Welcome to our coverage of the 2012 Open Championship from Royal Lytham & St Annes. The Open Championship is the biggest event in the golfing calendar and the oldest and most prestigious of the 4 Major championships and, as always, the cream of World golf has arrived in the British Isles to do battle over 4 days. An improving Tiger Woods leads the field from a betting perspective, however an uneasy 9/1 generally - which could easily lengthen to double figures by Wednesday - suggests that this is more of a precautionary price from the bookies and that the event is truly wide-open this year. With the last 9 Majors all falling to first-time champions - and 13 from the last 15 if you go back a little further - it's clear that World-class golf is on a very even keel at present and it's fair to say that you could make a strong case for 20 or more of this week's attendees, including some real longshots.
Since David Duval's victory here in 2001, the course has been lengthened by 181 yards with changes to the tee positions on 2, 10 and 11 plus a completely new green on the par-5 7th, however it still only measures just shy of 7,100 yards for its par of 70. Some brutal par 4s, coupled with the two par-5s which measure nearly 600 yards, certainly won't make the course feel short however, and depending on the speed and direction of the wind some holes can become virtually unreachable for the shorter hitters whilst others driveable. Despite being a mile or so inland, this is a links course of the truest kind and the weather is often its main defence - in relatively benign conditions, a low winning score is eminently achievable (Tom Lehman shot -13 in 1996 for the course record over 72 holes), however if and when the wind blows it can be a different challenge altogether. The 200+ bunkers, not so much dotted but strategically placed throughout the course, must be avoided at all costs, therefore the premium here is on accurate plotting from tee-to-green first and foremost in my opinion.
After the wettest summer in living memory for the British Isles, it appears that mother nature may make a surprising u-turn for the event and present us with 4 reasonable days of dry(ish) and calm(ish) weather after a final soaking on Wednesday, with Sunday being the most likely day for a return to more typical 2012 British conditions. Despite the course being a quick-draining links, I suspect that Thursday will play softer than the R&A would like, potentially bringing a different array of players into the mix (and maybe a number of the US-based players), however as the week progresses it will be the quality ball-strikers and links specialists who gravitate towards the top.
In formulating my selections I've stuck to a few principles this week - followers of my column will know that I like to follow logical trends when it comes to the big events:
- OWGR ranking: Duval was 7th when he won at Lytham in 2001; Lehman 13th in 1996; Seve 4th in 1988. Before that Seve again (1979), Player (1974), Jacklin (1969) Charles (1963), Thompson (1958) and Locke (1952) would all have been in the upper-echelons on golf's Elite had the OWGR been in existence at the time.
- The last 5 winners of the Open at Lytham had all finished inside the top 20 at Augusta that season. There may be some logic in that as a lot of the trouble at Lytham is on the right-hand side of the hole and Augusta famously favours left handers/right hand draw.
- Despite the fact that recent form is generally seen to be less important in determining Open champions, the last 4 Lytham champions had put in a number of contending, and in some cases winning, performances in the season of their victory.
So of the favourites, who has a chance? Tiger, for me, is on the ascendancy however his positive results have been on familiar tracks where he's enjoyed success in the past. Royal Lytham? Not for me. Firestone in a couple of weeks - you bet! Lee Westwood stands the best chance of the top-3 in the World in my opinion as his tee-to-green game will be ideal for this track, however will he hold his nerve (and make the putts) at the business end of proceedings should he get there? Harrington is very interesting, although without a PGA/Euro Tour victory since his PGA Championship success in 2008 it would be a tough ask, although he's clearly on the ascendancy and hitting more fairways and greens than ever. Then there's a whole raft of players with links success in the past - Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia...the list could go on forever!
So, with all things considered, my selections are as follows:
GMac just edges out Justin Rose as my top selection and I think the 2010 US Open champion has the right game, temperament, form and desire to become a Major champion for the 2nd time and break the recent run of first-time winners. His Pebble Beach victory has elevated the Ulsterman to the upper levels of World golf where he's a respected figure and, unlike many first-time winners, he's managed to keep the momentum in his career going with a starring performance at the last Ryder Cup and a thrilling shootout against Tiger Woods at the Chevron World Challenge. That invitational event may be his last victory, however a battling runners-up finish at the Volvo match-play earlier this term (on a course that he would never seriously compete on in strokeplay due to its length) and a one-shot defeat at the US Open last month suggests to me a player right on the cusp of another big win when the situation, course and conditions all align. Add to that a top-12 finish at Augusta, top 10 at PGA National and runners-up spot at Bay Hill and here's a player very much at the top of his game.
Growing up in Portrush gave Graeme the perfect foundation for handling links golf and his tenacity for handling tough assignments isn't in question with his aforementioned US Open victory plus his 2010 success at Valderrama, the toughest of all European Tour tests. Sharing his time between the PGA Tour and European Tour as he now does, it's also of relevance to note that he ranks 2nd for driving accuracy stateside in 2012 and 1st for avoiding the right-hand rough - critical elements this week in my opinion. Irish dominance of Major championship golf may just continue for another event here in my opinion. McDowell was trading at 35/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T5
Race To Dubai leader Justin Rose is enjoying the most successful time in his career at present with 4 PGA Tour victories in a little over 2 years now that he's set up residence in Florida and plies his trade mainly in the States. The latest of those victories was his biggest as he secured his first WGC event at Doral earlier this term and the confidence that victory has given him is evident - further top 10s at Augusta, Wentworth, Le Golf National and Muirfield Village have cemented his position the World's top 10 and the next step surely is for Rose to win a Major - the Open or the US Open being the 2 most likely candidates in my opinion.
