Open Championship Preview

The 143rd Open Championship
17-20 July 2014
Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake, Wirral, England

Introduction
The third of this year's Majors will be played for the famous Claret Jug this week on a traditional seaside links; Royal Liverpool on Merseyside in England's northwest. 2014's Major winners thus far, Bubba Watson & Martin Kaymer, will be on hand as will the 2006 winner at Royal Liverpool: Tiger Woods.

This year's Championship is an enticing prospect with a number of sub-plots - not the least of which is Tiger himself! That same Tiger who famously won here in 2006 while leaving his driver in the bag; who hasn't won a Major since 2008, is recently recovered from back surgery and who owns a best finish in 2014 of 25th!

Rory McIlroy is almost as interesting a study. Tiger's seeming heir apparent, after stunning Major wins in 2011 & 2012, Rory immediately faltered amid changes to: clubs, balls and management as well as the recent ditching of his fianceé. The outcome of all this disruption has no doubt been a massive increase in bank balance but he has managed only two wins, one of those a weak Australian Open, during the past 18 months.

Despite the strong cases that can be argued for all the above-named players: Rory (talent), Tiger (resumé), Bubba (shot-shaping) and Kaymer (grittiness), I really don't expect them to be in the mix come Sunday afternoon unless we get a wind-free event - which would assist Rory.

The Course
Royal Liverpool, mostly referred to as Hoylake, is very much a traditional, flat, featureless, seaside links that will play to 7,300yd (6,700m) Par 72, pretty much the same length and layout as in 2006.

Hoylake's long been one of the courses in The Open Championship rotation and has hosted 11 Opens, but this will be just its second Open since Roberto de Vicenzo won in 1967.

The course's primary defence is the wind which traditionally blows but which was almost completely absent when Tiger posted an 18-under 67:65:71:67 to win in 2006. The speed of the greens and high-bounce fairways (if dry), the sometimes penal rough, the swales & small but deep bunkers flesh out a traditional array of links defences.

In terms of relevant course playing history, the 2006 Open aside, there isn't much. Hoylake hosted the 2010 Brabazon Trophy, The Amateur Championships in 1995 & 2000 (won by Mikko Ilonen, incidentally) and The Boys Championship in 2003.

More significantly to me, Hoylake hosted the 2012 Womens British Open where the three top placegetters were: Jiyai Shin, InBee Park & Paula Creamer. It's highly relevant that all three are terrific putters and that none could remotely be regarded as a long driver and, when added to Tiger's deployment of long irons in preference to driver when winning here in 2006, give two important pointers to the required skill-set of our winner this year.

The course is an all-round test of golf. Despite its shortness it doesn't favour long drivers. Plotting one's way around, scrambling and long irons are all important and, as ever, good putting will carry anybody a long way!

The Betting Market
Rory McIlroy & Tiger Woods headed the markets, both at around 8/1 (9.00), for many months though both have drifted in recent times. Tiger, owing to injury and an inauspicious return to competition and Rory after a modest US Open 23rd followed by a missed cut in his 'home' Irish Open and a seeming inability to string four good rounds together.

The regular pre-Major suspects are all here and, as I type, the top of the market is as follows:

14/1 McIlroy & Rose
16/1 Scott, Stenson & Woods
18/1 Kaymer
25/1 Mickelson & Garcia
28/1 McDowell
30/1 Day, Spieth
33/1 Dustin Johnson & Westwood

Potting the Favourites
Rory McIlroy has been a frustrating, albeit exciting, talent over the past 18 months. He can tear almost any course to pieces, yet has struggled to do so for four consecutive rounds. As mentioned above, he has had just one quality win (2014 BMW PGA Championship) in that year and a half. He's been more consistent in 2014 than last year but his high ball flight, inconsistency and tepid performances when in contention lead me to reject him here on the basis of price - unless there is no wind and a softer than usual track.

I rate Tiger Woods an outrageous-seeming 30.00 so cannot recommend him at the prices on offer. As mentioned above, he's had an injury-interrupted year and was playing poorly before his back surgery, and since. Also, he can surely never again putt as well again as he did in 2013.

