The oldest of golf’s major championships takes centre stage this week as The Open Championship descends on historic Muirfield. After a dramatic and punishing US Open, Muirfield will provide a stern but fair test for the worlds best golfers with a firm and fiery course guaranteed, even if the forecast is correct and the wind doesn’t get up, don’t expect scoring records to be broken this week. This will be the sixteenth Open Championship to be held at Muirfield and the quality of the test provided is illustrated by the past champions at Muirfield, greats such as Nicklaus, Watson, Player, Trevino, Hagen, Vardon and Faldo have all tasted success at Muirfield. In fact, the only past champion at Muirfield to fail to lift more than one major was Alf Perry who only played in The Open Championship and had World War Two interrupt his career when he was potentially starting to reach his peak ages.
Ernie Els enters the week as defending champion in two respects; he is the current Open Champion after winning a dramatic Open Championship in 2012 and he is also the most recent Open Champion at Muirfield. Last year’s Open Championship will be remembered as much for Adam Scott’s collapse over the final four holes as it will for Ernie’s victory. In truth, Scott struggled to build any momentum throughout his final round which started with a bogey and looked nervy throughout so his finish, though dramatic, was not as big a shock as it seemed at the time. What shouldn’t be forgotten is the quality of Ernie Els’s play over the four days as he provided a master class in how to build a winning score over the four rounds by patience, consistency and the ability to bounce back from problems. Ironically they would be many parallels to this in Adam Scott’s Masters victory in April.
After 12 months of British sporting success and in particular Justin Rose’s US Open victory last month, hopes for further British success at Muirfield will be high. I rate the chances of one British contender very highly in Graeme McDowell and will cover his prospects in more detail during my ten to follow segment, however should hopes be high for Britain’s other challengers. Rory McIlroy is capable of winning on any course and at any time but given his current form and lack of any real form on fast and fiery courses, it is hard to be confident that he can find success this week. Lee Westwood & Luke Donald both look longer shots than their odds would suggest, neither have played with any consistency this year, Ian Poulter is fighter and will battle away but his season has failed to catch light. Justin Rose will not be resting on his laurels after winning his first major at Merion and has a good chance on paper as his game will be suited to Muirfield. However, very few players have won back to back majors in their career particularly at two of golf’s great courses so he does face a tough challenge in that respect this week.
Here are my ten players I believe are worth following this week, either in terms of a strong contended performance or a surprise re-emergence.
Tiger Woods – I firmly believe two things when it comes to assessing Tiger’s chances, he is a dangerous player to dismiss on marginal factors and he is always a massive contender when it comes to The Open. It is fascinating how the opinion on Tiger’s chances seems to switch as quickly as the weather. Prior to the US Open he could do no wrong yet now there are question marks over whether he is capable of winning a major again. There are two main arguments being used against a Tiger win this week. One is the elbow injury which I will concede is a worry but he has looked strong in his practice rounds so I think that is all you can ask for. The other ‘negative’ is his Muirfield experience in 2002, for me too much is made of his 81 which came in terrible weather conditions. Clearly it was poor round and it was not all due to the weather conditions but his other three rounds that were 70, 68, 65 so clearly he can play the course. I feel he is the one to beat this week
Phil Mickelson – Clearly Mickelson has made an ideal preparation for this week by claiming his first victory on European soil at Castle Stuart. The confidence and excitement of how he was playing going into The Open was clear during his post tournament interview. Muirfield will provide a sterner test over fours day then Castle Stuart but a win on a links course is always a good preparation of The Open. He will be seeking to become the first Scottish Open winner to go on and win The Open the following week and also bounce back from his US Open heartbreak at Merion. I do feel the way he played last week and the patience showed at Merion allied with the firm and fast conditions give Mickelson his best chance of winning the claret jug
Graeme McDowell – I was very impressed by the way McDowell bounced back from a succession of missed cuts to win the Open De France. In truth he actually wasn’t at his best but found a way to pick up his third win of 2013, it confirmed his well being going into this week. Despite winning three times, McDowell will be disappointed with his performances at Augusta and Merion, missing the cut in both. His Merion failure was the biggest surprise as he looked ideally suited to the test provided there but it was not to be. I was surprised when looking at McDowell prior to last year’s Open that he didn’t have a top ten to his name at the event, his tie for fifth at Lytham put that right. That was part of a superb year of play in majors for McDowell, finishing inside the top fifteen in all four. He will be hoping that he can regain that sort of touch in majors this week.
