Let The Open fun begin at Royal Birkdale
The history of The Open at Royal Birkdale is a storied one.
It was upon these Southport links that Peter Thomson first forged his path in major history; it was here that Arnold Palmer helped to re-invigorate the championship for an American audience.
Lee Trevino won here, as did Tom Watson. And Padraig Harrington retained the Claret Jug at Birkdale nine years ago, the last Champion Golfer of the Year to do so.
Now the stage is set for another player to join their illustrious company.
Practice and preparation for The 146th Open are in the rear-view mirror, and a challenging test of links golf now awaits. The weather, which has been downright idyllic through the first half of the week, is expected to turn beginning Thursday and will inevitably play a role in the proceedings, as it so often does in this event.
But the focus remains on the wide-open field, with seemingly two dozen names in the mix for inclusion among the pre-tournament favorites. Seven straight majors have been won by first-time major champions, lending credence to the notion that Rickie Fowler or Hideki Matsuyama might be able to break through.
But perhaps the player with the most momentum who fits that bill is rising star Jon Rahm, fresh off his six-shot romp at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Rahm said. “I haven’t hit the ball that good in a long time. And on top of that, I was able to roll the ball on a good line and read the breaks properly, so that obviously gives me a lot of confidence going into a week like this.”
His countryman Sergio Garcia sees a path to the Claret Jug that he hopes to emulate. It was nineteen years ago that Mark O’Meara earned his major breakthrough at Augusta National after years of near-misses. Then came to Royal Birkdale three months later where he added a second title in short order.
“I think they’re both amazing. At the moment the green jacket means more, because I have it, but everybody knows how much I love The Open Championship,” Garcia said. “I would love to have at least one of them before I kind of hang up the boots. So it’s definitely something I would like to achieve, and we’re going to give it a shot this week.”
Seven of the eight men who have won The Open at Royal Birkdale have won multiple majors, and six of them had already won a major prior to earning the title of Champion Golfer of the Year. It’s a trend that gives credence to Garcia’s status as a frontrunner after three straight top-10 finishes in The Open, but it also points to players like world No. 1 Dustin Johnson or Jordan Spieth, fresh off a victory at the Travelers Championship.
“I’m very excited for another major, coming off a win and a few week break,” Spieth said. “Just trying to keep my ball-striking where it’s been at, and then fine tune the short game, and play the different shots and adjust to the speed of the greens over here.”
Links golf often requires players to make some adjustments, and this week’s test is no exception. Birkdale places a priority on finding the fairway and keeping the ball in play, leading several big names to revise their strategy off the tee.
Rory McIlroy will look to rebound from consecutive missed cuts by relying on a new 1-iron in his bag, while Phil Mickelson hopes to turn the clock back to 2013 when the southpaw lifted the Claret Jug.
Mickelson had a “hot” 3-wood and a 64-degree lob wedge in his bag that week at Muirfield, and they’ll again make an appearance this time around. Ever the tinkerer, Mickelson will also carry a second 3-iron that he hopes will come in handy when the weather conditions eventually worsen.
“I’ve really been working on hitting that 3-iron head high, and getting it down quick,” Mickelson said. “That shot’s not going to be affected by weather.”
But plans and strategy can only get you so far once the ball goes in the air and the score begins to count. Birkdale has proved to be a worthy test for The Open on nine prior occasions, and stint No. 10 in the spotlight is sure to be no different.
“This golf course dictates to you how to play it,” McIlroy said. “It’s so well-bunkered, it’s so well-designed. It's one of those courses that you know you go out here this week and shoot four 68s or 69, you’re going to have a really good chance to win.”
The wait is nearly over, and the anticipation is approaching an end. When the sun rises Thursday on the Lancashire coast in Northwest England, the fun will finally begin.