How much does Tiger Woods have left in the tank?
Since shocking the golf world with his 15th major victory, Tiger Woods has played just three times in the last three months, at the PGA Championship, the Memorial, and the U.S. Open.
The three-time Champion Golfer of the Year arrived at Royal Portrush early Sunday morning for a practice round with Patrick Reed. He went back out for 18 more with Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler on Monday, before adding seven more prior to a news conference Tuesday.
While meeting with the media, Woods conceded his game is "not quite as sharp as [he'd] like to have it right now." Woods, who was always intending to play this year, has oft-repeated that his Masters victory took a lot out of him.
Will Woods be competitively sharp enough to mount a real charge for his fourth Claret Jug and first since 2006? Or will he struggle through the week at Royal Portrush, trying to find his game in potentially trying conditions?
Will the pressure prove too much for Rory McIlroy?
Save for Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy has more experience on the Dunluce Links at Royal Portrush than anyone else in the field. Add to the equation that his friend and caddie, Harry Diamond, has even more experience (including competitive rounds) than McIlroy, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a duo more prepared to tackle the golf course foreign to most everyone else in the field.
McIlroy hasn’t hoisted major hardware since 2014, but he’s coming into this week in top form. He’s the only man with multiple wins on the PGA Tour in 2019 (The Players and RBC Canadian Open), and he leads the way in strokes gained: total.
During his Wednesday news conference, he proclaimed he wasn’t the center of attention this week, that this event is about so much more than just him. If he can play freely and without the weight or responsibility of representing something larger than numbers on a scorecard, McIlroy could earn major No. 5 in front of a home crowd.
Just how much will wind and rain impact play?
It's the question that always dominates The Open and often determines who stands tall Sunday night.
After three perfect practice days at Royal Portrush, wind, rain and cold arrived Wednesday morning, giving players their first taste of a less-than-idyllic Dunluce Links.
Wind and rain are once again expected for Thursday's opening round, with gusts nearing 30mph.
Past that, each of the next three days are "changeable," something of a standard forecast at The Open.
As much as this championship is a test of golf, it's also about surviving the elements and how much luck — good or bad — is on a player's side.
Is this a wide-open Open?
According to major slayer Brooks Koepka, the relatively small number of other contenders he needs to worry about won't change this week despite the new venue. But is that truly the case?
We certainly can expect Royal Portrush to play quite differently than other Open hosts. One player after the next has noted its defining characteristics: large mounding, undulating greens and harrowing rough. The typical avenues of escape onto the green from precarious spots won't be available on every hole this time around.
"You've really got to ball-strike it," said U.S. Open champ Gary Woodland. "A big emphasis on controlling the golf ball into the greens. Not a lot of run-ups, you're going to have to fly it on the greens, which I think sets up pretty good for me."
It could also favor some other high-ball hitters who sometimes struggle on traditional links, namely native son Rory McIlroy. But the undulating areas on and around the greens could become a great equalizer, opening up the chances for a large number of players to contend on a course few had a chance to study before this week.
"It can play so many different ways. Depends on the wind, what it does," said Tiger Woods. "The difference between this layout versus most of the Open rota layouts is that the ball seems to repel around the greens a lot."
With weather conditions expected to add another wrinkle to the equation, this certainly feels like an Open that is more, well, open than many of its more recent predecessors.
Beyond the favorites, who else might contend for the Claret Jug?
There hasn't been a major winner who came from outside the top 50 in the world since Keegan Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship, so that certainly feels like a safe cutoff for likely contenders. But even among that group there are names that might raise a few eyebrows should they ascend to the plateau of Champion Golfer of the Year.
Patrick Cantlay has all the tools to contend on a major stage, as demonstrated by his win last month at the Memorial. He tied for 12th last year in his Open debut and hasn't finished outside the top 25 since The Players in March.
But it's also wise not to overlook a pair of recent runner-ups: Matt Kuchar, who went down to the wire with Jordan Spieth two years ago at Royal Birkdale and who remains in the midst of the best season of his career, and Xander Schauffele. Schauffele tied for second at Carnoustie, has finished T-6 or better in four of his last six major starts and, like Kuchar, has won twice on the PGA Tour this season.
Then there's the men who know what it takes to lift the Claret Jug, like 2016 winner Henrik Stenson who enters on a run of three straight top-10 finishes and Louis Oosthuizen, a winner at St. Andrews in 2010, who tied for seventh at Pebble Beach. The stars are favored for reason, but there are still plenty of unknowns yet to play out on the eve of the year's final major.