Tiger hasn't won a Major for a long time and that added pressure builds annually for the 38-y-o. He might get back to top form again but it's only realistic to expect that'd be later this year or in 2015.

Like McIlroy, Adam Scott has been a wimpish disappointment several times when in contention this year. As ever, he's exceptionally consistent but simply doesn't get it done as often as his talent suggests he should; I can't recommend him at 16/1.

Justin Rose has managed far less links wins in his career than his talent, skill-set and upbringing would suggest. And, in 12 Open Championship starts his best performance was a memorable 4th & Top Amateur as an 18-y-o in 1998. He's had no Top 10's in eleven Open starts since and, despite a wonderful performance in Scotland last week, looks too short here at 14/1.

Henrik Stenson finished 2013 with a bang, taking out the Fedex Cup & Race to Dubai - compliments of wins in the Deutsche Bank, PGA Tour Championship and European Tour Championship in Dubai. His recent Major history is as good as it gets without winning and includes three Top4's! However, despite being as consistent as Scott, he has seemed just one notch below his best and has not won in 18 starts since Dubai in November - so he also looks a bit short-priced at 16/1.

Phil Mickelson always merits a mention when discussing favourites, though he has been well below his best in 2014 so far and has no Top10's in 14 starts since Abu Dhabi in January. Add missed cuts at The Farmers, Honda, Masters & Players Championship for a 44-y-o with no wins since last year's Open and you have, in my opinion, a 30/1-33/1 shot who I can't justify backing at 25/1.

Is there a historical winner profile?
There is no consistent profile for recent Open Championship winners. Perusal of the past 20 Opens from 1994-2013 throws up three distinctly different groupings:

Top-Class players at the time: Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods (3), Ernie Els (2), Padraig Harrington (2), David Duval & Nick Price;
American surprises: John Daly, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, Mark O'Meara, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton & Stewart Cink and;
Non-American oncers: Darren Clarke, Paul Lawrie & Louis Oosthuizen.

More than half of these winners were probably available at triple-figure odds pre-tournament, so don't be deterred if your personal favourite is at longer odds. Mine are; they fit into the 'American surprises' category.

What's required to win in 2014?
Below are what I believe are the five keys to success at Hoylake, along with the five players who in my opinion most closely meet each criterion.

Maturity and course / wind management:
Martin Kaymer, Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood & Thomas Bjorn.

Scrambling:
Brendon Todd, Jamie Donaldson, Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth & Jason Day.

Long Iron / Approach from Distance Mastery:
Tiger Woods, Ben Curtis, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia & Louis Oosthuizen

Pure Putting Ability:
Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth, Charl Schwartzel, Brendon Todd & Luke Donald.

Tee Shot Placement:
Graeme McDowell, Francesco Molinari, Henrik Stenson, Gregory Bourdy & Zach Johnson.

Who Stands Out?
Brendon Todd gets two mentions above, so is immediately on my radar. He's been one of the best in the world in recent months and, though this will be his first Open Championship, there does exist an 'american first-time-winner' precedent in the form of Ben Curtis.

Sergio Garcia gets two mentions. Here is a guy who should rightly have won at least one Major by now. Can 2014 be his year after more than 60 unsuccessful Major attempts? A bit like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan, Luke Donald, etc (all quality players in their prime & without a Major win), I sadly suspect the answer to be no.

Jordan Spieth is simply a phenomenon! These days, nothing he achieves surprises me but surely even he can't win The Open Championship this year, at his age?

Tiger has two mentions but that's a fit and battle-hardened Tiger. He may be ready for this, but for the reasons mentioned above I can't recommend him.

The other multi-mention is Justin Rose. Here's a player with almost all the necessary tools but, as mentioned, he's played his past 11 Opens without distinction.

In scoping the remainder of the players above I concluded that this year is as likely as any to feature one of those 'American surprises'; this is a natural segue into my top selections:

My Selections
In the end, I could barely separate my top three. My eventual top two perfectly fit the 'american surprise' profile as: American, proven PGA Tour performers and with little or no experience of British links golf.