Jason Day – If you looked at Day’s major record in isolation you could be forgiven for thinking he would have tucked away at least three or four non-major wins. However he has just one main tour victory to his name and that came back in 2010 but that shouldn’t be seen as an indication that he is not a winner. It is his record in the majors that reinforces the belief that he has a huge future in the game, in just eleven starts in majors he has five top-ten finishes to his name, three of these were second place finishes and one was a third place finish. His performances in 2013 have been remarkable in their consistency, no missed cuts in fourteen starts, half of those converted to top twenty five finishes and five of those into top ten finishes. Of those entering the event in search of their first major championship, Jason Day looks the best equipped to pick it up.
Dustin Johnson – It would make no sense for me not to mention Dustin given that I have spent the past few years talking him up as the next big star in golf. It is a slight worry that I am starting to run out of things to say about DJ, perhaps I am guilty of going to river too often with him but I do like his chances this week. He is at his best generally when he plays after a break; he won in his first start of the year, came second in Houston after a three week break and tied thirteenth at Augusta after a two week break. He comes to Muirfield after a three break and arrived in Scotland to take in a practice round on Sunday with Tiger Woods where practiced without a driver. He has shown his liking for links golf and a firm and fast course sets up ideally for DJ. If he can limit the mistakes in his rounds he has every chance.
Sergio Garcia – It has been a year to forgot for Garcia thanks to his lapses of judgement when pushing his poor relationship with Tiger Woods firmly into the public eye and the subsequent comments. It is a shame because he has had a good season which is just lacking a win, he has finished tied eighth at Augusta and Sawgrass, tied seventh at Munich and Copperhead, tied third at Doral and tied second in Qatar. He hasn’t missed a cut this year despite being firmly under the microscope at Wentworth and Merion in the fall out of his ill advised comments about Tiger. As a former Amateur Champion at Muirfield and with seven top ten finishes or better in The Open, this could represent Garcia’s most realistic chance at winning a major.
Angel Cabrera – The popular and languid Argentine Cabrera has a proven major championship pedigree with two of them to his name and eight additional top ten finishes to his name. While most of those eight have come at Augusta, his two Open Championship top ten’s came in 1999 and 2006 in firm and fiery conditions, this bodes well for this week. After a disappointing 2012, Angel has preformed with credit this season. Aside from his playoff defeat at Augusta, he has four top twenty five’s including two eye catching recent performances; shooting 63 in the final round at TPC River Highlands and a tied thirteenth finish at a fast and fiery Congressional. He looks an interesting contender this week.
Martin Kaymer – There are many, myself included, who scratch their heads in bewilderment when considering the fortunes of Martin Kaymer. He looked to have the golfing world at his feet when clinching the USPGA in 2010, especially after he followed it with back to back European Tour wins and victory at Sheshan in late 2011. However, 2012 was something of a lost year for Kaymer until his Ryder Cup winning putt heroics, no victories and only five top ten finishes. In truth 2013 has not been a great success for Kaymer, but there have been signs of a return of late, top five finishes either side of the US Open and tied thirteenth in Open de France when hampered by a five over par round on Friday. He still remains a huge talent and likely multiple major winner in my eyes and I wouldn’t rule out a charge this week.
Stewart Cink – I will conclude my ten with two past champions who I think could surprise the odds this week and be firmly in contention come Sunday. My tracking of Cink for this week goes as far back as March when he finished tied sixth in Houston. He has done nothing since to dissuade me from feeling he has a good chance this week, he added an impressive fifth place finish at Congressional in his final start before this week. He also finished inside the top twenty five at Augusta and as well as his victory at Turnberry in 2009, he also finished sixth in 2007 at Carnoustie. He has looked all season like he is on the brink of a big performance and it could be folly to ignore him this week.
Justin Leonard – Much like with Cink, I have had an eye on Leonard since March when he finished tied in fourth at Copperhead. In contrast to Cink, his form has not really kicked as he has not recorded another top ten finish since Copperhead, playing steady but unremarkable golf. That said I do like his chances of posting a top ten or better finish this week in a tournament that gave him his moment in the sun in 1997. Since that victory he put together a handful of good performances in The Open, notably his play off loss in 1999 at Carnoustie and also a tied eighth finish at Turnberry in 2009. He also finished tied fourteenth at Muirfield in 2002 and while his recent form is not the best, I am happy to take a chance on him this week.
- Tiger to play with G-Mac, Oosthuizen in Open (m.golf.com)
- The Open Championship Predictions 2013: Breaking Down the Favourites (bleacherreport.com)
- Woods looking for 1 key shot to turn his fortunes (kansascity.com)
- The Open 2013: Tiger Woods says more majors will come his way despite five-year drought (metro.co.uk)
- The Open: Tiger Woods silent on Muirfield policy (scotsman.com)
- Can Tiger Win The Open Championship? (rellimsportingview.com)