It’s a sad state of affairs when I consider that I don’t think I have had a conversation this week that hasn’t touched on who might win The Open at some point.
So let’s break it down.
The boys club that is Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (aka Muirfield) plays host to this year’s Open. This will be the 16th time the East Lothian course has hosted the oldest major and the 9th time since the Second World War.
The first thing any research shows you is that the list of Muirfield winners reads like a who’s who of modern golf:
1959: Gary Player (E)
1966: Jack Nicklaus (-2)
1972: Lee Trevino (-6)
1980: Tom Watson (-13)
1987: Nick Faldo (-5)
1992: Nick Faldo (-12)
2002: Ernie Els (-6)
Combined those six men have a total of 51 Major titles.
Other notable events have been hosted at Muirfield. Tom Watson won the 2007 Senior British Open and a young, acne-plagued Sergio Garcia won the British Amateur at Muirfield in 1998. It would appear the course demands a quality winner.
What about the course itself? Whilst I have played it several times, my memory may not provide a great degree of insight, seen as I spent most of my time looking for balls in the knee-high rough. The course has 4 distinctive characteristics that test anyone who tees it up: the fairways are tight, the bunkers are deep, the greens are fast and the wind is a b****.
Whilst playing hard and fast, the 7200 yard layout doesn’t play all that long, but still requires a lot of strategy to avoid deep fairway and greenside bunkers, not to mention the forest of rough either side of the fairways. The spiral shape of the layout tends to prove very testing in the wind, however conditions this year appear fairly calm and mild. However, whoever wins will still need to be able to seriously control their ball flight, both high and low and left and right.
So what do Majors typically come down to? In my mind: experience, ball striking, putting.
Thus, my first pick is unveiled. Sergio Garcia may only be 33, but this will be his 60th Major championship. With 18 top-10s, he has more top-10s without a win than any other active player. 8 top-10 finishes at the last 12 Open Championships suggest his game is suited to links golf, and specifically Muirfield. He won his Amateur Championship here in 1998 and finish 8th at The Open at Muirfield in 2002.
Few would question his ball striking, known as one of the best around, but many question his putting. But I am here to tell you to stop worrying. The PGA Tour recently developed the “Strokes Gained Putting” statistic that best measures a player’s putting performance versus everyone else on Tour. Sergio currently leads that stat, gaining almost a shot a round over the field. He’s overdue, he’s not yet over-the-hill and he appears to be over his putting woes. At 33/1, he’s surely worth a punt.
If told you I fancied Branden Grace, you might say I was either crazy or gay. Truth is I am only one of those things, but I do like his chances this week. “What experience?” I hear you scoff. At 25, he may have only played 6 majors but his competitive experience is well beyond his years. He’s played 88 events on the European Tour and has already won four times (all within the last 18 months. He is currently the Alfred Dunhill Links Champion having shot 22-under round St. Andrews, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie last year.
His 2013 season hasn’t lived up to his impressive 4-win campaign in 2012, but having lost in a playoff with Phil Mickelson last week at the Scottish Open he does comes into this week on decent form. A 3rd place finish at the Volvo World Matchplay and a top-20 at the Masters earlier in the year marked good big-occasion weeks for the South African. As for ball striking, all I can tell you is if you see this guy hit the ball on the range, you’ll know what I mean when I say he hits the ball pure: a low, penetrating ball flight that really suits links golf. He’s made the cut on both his Open appearances and when this author backed him last week, his odds were 90/1. With a game like Louis Oosthuizen and odds still at 66/1 and still worth your pennies.
Each year, it seems people are looking for a dark horse pick. They are desperate to be “that guy” that backed Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis, Louis Oosthuizen or Stewart Cink. So who might that be this year? Having scanned the odds in recent days, one name jumps out to me: Lucas Glover. Currently 400/1, the former US Open champion appears underrated. Having moved from Nike to TaylorMade earlier in the year, Glover has had an inconsistent year.
When’s he on, he seems to be in contention, like this year’s Zurich Classic, where he shot 65, 67, 70 and 71 to finish 4th. He’s coming off a strong week at the John Deere Classic, including a second round 62 (6th best score on the PGA Tour this season). Whilst his Open form has been a little up and down, his low-hitting, solid-driving game suits links golf well, and he did lead the 2011 Open along with Darren Clarke after two rounds before bad weather separated the field, and he ended up T12th. At 400/1, their may be no better bet in the Open this year.
So there you have it. My three picks, my reasons and my ramblings.
I’ve spent the last 3 days out in East Lothian at events covering the Championship, and I’m now as ready as anyone to sit back and enjoy The Open. With the weather set to be ideallic all week, I wish there was a bookie keen to take my bet that someone will shoot the course record of 63. Nevertheless, you can bet I will spend my future winnings on a couple of gin & tonics and enjoy the golf alongside everyone else.