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The Open Championship
In the game of golf it doesn't get any bigger than The Open Championship at St. Andrews. Jones, Snead, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo, Woods. Those all-time greats are just a few of those who can say they won the Claret Jug at the home of golf. There is certainly an argument to be made that this is the biggest championship in the history of the game. Amid all the chatter and drama generated by LIV Golf, the 150th edition of The Open Championship should provide a reprieve.
Tiger Woods will return to competition looking for his third win at St. Andrews. Given his injury history and uncertainty about when the next Open will be held at St. Andrews, will this be the final time we see arguably the greatest player ever cross the Swilcan Bridge as a player? Can either Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth pick up his first major championship in a long while? Can runaway world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler make it a historic season by winning at both Augusta National and St. Andrews? Can Xander Schauffele extend his hot streak and finally break through for his first major championship victory?
As you can see, there will be no shortage of storylines at St. Andrews, and plenty more figure to follow.
Profiling the Winner
No tournament is as dependent on the weather as The Open Championship. The playing conditions are the primary defense for all the courses in the Open rota. If the wind blows hard, you're in for the biggest test of your life. If the wind is calm and there is some moisture, these players can go on an absolute birdie barrage. The big talk from those on-site is how firm St. Andrews is playing, so get ready to see drives chase out 70 yards or more down the fairways. That will also make it much harder to control distances coming into the greens. Players who teed it up in the Scottish Open will have a major advantage of playing competitive rounds in very similar conditions to those expected at St. Andrews.
With all players going off the first hole in every round, the key will be getting off to a great start. The first seven holes all play downwind, and you will see plenty of players get through that stretch in 4- or 5-under-par. Players will also be able to take advantage of short par-4s on Nos. 9, 10 and 12. Holes 13-to-17 will all play straight back into the wind, and the key there will be holding onto the score you made on the first 12 holes.
St. Andrews is not the demanding driving course many other Open venues are. Zach Johnson in 2015 is an exception, but for the most part the champions at St. Andrews have been long hitters. The modern game has become all about distance, and I think we could see some eye-popping results this week off the tee. With all those long drives, wedge play could prove to be the ultimate separator. Given the firmness and all the different slopes on and around the greens, the elite wedge players should be licking their chops.
Last but not least, the greens at St. Andrews are obviously massive. Three-putts will be plentiful, and thus, the player who best controls his speed from long range may very well be hoisting the Claret Jug on Sunday. Due to the nuances of these extremely old greens and wind gusts, holing putts from 4-to-8 feet will be no easy task.
Guru Verdict: He might have missed the cut at The Renaissance Club, but Thomas still has a great chance to pick up his third major championship. I mentioned that players will have a ton of wedge chances, and Thomas ranks first on Tour in approaches from 50-to-125 yards. Thomas has distance off the tee and the touch around the greens, and he also ranks fifth in putts per round.
Guru Verdict: Since 2015, nobody has been better on links courses than Spieth. His 2.54 strokes gained per round is well clear of anyone else in that span. Spieth's imagination and wedge play have been a big reason for that success. The 2017 Champion Golfer of the Year is coming off a quality showing at the Scottish Open that could have resulted in a victory had his final back nine gone differently. He nearly had a chance to secure the Career Grand Slam on this course in 2015, but he missed out on a playoff by one shot.
Guru Verdict: There are some heavy hitters in this category for sure. I'm expecting most people to land on Schauffele given his recent hot streak, or Zalatoris given his incredible record in majors, but I'm going to go with Smith. His T10 at the Scottish Open was actually his first top-10 since he won THE PLAYERS and finished T3 at The Masters when he was recognized as the second best player in the world behind Scheffler. The Aussie did tally three top-15s over his last five starts and ranks second in the critical proximity range of 50-to-125 yards. Smith is perhaps the best putter in the world, and his inaccuracy off the tee won't be punished as much here as it would be at other Open venues.
Guru Verdict: Finau probably isn't the first guy you would think of when talking about links experts, but his track record is hard to overlook. In five career Open Championship starts, Finau has gone T18-T27-T9-3-T15. His distance is something he will certainly be able to take advantage of at St. Andrews. The Utah native is fresh, having not teed it up since posting a T13 at the Travelers Championship. Niemann is another player to keep an eye on in this category given his low ball flight and good touch with a wedge in his hands.
Great Britain & Ireland
Guru Verdict: Fleetwood started his Open Championship career missing his first three cuts, but since then he has gone T27-T12-2-T33. The 31-year-old is in great form, coming off a 67-67 weekend at the Scottish Open to finish in a share of fourth. Fleetwood's ball striking was a lot better the last couple months after a very poor start to the year in that department. Plus, his short game and putting are about as good as they have been at any point in his career. Do yourself a favor and eliminate Casey, Willett and Westwood from consideration in this category.
Guru Verdict: This is a category where one of these guys is not like the others, and no, I'm not talking about Tiger. This season, Burns has been head and shoulders above every other player listed here, notching three wins and five other top-10s. Burns has everything working for him at a course like St. Andrews. He can hit a mile, is 13th in the 50-to-125 yard category and is also 13th in SG: Putting. Homa would be my second choice in this group due to his consistency. He's gaining strokes in every category and has made the cut in 17 of 19 attempts this season while notching 12 top-25s.
Guru Verdict: Without question this is the most challenging category to sort through. If you're looking for recent Open Championship record, Leishman and Molinari are your guys. If you're looking for the best recent form, Fox and Meronk are hard look past. But for my money the best fit for St. Andrews in the expected conditions is Pieters. The Belgian is a bomber who ranks fifth in SG: Off-the-Tee, 13th in SG: Approach and second in SG: Tee-to-Green on the DP World Tour. On top of that, Pieters is also 16th in SG: Around-the-Green, sixth in scrambling and sixth in three-putt avoidance.
Guru Verdict: I don't really have high expectations for any of the LIV golfers this week, but I don't think you can ignore Oosthuizen's record at St. Andrews. He won the 2010 edition by seven strokes and followed that up with a playoff loss at the same course in 2015. The 39-year-old doesn't get it out there quite as far as he used to, but his wedge game, scrambling and putting have been strong the past couple years.
📺 Editor's Note: More predictions for The Open Championship by Matt Hardy and Len Hochberg
World Elite: Justin Thomas
Open Champions: Jordan Spieth
Major Contenders: Cameron Smith
World Stars: Tony Finau
Great Britain & Ireland: Tommy Fleetwood
US Challengers: Sam Burns
Lively Outsiders: Thomas Pieters
LIV Forever: Louis Oosthuizen