The Open: Experience and hunger the key to Birkdale glory

Defending champion: Henrik Stenson claimed the Claret Jug at Troon last year
Defending champion: Henrik Stenson claimed the Claret Jug at Troon last year
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There’s two things to take into account when trying to come up with a basic profile for a potential winner in this week’s 146th Open Championship at Birkdale.

On the one hand, recent history in golf’s oldest major points to that person being an experienced campaigner as just two of the last ten winners have been under 30.

But, on the other hand, the last seven majors have all produced first-time champions and tying the two together certainly narrows down candidates.

Sergio Garcia would have been top of that list if the Spaniard hadn’t broken his duck in these big events at the 74th attempt when becoming Masters champion in April.

But, with an impressive ten top-tens, including two second places, he’s certainly someone who could make experience count again in the Claret Jug event.

As could Justin Rose, who, of course, will forever be linked with this particular Open venue after finishing fourth as an amateur in 1998.

Surprisingly, that remains his best performance in the event but, at 36, he feels ready to try and emulate the likes of Ernie Ele, Darren Clarke, Zach Johnson and Henrik Stenson by making knowledge and understanding count.

“There’s a lot of experience required to play links golf,” said the Englishman. “If it’s not something that doesn’t feel immediately natural. I think that you can learn to love it.

“And length of the golf course isn’t really a big deal. I think the ball runs a long way, so 
the course can play relatively short.

“Creativity around the greens also comes into it, strategy as well, avoiding bunkers. Great course management is incredibly important in an Open Championship and maybe older players have learned that skill and have a bit more patience, possibly.”

Having won the 2013 US Open, Rose doesn’t fit that two-part profile, but Lee Westwood certainly does and wouldn’t it be ironic if this proved to be his week finally at the age of 44?

The Edinburgh-based player, after all, has been guided by Chubby Chandler as his manager throughout his career but now that partnership has come to an end.

Westwood insists he has not been “unsettled” by that shock development and is certainly encouraged by fellow fortysomethings Els, Clarke, Mickelson and Stenson all getting their hands on the Claret Jug in the past six years.

“I’m still hitting ball as well as I ever did,” he said. “I’m pleased with how my swing is. I’m pleased with how I’m putting is good. My short game is good and I’ve played well along this coast before.

“I think a bit differently now, showing more cunning and guile on the course. And, whereas the US Open course (Erin Hills) last month was kind of a bomber’s style, you’ve got to think your way around this one.”

Rory McIlroy has had lots to think about recently due to his poor form, having missed the cut in three of his last four events, including the Irish Open and Scottish Open.

It’s going to take quite a turnaround, therefore, for him to even have a chance of winning this title for a second time in four years, but that possibility certainly shouldn’t be ruled out.

Neither should world No.1 Dustin Johnson getting back to firing on all cylinders again, as was the case heading into The Masters before slipping on a wooden floor on the eve of the event and having to withdraw.

Or the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler or US Open champion Brooks Koepka following in the footsteps of Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976) and Mark O’Meara (1998) by landing an American victory on Southport soil.

Fowler, of course, would extend that run of first-time major winners if he prevailed and so, too, would Jon Rahm, who comes into this event riding on the crest of a wave. His performance at Portstewart in romping to a six-shot success in the Irish Open was simply brilliant and, even at just 22, he, rather than Garcia, could just easily become Spain’s first Claret Jug winner since Seve Ballesteros in 1988.

It’s been more recent than that, of course, since a Scot triumphed in the season’s third major thanks to Paul Lawrie winning at Carnoustie in 1999.

But, with Lawrie, Russell Knox and Martin Laird having all suffered early Scottish Open exits last week, it will require a big turnaround in form for them to get in the mix on Sunday.

Capital-based Richie Ramsay, on the other hand, will be aiming to reproduce the form that earned him a share of second spot behind Rahm at Portstewart as he bids to improve on a best finish of joint-58th in 2013.


Rickie Fowler

The American has recorded two top-five finishes in seven Open appearances and comes into the third major of the season in buoyant mood after being in contention in the final rounds of both The Masters and US Open.

Tommy Fleetwood

The local hero leads the Race to Dubai after wins in both the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and French Open. He’s missed the cut in three Open appearances so far but is in the form of his life.

Sergio Garcia

Having finally landed a major at the 74th attempt when winning The Masters in April, the Spaniard will be feeling quietly confident that he can also get his hands on the Claret Jug after ten top-ten finishes in the event.

Marc Leishman

The Australian lost out to Zach Johnson in a play-off at St Andrews two years ago, having also finished fifth 12 months earlier at Royal Liverpool, and has the game to be in the mix again on his seventh Open appearance.

Justin Rose

It was here, of course, that the Englishman made his name when tying for fourth as an amateur in 1998. That’s still his best finish in the event, but this could be his biggest chance to add to a 2013 US Open triumph.