There is a lot to talk about leading up to golf’s oldest championship. The 2016 British Open marks the third major on the calendar this season, and there are plenty of hot golfers angling to take home the gorgeous Claret Jug.
This year’s Open is being held at the historic Old Course at Royal Troon, which has hosted the British Open eight times previously, the last being in 2004. One of the quirks about this course is that it is home to the shortest and longest holes in Open Championship history, both of which figure to factor heavily in the outcome.
So what are the hottest stories leading up to this year’s British Open?
1. Can Dustin Johnson make it two in a row?
Before he finally broke through last month to win the U.S. Open, we’d all been waiting for Dustin Johnson to win a major for the better part of a decade.
One of the most talented golfers from a physical standpoint since Tiger Woods entered the scene, DJ routinely makes long par-5s look like routine par-4s. In addition to his length off the tee, which is jaw-dropping at times, Johnson oftentimes is shooting into long par-3s with short irons.
With all that in mind, it wouldn’t be shocking whatsoever to see Johnson win his second major in a row. His game suits Royal Troon’s layout to the point that one golf analyst said he has an “almost unfair” advantage this weekend over the field.
In addition to his skill set, Johnson is red hot right now. He enters the British Open on an unbelievable tear, having won twice in a row and posting top-five finishes in his last four tournaments.
Clearly he has what it takes to get the job done. But will he?
2. Will the other favorites contend or flounder?
There are four top players who enter The Open as favorites. Johnson is one of them, and he joins Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy as the guys oddsmakers have pegged with the best odds to win.
It’s easy to see why, as these four have won six of the last 10 majors since the start of the 2014 season. That said, favorites don’t win the British Open on a regular basis. In fact, dating back to 2000, it has been won by underdogs nine times out of 16.
That said, it’s far more likely that we’ll see at least one, if not more, of them struggle to make the cut. While each of them has managed to show up well at this tournament in the past, they have also all dealt with disappointing showings.
Before last year’s fourth-place finish, Spieth failed to crack the top 25 in his previous appearances. Day also finished in fourth last year, but his best finish before that was a tie for 32nd. McIlroy missed the cut in 2013 before winning it the next year, and Johnson finished in a tie for 49th last season.
The weekend will be more fun if these guys are clicking. But don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
3. Will we see another dark horse charging down the stretch?
As previously mentioned, the British Open isn’t always won by the favorites.
Last year’s win by Zach Johnson was a perfect illustration of this, along with Darren Clarke in 2011, Louis Oosthuizen in 2010, Stewart Cink in 2009 and Padraig Harrington’s back-to-back titles in 2007-08.
Johnson is among the dark horse candidates that could challenge for this year’s title, along with the likes of other past winners like Ernie Els and Harrington. There is also a new crop of potential contenders who are getting hot at the right time (top dark horse contenders here).
Given what is expected to be a crazy weekend full of inclement weather (more on that later), viewers should brace for any outcome.
4. Can Phil Mickelson get off the schneid?
Mickelson hasn’t been sharp at a major championship since tying for second place at the Masters in 2015, and he has missed his last two cuts at this year’s Masters and the U.S. Open.
If his final-round performance at the Scottish Open this past weekend is any indication, Mickelson still has the game to contend. With a 66 on Sunday, he vaulted up the leaderboard to finish in a tie for 13th place, somewhat negating an opening-round 76 on Thursday.
“It feels like I’ve got a little bit of momentum heading into next week, ” Mickelson said, via Bernie McGuire of AFP. “My game certainly feels better after today’s round where I had a good score. But it also helped me identify some areas where I need to work on for next week, this week did.”
Will he finally begin to look like the Lefty of old who won the 2013 Open Championship, or will Mickelson continue to struggle in majors?
At the age of 46 now, there is still time for him to contend for his sixth major title. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at the age of 46, as did Old Tom Morris at The Open Championship way back in 1867. With this in mind, it would hardly be unprecedented for Mickelson to win another before his career winds down.
5. Colin Montgomerie comes back home
Montgomerie shocked the golf world by qualifying for this year’s British Open. Once you realize what his motivation was for doing so, however, the shock wears off rather quickly.
Being that the tourney is being held at Royal Troon once again this year, Monty is competing in honor of his father, James Montgomerie. The elder Montgomerie has deep roots at this course, having presided over two Opens at Troon as the secretary, per Tim Rosaforte of Golf Digest. He is also in line to become the next club president.
Colin didn’t even speak to his father about the progress of his qualifying journey until it was over and he was in the major championship. But once the deed was done he couldn’t wait to give him the good news.
“It’s made him, I can assure you,” Montgomerie said of the joy brought to his father. “He’ll be at the door, welcoming people to ‘his’ club.”
Montgomerie will be the first to tee off on Thursday morning to get The Open started. He is aware that just making the cut will be considered a victory, this being his first Open appearance since 2010.
