Top 10 storylines for 2017 British Open

Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky

The 2017 British Open is nearly here. And for the 10th time, The Open Championship will emanate from Royal Birkdale. What should we be watching for?

Will we really get a first time champion for the eighth consecutive major? Players like Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Jordan Spieth might have something to say about that. But what kind of form will they be in?

What big name needs a strong showing the make the Presidents Cup team? Which big name needs to show well to lock up a spot in the FedEx Cup Playoffs? What kind of company would Henrik Stenson join if he could pull off this specific repeat? Are the weather reports telling us anything, or will this be another unpredictable Open Championship?

What are the top-10 storylines to follow at the 2017 British Open?

1. Another first-time major champion?

Rickie Fowler at the 2017 Masters

The last seven major winners (Jason Day, Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka) all had different stories prior to their wins. But they all had one thing in common. None of them had won a major before.

Each of the seven majors contested since Zach Johnson won the 2015 Open Championship resulted in a first time major winner.

Will we see No. 8 at Royal Birkdale?

The World Rankings give us plenty of good candidates. Four of the top-10 players in the world (Hideki Matsuyama, John Rahm, Alex Noren, Rickie Fowler) are majorless. If we venture into the top 25, we get nine others (Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Rafael Cabrera Bello, Matt Kuchar, Francesco Molinari, Daniel Berger, Patrick Reed, Tyrrell Hatton and Kevin Kisner.

So, the prime options are certainly there. With that said, the Open has historically been the kindest major to Cinderella stories. So, we could get a winner that nobody has ever heard of.

Or maybe, the streak will stop at seven and we’ll get someone adding to his major championship case rather than creating a new one.

2. Which Jordan Spieth will show up?

It’s been a topsy turvy year for Spieth.

At one point, he missed three of four cuts. The lone exception was The Masters where he finished tied for 11th, but even that came with a complete dud in the last round. However, Spieth has made the cut in each of the four tournaments played since that cold patch, finished tied for second at the DEAN & DELUCA Invitational and winning the Travelers Championship in dramatic fashion.

Which version of Spieth will we get at Birkdale?

The version we saw at the Travelers Championship was not the same guy that we saw when Spieth won the Masters in 2015. At Augusta, Spieth was overwhelming. At the Travelers, he didn’t have his A-Game but still managed to get the job done. In a way, that’s actually more impressive.

If we get the version that missed three of four cuts, don’t expect to see Spieth much (if a all) over the weekend.

If we get either of the 2015 Masters or 2017 Travelers version of Spieth at Birkdale, then he has a very good chance to have three-quarters of the career grand slam in his pocket at week’s end.

3. What impact will Mother Nature have?

What kind of havoc will the weather wreak on the players? It’s a question asked at nearly every Open Championship. But at Birkdale, the weather is even more unpredictable than it is at any of the rota venues.

Even the weather reports for the week leave a lot to be determined. Without knowing what mood Mother Nature will be in, we just don’t know how Birkdale will play.

In the first seven British Opens contested at Birkdale, the winning score was always four-under or better. It hit nine-under or better on four different occasions with Lee Trevino going to 14-under in his 1971 win. But in 1998, Mark O’Meara defeated Brian Watts in a playoff after both men finished 72 holes at even par. When Padraig Harrington won in 2008, he finished at three-over — and still managed a four-shot victory.

If the weather is kind to the golfers, look for one of the world’s best to emerge victorious. If it’s miserable at Birkdale, though, expect to see a wide open race.

4. How will Rory McIlroy hold up?

Rory McIlroy 2017 U.S. Open

Thus far, 2017 has been well below McIlroy’s standards. He’s played in 10 events this year, hasn’t won a single tournament, and has missed each of the last two cuts and three of the last four.

The negative contributing factors have been nagging injuries to his back and ribs. The positive contributing factor is that McIlroy got married. But negative or positive, it’s all worked to keep McIlroy off the course.

McIlroy has gotten back into the swing of things recently, but missed the cut at both the Irish and Scottish Opens. He stated that the wind was throwing his swing off.

“I’m thinking playing in the wind last few weeks has put my alignment out,” he said, via James Corrigan of The Telegraph. “And that’s the tricky thing about playing in the wind in the build-up to this event – you run the risk of getting into a few bad habits, just of trying to keep the ball down. That’s what we are trying to iron out.”

That’s going to need to be fixed quickly. The weather is unpredictable at The Open but one thing we can say with certainty is that McIlroy will deal with wind.

The good news is that despite some rough moments, McIlroy’s history at the British Open has generally been positive. He has a win (2014) and two other top-five finishes (2010, 2016). If he’s worked the kinks out, McIlroy should be in with a chance at Birkdale. If not, be sure you don’t miss him during Thursday and Friday’s rounds, because that may well be all you see.

5. FedEx Cup points

The British Open doesn’t only carry the cache of being one of golf’s four majors. Heck, it doesn’t only carry the cache of being golf’s oldest major.

Since 2007, it has also represented one of the last chances to earn points for the FedEx Cup Playoffs. The 2017 playoffs begin on August 24 at The Northern Trust. Following The Open Championship, there will be only four weeks of golf to play before the playoffs start.

