the United States.
Make no mistake, being a long hitter isn’t a detriment in the U.K. — it’s just not such an advantage. The Open Championship tends to require more overall shot making as opposed to brute force. With true fairway bunkers, long tee shots are only advantageous to golfers who place them in the right spots.
This is where Harman can thrive. We saw how good he was with his overall shot making at Erin Hills. The guy was a wizard with his fairway woods, hitting low approach shots into greens. That will be an asset at the Open Championship.
While we’re on the subject of shot makers, we have to give some love to Matsuyama.
Throw it in long and let it spin back.
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 15, 2017
Matsuyama was darn impressive at Erin Hills. On Thursday, it looked like he’d miss the cut or, at best, make it but not be a factor over the weekend. By the time it was over Matsuyama was tied for second with Harman. Only a tremendous finish from Koepka kept Matsuyama out of a playoff.
But we can’t look only at Erin Hills. That would be doing a tremendous disservice to the world’s No. 2-ranked golfer.
Matsuyama has finished tied for 11th in better in each of the last three majors. Outside of the majors, he’s won five times worldwide since the beginning of 2016 — six if we count the Hero World Challenge.
At some point in his career, Matsuyama is going to win a major. Bet on that happening sooner, rather than later.