Like McDowell, Rose is at his best on tougher tracks where par is often a good score (and like GMac he's also a past Valderrama winner) and 2 top-20 finishes in previous Open Championships is an encouraging return in this event. He finished 30th here at Lytham when still a maiden on Tour in 2001 and is a far, far better player nowadays. 4th in GIR on the PGA Tour for 2012 is perfect for this, and 5th for GIR from fairway bunkers is also eye-catching on a course that can punish severely from the sand. Talking of sand, Rose also sits 5th in Europe for sand saves around the green - all in all he's got the game, confidence, temperament and desire to give himself the chance of a first Major title this week. Rose was trading at 33/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: MC
The first of 2 Americans for me will perhaps surprise a few of you who follow my selections, however when it comes to quality ball-striking there are very few who even come close to Hunter Mahan on either Tour. You could argue that Lee Westwood and Francesco Molinari are in a similar league to the 30 year-old, however whilst both have the equipment to tackle Royal Lytham, for me Mahan is a better bet at a longer price than the other two. The plethora of PGA Tour stats available is sometimes so complete it can be confusing, however for me 11th in driving accuracy, 3rd for greens in regulation, 6th for total driving and 1st for ball-striking says all I need to know about Hunter's game and the fact that he'll find the demands of Royal Lytham right up his alley.
But he's a fair-weather American, I hear you cry! Don't you believe it! You don't win a WGC Match Play without having a level of grit and determination about you, even though he won that primarily with some superb birdie-making. No, I'm looking more towards a battling 6th place finish at a soggy BethPage in 2009 as an indication of what he's capable of and 6th again at Carnoustie behind Padraig Harrington in his 2007 Open Championship victory. 2 WGC victories and 10 Major top-20s suggests a player who's very comfortable when the competition is at its most fierce and with 2 wins already in 2012 the World number 10 is clearly playing at the top of his game at present. Mahan was trading at 54/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T19
Matt Kuchar 1pt EW 60/1 with Get a £10 free bet no deposit required plus 6 places EW via this link:
The World number 8, who finished 3rd at August this season after coming to the 16th on Sunday in a share for the lead, has been one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour in recent times - 19 top-25 finishes from 24 events in 2011 was incredible, and a further 10 from 14 this season shows he's managed to maintain that high level of form without converting enough chances to victory. That all changed at TPC Sawgrass though as the ever-smiling Kuchar grabbed his biggest career victory in golf's '5th Major' and the logical next step now is to get one of the big 4 under his belt. Whereas some players are more suited to one or other of the Majors, Kuchar for me is one of a small number who I feel could actually win any one of the 4 in his career, so why not an Open Championship in 2012 when he's riding the crest of a wave?
Last season Kuchar warmed up for the Open Championship with a strong display in Scotland where he finished inside the top 10 and the leading American - not that it did him any good as he missed the cut at Sandwich. This year the 34 year-old has taken a much more sedate approach to his Open preparations and will arrive in Lancashire as fresh as a daisy, with his last outing being a contending top-10 in Connecticut at the Travelers Championship where his game was in good shape. Equally adept around the greens as he is in his approach to the dance-floors, Kuchar can come to this event with the level of calm and control that few others can achieve, a strength which could ultimately see him into a contending position come Sunday afternoon. Kuchar was trading at 69/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: T9
Finally I'm saving a final point for a small, speculative punt on the defending champion who has been horribly out of form since his triumph here 12 months ago. Darren has been the first to admit that his form has not so much dipped but deserted him since his superb win at Sandwich last year, however it's fair to say that he's enjoyed himself in the last 12 months as Open Champion and he's approached the worldwide media demands with a never-ending smile. Back to reality now and, with the Claret Jug handed back, it's time for the 43 year-old to focus on his golf and prove that he's not just a one-hit wonder.
The Portrush resident is a true links master and feels truly at home on this type of setup. Fellow links-lover Padraig Harrington was mighty close to my selections, however without a top-level victory to his name since 2008 I feel it's a huge ask to expect him to win a Major before tasting success again on the regular Tour. Clarke however will feel like it's virtually yesterday that he won the Open Championship and the last year will have disappeared in the blink of an eye, plus there's encouraging signs that a return to form is just around the corner. The Irish Open a fortnight ago was Clarke's first cut made of the season and his irons were looking far stronger than recent times. A mistake 3 holes from home in France was all that separated him from a further payday at Le Golf National and he'll arrive at Royal Lytham & St Annes - where he finished 11th in 1996 and 3rd in 2001 - knowing that his game is once again on the ascendancy. A sentimental selection? Maybe, we'll see - but if Clarke clicks this week then expect a stout defence, especially if he's grabbed a couple of hours with his sports psychologist Bob Rotella again this year. Clarke was trading at 229/1 on Betfair at the time of writing - for more details on how trading works on golf read our Golf Trading article. RESULT: MC
To read Steve Bamford's excellent view of the longshots & outsiders for the Open Championship click here:Longshots
Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 18:10BST 17.7.12 but naturally
subject to fluctuation.
Author Paul Williams,
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