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Royal Birkdale plays host to the 146th Open Championship this week for what will be the 10th time in the tournament's history and the first time since Padraig Harrington successfully defended his title in 2008. Whether this year's event can come remotely close to matching the final round duel between Phil Mickelson and eventual winner Henrik Stenson 12 months ago at Royal Troon remains to be seen, however we live in hope that the 2017 renewal will be memorable from both a viewing and punting perspective.
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It's unusual nowadays for us to enter a Major Championship with no player rating in single-figure odds, however the fact that favourite Dustin Johnson is an uneasy 16/1 and the next 8 players in the betting all rate 20/1 shots or shorter with some bookmakers shows just how open this year really is. Recent winners Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm, the seemingly out-of-sorts Rory McIlroy, links-loving Rickie Fowler, Masters Champion Sergio Garcia, Olympic Champion Justin Rose, World No.2 Hideki Matsuyama, massively improved local Tommy Fleetwood and defending champion Henrik Stenson all have their significant merits this week and a case could reasonably be made for any of those players.
So who's going to win this year's Open Championship? A Birkdale Open champions list that contains Peter Thomson (1954 & 1965), Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983), Ian Baker-Finch (1991), Mark O'Meara (1998) and Padraig Harrington (2008) highlights that only 1 out of 9 players was European, however will that and other trends and factors influence this year's outcome?
If longer-priced players are more your style then check out Steve Bamford's view of the outsiders in his longshots preview here.
Course Overview. Prior to Harrington's second Open triumph which he won here at Royal Birkdale, Martin Hawtree had overseen a huge course re-development with the key goal of allowing the renowned golf links a fair chance of providing a stern challenge to the world's best players. Hawtree's grandfather and JH Taylor had re-designed the course back in 1935 when the famous white art-deco clubhouse was built and Martin became the third generation of the Hawtree family to have an input on this Open Championship venue. In all, 6 of the 18 holes were changed with over 150 yards added to the course. The 17th received a new green complex, with other work focussed on bunker re-positioning and the addition of undulations around green complexes where required.
The course, which measures 7,156 yards for its par of 70, is made unique by the way it's framed by the topography of the sand dunes. As Tom Watson put it, "There's more elevation involved in the tee shots and green complexes like the 6th green which rides up out of the dunes. The western side of the golf course is just lovely, playing along the dune structure down there which is just gorgeous."
A 34-36 split par-70, players have to wait until the 15th to get their first view of a par 5, however the better birdie (or eagle) opportunity - as Padraig Harrington ably demonstrated on his way to victory in 2008 - is at the long 17th. Holes dog-leg in both directions as the course weaves its way through the sand dunes and a sound strategy is required for players to avoid the penal pot bunkers, wispy fescue rough and thick bushes that flank the fairways. Green complexes are flat and quality approach shots get rewarded with makeable putts on the bentgrass/fescue mix which will be firm and fast provided Mother Nature doesn't throw a spanner in the works.
Birkdale links sets its stall out from the start with perhaps the most demanding Open rota 1st hole, but the overall level of difficultly is intrinsically linked to the local weather conditions. As Padraig Harrington summarised on his last visit in 2008, "This is a really pleasant golf course for everybody. I can understand why a lot of players would rate it very highly. It's not tricky, there's nothing funky about it. Everything is there in front of you. This is much, much more straightforward than Carnoustie. The fairways are flatter; the greens are not severe and if there's some slopes off them, there's not too many."