If that’s as far this journey goes, then that’s more than acceptable. If he somehow manages to move into contention at some point, there will be much to cheer about for Scotland’s golf hero, who never was able to win a major, despite getting close a number of times. His best finish at The Open came in 2005 when he took second place, five shots behind Tiger Woods.
6. Will a local hero emerge?
It’s always a grand old time when a golfer from Great Britain wins the British Open.
McIlroy pulled it off two years ago, Clarke did it before him and Paddy Harrington shocked us all with is back-to-back wins. Before these legends emerged this past decade, however, British golf fans hadn’t had much to cheer about at their national Open for quite some time.
This year, one of the names to watch is 29-year-old English golfer Andy Sullivan. He has two top-10 finishes in a row leading up to Royal Troon and posted a respectable 30th-place finish last year in his first Open appearance.
Another player we’ll be keeping our eye on is fan favorite Graeme McDowell, who has come close to winning a couple times in the past four years but remains unfulfilled in this quest. Luke Donald is another who has come close in the past and could pull through, as is Lee Westwood.
Should any of these Brits pull through with a win, it will be a huge individual triumph as well as a tremendous victory for Great Britain.
7. Rain and wind could play major role in outcome
Weather is always a big factor at The Open, but this year’s forecast foreshadows what could be a long weekend and perhaps even a Monday finish.
Rain is expected from Friday through Sunday, per Weather.com, with heavy winds over 30 miles per hour expected on Saturday and 20-plus on Friday and Sunday.
It’s going to be nasty out there, which will affect players two-fold.
Obviously, the weather itself will be difficult to overcome. Wind and raid combined as it appears will be the case at Royal Troon this weekend makes for difficult scoring conditions.
But even more than the weather, the mental grind of waiting out the storm during breaks in action could be a tall task for the golfers. Getting into a groove is hard enough under the best conditions. It’s brutally tough when weather dictates breaks in action, which could potentially happen more than once this weekend.
8. The Olympics
Of all the things to highlight heading into The Open, this is our least favorite. In fact, it’s a shame it’s even a story to begin with, as the headlines regarding the Rio Olympics and golf are almost all negative right now.
McIlroy made headlines Tuesday when he said he probably would not even be watching Olympic golf because it doesn’t matter. Many of the top golfers have withdrawn, with the Zika concern being a cited concern by a lot of them.
Zach Johnson said on Tuesday that he isn’t sure there is even a place for golf at the Olympics.
International Golf Federation chief, Peter Dawson, took offense to the mass withdrawals on Monday, saying, “Speaking collectively there is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn’t shed golf in the best light,” per APF’s Bernie McGuire.
The fact that the Olympics are taking center stage in this way at The Open isn’t palatable. And, given the weather that is in the forecast, there is a chance we’ll be hearing more about it if there are any breaks in the action.
For all our sakes, let’s hope not.
9. NBC back in the saddle, sporting new tech
Now, this isn’t exactly going to affect the tournament, but NBC as the broadcast partner of The Open will certainly affect those viewing the action from home.
It’s been a couple of years since NBC has televised a men’s major, dating back to the 2014 U.S. Open. As a way to spice up their broadcast the company is ramping up efforts on the technological side of things to make the experience more enjoyable for viewers.
With 99 cameras, NBC will be rolling out more than 50 hours of live coverage over the four-day tournament, per Golf.com. Eleven of those cameras will be utilized to track the action on the famed Postage Stamp hole (No. 8), which we’ll highlight later.
And there’s more.
“To measure wind direction and speed — always a factor at the Open — NBC will deploy ultrasound technology used by the British national sailing team. Yani, the man behind the theme music that marked NBC’s U.S. Open telecasts for two decades, has composed a new riff for the British Open. There’s even an all-new graphics package.”
Needless to say, NBC is throwing everything and the kitchen sink at this project. We eagerly anticipate the broadcasts to see what it all looks like as a final product.
10. The Postage Stamp from hell
Though just 123 yards, the par-3 eighth hole, called the Postage Stamp (aka “little beastie”) will be fun to watch this weekend.
Given the length of the hole, the expectation is that pro golfers will be able to hit the green. So no worries, right? Not so, says Montgomerie.
“(At) 123 yards, the expectation raises dramatically,” Montgomerie said, via ESPN’s Bob Harig. “You are on that tee and you are a professional golfer. It’s your job and you are expected to hit this green at 123 yards. You could throw it on, really. And that’s why it’s difficult.
“Whenever you are expected to win something or do something, it’s always more difficult to achieve. And that’s why the hole is fabulous, because you are expected to hit the green, and everyone knows you are.”
The five greenside bunkers often act as a veritable prison for golf balls. Once they’ve found their way into this prison, it’s hard to get them out. Rory McIlroy can tell you just how hard the Postage Stamp can play. The world’s No. 3 golfer needed nine strokes to put the ball in the hole during a practice round.
Don’t be surprised if we see more than a few golfers posting similar scores under pressure this weekend. This hole can make or break a championship.