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Open Championship promises open contest

The iconic trophy and Royal Birkdale clubhouse (Photo: Getty Images)
Nine years after last being held at the outstanding seaside course in Southport in Lancashire, the Open Championship returns to Royal Birkdale for the 146th staging of golf’s oldest major championship and for the tenth occasion at the layout first created in 1889 but extensively re-designed in 1922.

It would take until 1954 and Peter Thomson’s first of five Open Championship victories that the venue first played host although it has now become one of the more regular stops on the Open Championship rota.

Thomson would also win the last of his five titles at Royal Birkdale in 1965 and in 1991 Ian Baker-Finch would become the fourth individual Australian to win an Open Championship when he held off a determined challenge from his fellow countryman, Mike Harwood, at the same venue.

Australians therefore have a good record at Royal Birkdale and in 2017 eleven will face the starter.

A shot that Padraig Harrington hit late on Sunday during his 2008 triumph would resonate around the world, a 5 wood from 272 yards to the par five 17th finished 3 feet from the hole setting up an eagle that would allow him to stroll to a four-shot victory over Ian Poulter and claim his second successive Open Championship title.

Harrington described that shot as one of the best of his career and while he would likely have won the Open Championship that year either way, the brilliance he displayed at that moment gave him the chance to walk up the 72nd hole and savour the moment.  

That was then and now the golfing world returns with favouritism split between five or six of the game’s leading players although several of those are struggling to find the sort of form that would otherwise make them distinct favourites.

Dustin Johnson has missed the cut in each of his last two starts this season but has made the cut in all but one of his eight Open Championship starts including when runner-up to Darren Clarke in 2011 and when finishing 9th in 2012 and 2016.

The 2016 US Open Champion has shown therefore that he has no issue with the style of golf required to do well at the Open. Missing the cut in his two most recent starts this season is a concern however and while he deserves the mantle of world number one there is a reason to be cautious about his chances this week.

Rory McIlroy appears to be well short of where he needs to be to contend this week. His missed cuts at the Irish and Scottish Opens confirm he is not yet back to where he was earlier in the year. There is no doubt this is an event he could do well in if he was 100% with his game as he was when winning at nearby Royal Liverpool in 2014 but, clearly, he is not. On that basis, it is hard to get excited about his chances.

Hideki Matsuyama on the other hand is playing well having finished runner-up to Brooks Koepka at the US Open and then a very satisfactory 14th at the Irish Open two weeks ago. Matsuyama was 6th on debut at the Open in 2013 and, while not exactly a standout in the event since, his time for a breakthrough major championship must surely come soon.

Sergio Garcia may well be one of the leading players to contend this week. Now that he has broken through for the much awaited major championship victory, Garcia has continued on from his Masters win with several good tournaments including when runner-up in Germany at his last start.

Garcia will be playing his 21st Open Championship and he has a very impressive record despite not winning with ten top tens in those twenty starts including three in his last three attempts.

There is a lot to like about the Spaniard’s chances.

Jason Day heads the Australians in terms of world ranking but his form of late is hard to assess. While making all six cuts in the event Day has only one top ten amongst those but it is his current form that is hardest to work out when analysing his chances, missing the cut in each of his last two starts.

Jordan Spieth won at his last start at the Travelers Championship and has been biding his time with that being his only start since finishing midfield at the US Open. He does own one good finish at the Open Championship, that coming when one shot from the playoff in 2015 and he has made his other three cuts.  

So, amongst the leading six world ranked players, Matsuyama, Garcia and Spieth appear the most likely on paper but it may be that players from outside that group will play their part.

Defending champion Henrik Stenson, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood and Patrick Reed each have the credentials for a good showing in what appears to be one of the widest open championships in recent years.

Without wishing to state the obvious the chances do not stop with the list above. As Ben Curtis' win in 2003 and Todd Hamilton's win in 2004 highlight, being considered one of the favourites is no guarantee of success at the Open Championship and 2017 could well see a player as far down the list of possibilities as those two players were in their respective years take the title.

It makes for a very interesting contest and one that will once again captivate the golfing public. 

















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