Open by name, open by nature. A hotly contested battle for the Claret Jug is an annual guarantee but a combination of conditions and course changes are a recipe for a particularly intriguing contest this year.
Often, a look at the history books can provide a valuable guide but that may not be the case here. Royal Liverpool has hosted The Open twice since the turn of the century, with Tiger Woods’ victory in 2006 coming on baked fairways which rain has prevented this time around and Rory McIlroy’s 2014 triumph arriving before the much-discussed alterations to the back nine.
Those have made drama appear all but guaranteed on the final Sunday, with no lead safe if the wind picks up on the 17th tee.
An infinity green, surrounded by treacherous bunkers, will make ‘Little Eye’ a pivotal hole throughout the week while internal out of bounds down the right of the 18th fairway means the last has its fair share of bumps in the road to navigate too.
A cool head will be crucial but there are plenty of those present in a field packed with contenders, with countless realistic cases to be made.
McIlroy has dominated conversation in the build-up, a status he is used to. His victory in the Genesis Scottish Open provided perfect preparation and the venue at which the Northern Irishman lifted his only Claret Jug to date would be a fitting place to end a scarcely believable nine-year major drought.
The only player above McIlroy in the Official World Golf Rankings, Scottie Scheffler, has been a model of consistency in 2023.
Nineteen successive top-12 finishes make for a remarkable return but his blunt admission this week that “winning is a lot more fun than finishing third” suggested a major triumph is needed for him to feel truly satisfied with his season.
Scheffler heads a list of his countrymen who will feel confident of doing the opposite of The Beatles and becoming Americans who conquer Liverpool.
Brooks Koepka has finished inside The Open’s top 10 four times since 2015 and Jordan Spieth five, with the latter looking to add to his 2017 triumph at nearby Royal Birkdale, while both Koepka and Wyndham Clark arrive seeking their second majors of the year.
The remaining major winner in 2023, Masters champion Jon Rahm, can never be ruled out and has been inspired by Wimbledon winner Carlos Alcaraz as he bids to ensure two jewels in the British summer’s sporting crown return to Spain.
And then there is Cameron Smith, the defending Champion who so brilliantly claimed the Claret Jug a year ago. A warning to the field: he says he’s even better this year.
What of the home favourites? No Englishman since Tony Jacklin in 1969 has won The Open in England but Tommy Fleetwood, Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose and Tyrrell Hatton will each fancy their chances – and no-one in the field knows the course better than the man who will begin proceedings on Thursday morning, Matthew Jordan.
The Royal Liverpool member taking part in an Open on his home course is one of several stories which serve as a reminder of what makes golf’s oldest major so special.
Whether it’s two sets of brothers taking part – Alex Fitzpatrick having qualified to join Matt and Nicolai Hojgaard doing likewise to book his place alongside identical twin Rasmus – or a 19-year-old amateur called Tiger looking to emulate his illustrious namesake, headline writers will not be short of inspiration.
Phrases such as ‘dream come true’ are never too far away on Open week and Marco Penge has been among those to use a Practice Day for a pinch yourself moment, tuning up alongside Rahm and Phil Mickelson, while the tears of Irish amateur Alex Maguire’s father Sean on the practice range were illustrative of just how much simply being here means to so many.
That theme is not limited to players and their families. Accents from either side of the Atlantic were plentiful amid the incredible army of spectators in attendance who descended on Royal Liverpool for Wednesday’s action, with anticipation at fever pitch ahead of four days to savour.
The elements will only serve to heighten the unpredictability, with rain, wind and sunshine all expected to add to the truest of tests which only links golf can provide. It’s time to strap in for the ride.