Open preview: Confident Dustin Johnson ready for Troon test
Despite presence of the ‘Big Four’, many in quality field capable of British Open glory
USA’s Dustin Johnson plays a shot towards the clubhouse on the 18th during the practice day at Royal Troon Golf Club, South Ayrshire. Photograph: David Davies/PA
A stiff wind whipped in off the sea yesterday to act like a breath of fresh air to those players finalising their preparations on the old links, serving to dissipate – for a time – the dark clouds which all the preamble talk of Olympics dropouts and rules infringements had allowed gather in advance of this 145th Open Championship here at Royal Troon Golf Club on the Ayrshire coast.
In the majestic building overlooking the 18th green, where the champion will be presented with the Claret Jug come Sunday night, there’s a reminder of the club’s motto, Tam arte quam marte – meaning, “As much by skill as by strength”.
Truer words were never etched onto a plaque, for whoever succeeds in lifting the prized trophy will surely have to do it the hard way.
Jason Day may be the official world number one, but Dustin Johnson – who fine-tuned for this latest Major examination by staying in Dublin and playing Portmarnock, a favoured old haunt, and The Island, before travelling across the Irish Sea – is the man in form.
With back-to-back wins in the US Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the stress-free American has let his clubs do the talking in recent weeks.
Johnson, who somehow manages to keep his emotions to himself, good or bad, nevertheless gave us an insight into his thinking. “I like my chances, but I go into every tournament liking my chances . . . I always feel like I’m the best player in the world, but that’s just me. I’ve got a lot of confidence in my game. Obviously, I’m playing very well right now.”
For sure, Johnson has been quite the sight in practice these past few days, driving up to the green on the first (367 yards), third (377 yards) and reducing the par five fourth (555 yards) to a drive and short iron. It’s such prodigious length off the tee that gives Johnson an advantage, if he can navigate the bunkers positioned to offer some protection to the links.
And, yet, history has taught us that this links asks different questions and that there are many ways to answer. The most recent past winners – Justin Leonard in 1997 and Todd Hamilton in 2004 – of the Open on this terrain relied more on an intelligent game plan, plotting their way around, and on their putting to lift the silverware. As such, it is not simply about overpowering the course.
As Graeme McDowell put it: “You have to position the ball well and you will have to control your flight very well, because there’s a lot of cross-winds, a lot of holding it against the right-to-lefts and a lot of drawing the ball against the left-to-rights [winds]. They’re small targets. It’s not like St Andrews where you’re doing a lot of pace putting from distance. These greens are small, so there’s a lot more chipping and bit more bunker play than there normally is on a links.”
McDowell is one of six Irishmen in the field – along with Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Paul Dunne – and, as ever in these golden times for Irish golf, any one of them could potentially win.
Since Harrington’s breakthrough Major win at Carnoustie in 2007, Irish golfers have lifted nine Major titles between them. Why not again?
“We’ve got a strong challenge here this week. We’re obviously used to the conditions that this course is going to throw. Yeah, there’s no reason why not. I just hope it’s me,” said Lowry, one of two in the sextet yet to claim a Major.
For McIlroy, though, it is a case of finding his touch on the greens and, perhaps more importantly, avoiding the bogeys and even double-bogeys which have crept into his game this season and derailed him on occasions. His only win so far this season came in the DDF Irish Open, where he showed the stomach for battle and produced stunning approach shots to close the deal coming down the stretch. So, we know, and he knows, the game is there. He just has to find it.
“Hopefully it is this week where I start to trust myself more with my swing, and I trust the shots that I’m trying to hit,” said McIlroy.
And for all the talk and muscle-flexing from the so-called “Big Four” of Day, Johnson, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, the depth of quality in this field would indicate that this is – as ever – a wide open affair.
The truth is that this championship will be decided by what defines links golf. A lucky bounce away from a bunker, perhaps?
Or, as the club motto suggests, skill and strength. And, perhaps, patience too! Mental fortitude could prove to be as important as any club.