Each Way / Top5 Value:
Jimmy Walker @ 80/1 or 81.00 with the bookmakers, and longer on Betfair, is my top pick. Despite his lack of experience in UK conditions, he played so steadily in the Scottish Open and has to be taken seriously this week.

This 35-y-o late developer, after a long period (187 PGA Tour starts, in fact!) as a perennial non-winner and the target of many jibes, finally broke through in the Frys.com last October.
He then promptly won twice more on the PGA Tour in the Sony Open in Hawaii & then the AT&T at Pebble Beach (links). He's followed through, too, on his blazing start to the season with subsequent Top10's in the best company at: The Players, Colonial, The Masters & US Open.

Brendon Todd @ 100/1 with the bookmakers, and longer on Betfair, is my other top pick. This 28-y-o's top-drawer scrambling and putting will carry him a long way on unfamiliar turf. Along with Walker, Rose, Spieth & Stenson he's been one of the truly in-form players of 2014. In fact, his recent formline since his breakthrough win at the Byron Nelson in May is awesome: 5th - Colonial, 8th - Memorial, 17th - US Open, 5th - Quicken Loans National & 4th - Greenbrier.

His career has shown a nice progression too. Todd was a member of the 2005 National Championship winning University of Georgia team. Wow, does that school produce some golfers! Bubba, Kirk, English, Henley, Harman, Reed and more. And Todd!

After graduating from the Nationwide Tour in 2009 he struggled at the top level the first time around and went back to the 2nd tier tour in 2010. He won his 2nd title in 2013 and a PGA Tour card for 2013/14. He has since banked over $3million!

Top10:
Jamie Donaldson The steady, in-form, unfashionable Welshman has improved with age, like a good wine. Despite nearing 40 this will be just his 4th Open and he's improved every start. Really solid recent form, too. I don't see him as the winner but recommend a Top10 bet if you can get 7/1 (8.00) or longer.

Tommy Fleetwood This 23-y-o former Walker Cup player is still improving and surely has a big golfing future. Some of his best performances have been on links courses (eg 5th Alfred Dunhill Links in 2013) and he played well in patches in Scotland last week. I don't see him winning a Major just yet, but a links is surely his best chance and a strong performance this week would not be a surprise. Look for 22/1 (23.00) or longer.

Make the Cut:
I have very profitable fond memories of laying Tiger Woods for a stack @ 1.03 to make the Open Championship cut in 2009. Given that he's played just two competitive rounds since the Cadillac in March, and given how poorly he chipped & putted at Congressional where he shot 74:75 post-surgery, he's certainly a chance of failing to make the weekend here.
Mainly on the basis of his lack of recent competition, I reckon Tiger is worth a speculative lay to make the cut at around 1.33 or shorter.

Top Asian
I like the 2014 form of Dong-Kyu Jang who has placed Top10 on the Japan Tour in his past 6 starts, including a win. Though he's unfamiliar with British links he's playing so well he might just surprise the more fancied Asians like Matsuyama & Jaidee, etc. He certainly wouldn't be the first Japanese to play well in an Open (Jumbo Ozaki, Nakajima, Isao Aoki, etc). Matsuyama himself finished 6th last year in his first Open start.

Top20:
To get any sort of decent Top20 price you have to select a player that may be 70-80th in the betting to win the event! Not an easy ask, delving in those murky depths, but I've scoped those lower reaches of the market and come up with David Howell.

Here's my logic: he's a good links player & putter, a member of two winning Ryder Cup teams, not too old (39), a recent winner (2013 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship), has finished Top10 in an Open Championship and showed great form in Scotland last week. Worth a bet at 12/1 (13.00) or longer? I say yep!

Just Missed Out - Rickie
Finally, I should reveal that I was very close to making Rickie Fowler one of my two top picks. He only missed out on the basis of his relatively short price; I hate win prices shorter than 50's! A classy, or even winning, performance at Hoylake would not surprise me in the least.

Cheers and Good Luck with your golf punting!

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