For the most part, the familiar names aren’t exactly on the chopping block here. We’re going to see the likes of Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Sergio Garcia in the playoffs. Heck, even Rory McIlroy is 75th in the standings, well within the top 125.

But two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson is hanging on by a thread at No. 123. For those guys hanging around the bottom part of the FedEx Cup standings, the British Open represents one of the last chances to make real progress.

If someone like Bubba gets passed, he won’t have many more chances to work his way back into the top 125.

6. Henrik Stenson’s repeat bid

Another big name who’s in a somewhat precarious spot in the Fed Ex Cup standings is Stenson, who checks in at No. 99. But Stenson isn’t only focused on reaching the Fed Ex Cup playoffs, he’s also focused on making history.

His performance at the 2016 Open Championship was masterful. He topped Phil Mickelson by three shots in a truly epic duel between the two and finished 14 shots ahead of the third-place finisher. That’s a memory that Stenson will have for the rest of his life. But if he wins this week, Stenson’s memories get even sweeter.

No one has won consecutive British Opens since Padraig Harrington, who won in 2007 and 2008 to follow up  Tiger Woods, who won in 2005 and 2006. Prior to Tiger, it had been a while. He was the first repeat champ since Tom Watson, who won in 1982 and 1983. That’s the man Stenson should be following, as Watson’s wins came at Royal Troon and Royal Birkdale, the same two venues that Stenson is looking to win at.

7. Can Rickie Fowler finally break through?

As we’ve already detailed, Fowler is one of many of the world’s highest ranked golfers who’s yet to break through at a major. But since Sergio Garcia broke through at the Masters, Fowler’s major history is a little more notable than the other top players who have yet to win a major.

Fowler has undoubtedly proven that he can compete at golf’s biggest events. He has seven top-10 finishes at the majors, which includes a top five or better in all four of 2014’s majors. In 2017, he’s notched a T-11 at the Masters and a T-5 at the U.S. Open. But even those finishes had a bittersweet feeling to them, as Fowler entered the final rounds of those events a combined three shots off of the lead.

We know that Fowler’s game is there.

To be fair, the recent history has proven that it’s certainly not now or never for Fowler. The average age of the last seven major champions was nearly 33, and all of those were first time winners. Fowler is only 28.

Still, does he really want to wait that long? Fowler has a strong history at the majors. He’s also finished in the top 10 in each of his last three tournaments, as well as in four of his last five. Time may be on his side, but now is as good a time as any to break through.

8. Presidents Cup points

The British Open does not only represent one of the last chances to earn Fed Ex Cup points, but Presidents Cup points, as well.

Granted, the Presidents Cup doesn’t have the same history as the Ryder Cup. It’s only been around since 1994, while the Ryder Cup has been going since 1927. Additionally, it’s been lopsided in the United States’ favor, with the International side only winning once, halving another, and with most of the American wins being one-sided.

But 2015 might have been a turning point. There, the Presidents Cup wasn’t decided until the very end of the event. Now, was that a sign of things to come, or simply a blip? Only time will tell, but 2017’s will be important in answering that question.

Now, who will be on the course to answer that question. More importantly, who won’t be?

On the American side, a few notable names are on the outside looking in. But the most notable of those is Phil Mickelson, who’s competed in literally every Presidents Cup since the event’s inception in 1994. He’d likely be a captain’s pick anyway, but certainly doesn’t want to push it. The outside looking in list of International side doesn’t bring quite the same name value, but it does look to be a battle to the finish.

Time is running out for those looking to earn their way into the top 10 of their respective teams. The British Open represents one of the final chances to make big progress.

9. Can Jason Day find his form?

Day’s win at the 2015 PGA Championship started the current run of first time major winners. Normally speaking, he’d be a prime candidate to end it, as well. But Day comes into the Open Championship a little under the radar.

Even if Day does feel good about his game, experience is key at the British Open. You have to know where to hit the ball and more importantly, where not to hit it.

Yes, Royal Birkdale may well be the fairest of all Open Championship venues. But it’s still a course where hitting the ball in the wrong place can be crushing. Generally, knowing those places is only truly gained with playing the venue.

The British Open has also been the unkindest of all the majors to Day. He did tie for fourth in 2015, finishing only one shot out of the playoff, but that marked his only top-10 finish. At every other major, Day has notched at least three top-10 finishes.

Day’s too talented to ever be completely counted out. But he’s certainly got his work cut out for him this week.

10. Is Dustin Johnson back?

If Johnson’s at his best, he’s the one golfer who can really dominate. We saw that at the U.S. Open in 2016. We saw it in 2017, when he won three tournaments in a row.

But we’ve seen a different version of DJ more recently. That’s shown itself with missed cuts in each of his last two events.

Now, we just have to wonder if he’s worked those kinks out. If he has, all we can say is good luck to the rest of the field. If Johnson is driving the ball accurately, he’s hitting low irons or wedges into most greens. With that kind of game, he’ll win if his putting is even good, let alone great.

But if he’s missing fairways, his power will not help him. The penalties for wayward drives at Birkdale are just too stiff.

It’s a long event. But much like the U.S. Open, it shouldn’t too long to figure out which version of DJ we’re going to see at The Open Championship.