It’s becoming a cliché, but what’s wrong with that? This 146th edition of the Open championship is as open as any of its predecessors.
And, as dark grey clouds charged with electricity cloaked the old links to prematurely end players’ preparations, it was almost as if Mother Nature had decided enough was enough and that their next shots would be ones that counted.
Of the four Irish players in the field, three have tasted glory in this oldest of championships. The odd man out is Shane Lowry.
But the sequence of first-time Major winners which started with Jason Day at the 2015 US PGA has stretched to seven with Brooks Koepka’s win in last month’s US Open, so, perhaps, the Offalyman is best placed of the quartet to lift the Claret Jug come Sunday evening. We’ll see.
“Going by practice I’m playing lovely. I need to stay out of my way, get out there and get after it,” claimed Lowry, who finalised preparations by teaming-up with Pádraig Harrington to take a few greenbacks from Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland.
That ongoing list of breakthrough Major champions indicates the depth of fields these days.
As world number one Dustin Johnson put it: “Right now in this day and age, the talent is so good, from one to 50, that it’s hard to be dominant. If you look at tennis, the top-50th guy in the world is probably not going to win a major championship whereas a guy here in the top-50 has a really good shot. It’s a different sport, different levels of talent from one to 50.”
Or, as Rory McIlroy described it, “Golf is in a place right now where you have so many players playing really well. And a lot of the guys that are playing well haven’t won a Major, the likes of Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas or whoever it may be.”
The failure of any one player to currently dominate the sport a la Tiger Woods or, before him, Jack Nicklaus, is – for sure – due to a new strength in depth. However, the two men most likely to have assumed such roles, McIlroy and Johnson, have had injury-plagued seasons. And questions still hang over their form and health coming in here.
McIlroy, for his part, but not the only one, would like to buck the trend of first-time winners.
“I hope it’s me at the end of the week that’s standing on the 18th green and getting the Claret Jug. But where golf is at the moment, no-one is really standing out and taking it by the scruff of the neck. It’s so hard these days to separate yourself, because of the technology in the golf clubs and the golf equipment. But also the technology with coaching, with TrackMan, with the knowledge out there, the coaches, the stats guys. Now you know more about your game than you did 20 or 30 years ago and everyone has access to that now.”
Yet, it is playing on links terrain like Royal Birkdale that brings different elements into the equation. Creativity is a factor. Mental fortitude too. Club selection, and whether you have the knowhow to punch shots into the wind, to play bump and runs or whatever shot is required.
The course layout is unusual in that players don’t come to a Par 5 until the 15th hole. There are no obvious birdie holes and it is about plotting a way around rather being aggressive or impulsively reaching for the driver off the tee. Indeed, a number of players might be inclined to keep the driver in their bag for the most part.
And that is why this British Open isn’t just about young guns, it is why players like Pádraig Harrington enter the arena like old warriors who have a trick or two up their sleeve.
In Harrington’s case, there is the fact he won on this very turf before. That win in 2008 – in tough conditions, and on the wrong side of the draw – allowed him to successfully defend the title. But he is a much different player this time.
“I have a lot more experience and may be not as cynical as I was back then,” he said.
Harrington has sought to peak for this week, coming back from neck surgery and then that freakish injury to his elbow when an amateur accidentally hit him on his backswing. A fourth-place finish in the Scottish Open bodes well.
“I am well down the world rankings but my own ego has me a lot higher up in my head. I am not trying to prove anything. I am not desperate. It is not like I haven’t won a Major, or it is my last chance. I am very comfortable about my status and where I sit in the game.
“I am looking at a week like this, it is a numbers game. If I can play as many Major tournaments as I can, as many links tournaments as I can, that over the course of time my numbers will come up and I will be a winner,” he said, adding:
“It still is a long shot for me to go out and win but it is certainly a possibility.”
A young buck, or an old hand? A first-timer, or a multiple champion?
Birkdale – and the weather – will find the answer.