Royal Birkdale is considered as one of the fairest links tests on the Open Championship rota. Holes which shape both ways will take a certain amount of strategy to navigate and as always the ability to minimise dropped shots with an effective short game on what is a genuine links course shouldn't be underestimated as greens will inevitably be missed even by those who have the ball otherwise under control from tee-to-green, particularly when the wind picks up as it's forecast to do pretty much from the start this week.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Open Championship that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Form/Event Stats | Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
In addition we've produced some stats going back to 2011 for each of this week's attendees performances in recent Major Championships.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Henrik Stenson, 33/1; 2015: Zach Johnson, 110/1; 2014: Rory McIlroy, 18/1; 2013, Phil Mickelson, 20/1; 2012: Ernie Els, 45/1; 2011: Darren Clarke, 200/1; 2010: Louis Oosthuizen, 250/1. For a summary of winners' odds for the past 6 years based on the 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here. A breezy 4 days awaits the players to make this a proper test of links golf with wind speeds in the 25-40 km/h range for the most part. There's a chance of rain on Wednesday which could soften the course after some warm and sunny weather of late and further showers are expected throughout the event.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Let's take the final skill statistics from Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter, Greg Norman and Henrik Stenson from the latest 2008 Open Championship held at Royal Birkdale. This gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Naturally these statistics have to be taken in the context that the 2008 Open at Birkdale was played in rain (Thursday) and 30 mph winds across the other 3 days of play. The fact that Ian Poulter was 7th for GIR by hitting 43 of 72 greens says everything about the difficultly that particular week. Clearly a plethora of missed greens over 72 holes even for players who are managing the course well from tee-to-green makes a top-class scrambling game 100% essential when conditions are tough.
There are a number of identifiable trends from the past few Open Championship winners that are worth considering this week:
Recent Wins: In terms of recent winning form, 11 Open Champions from the last 17 renewals (65%) had won a tournament in the same season prior to triumphing at The Open. Tiger Woods (00, 05, 06), Ernie Els (02), Todd Hamilton (04), Padraig Harrington (07), Louis Oosthuizen (10), Darren Clarke (11), Phil Mickelson (13), Rory McIlroy (14) and Henrik Stenson (16) had all won in the same season prior to lifting the Claret Jug.
In terms of 'non-winners', David Duval had 3 Top-10 finishes and had finished 2nd at Augusta at the Masters prior to his triumph Royal Lytham in 2001. 2008 saw Padraig Harrington accumulate 4 Top-10s prior to winning by 3 shots at Royal Birkdale and the following year saw Stewart Cink arrive at Turnberry with 2 Top-10s including a 3rd at the World Match Play. Zach Johnson may have arrived as a 110/1 shot in 2015, however with 7 top-10 finishes in the season to date and incoming form of 6/3 over his previous two events, he was clearly in decent form. Only Ben Curtis at Royal St Georges in 2003 came from way off the page. In his rookie season on the PGA Tour he'd managed a 13th at the Western Open 2 weeks prior to The Open before beating Bjorn, Singh, Love III and Woods to take the coveted Claret Jug back home to Ohio.
Henrik Stenson's incredible victory over Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon last year adds even more gravitas to the fact that in-form players are the guys to follow at the Open Championship. It makes sense that those who are struggling with their games are unlikely to find them on a tough links course and in the last 5 champions we can see a pattern that's easy to extrapolate:
Last 10 event form of Open Championship winners since 2010 reads as follows:
Open Championship Record: Positive previous Open Championship performances have also been a factor when you look through the history of the most recent winners of golf's oldest Major. 11 of the last 12 Open Champions had all previously secured at least a top-10 in this event in their careers - the exception to that rule being Louis Oosthuizen's win at St Andrews in 2010.
Scottish Open Attendance: With the exception of Zach Johnson who was playing in the United States, 5 of the past 6 winners of the Open Championship all played the week before at the Scottish Open. Fortunes varied considerably with Oosthuizen missing the cut in 2010; Clarke finished 66th in 2011; Els finished 52nd in 2012; Mickelson won in 2013; McIlroy finished 14th in 2014 and Stenson finished 13th before lifting the Claret Jug last year.
It's also interesting to note that only two players since 2000 have won The Open whilst ranking outside of the world's top-55 when entering this week - Ben Curtis in 2003 and Darren Clarke in 2011 the two to achieve this. In general an in-form player with some relevant results from previous Open Championships and/or links/coastal events has triumphed in this event and I'd be surprised if the player who lifts the Claret Jug on Sunday deviates from this a great deal.
Each Open Championship is different and trends are there to be broken of course, so creating an identikit winner from all of the factors detailed above may either be a masterstroke or a mistake depending on how the week actually plays out. For me, the rescheduling of the Irish Open to allow for 3 consecutive weeks of links golf is interesting as it's enabled some players to get their practice in a week earlier than normal and, as such, the 'Scottish Open factor' may have to be extended to cover the results from Portstewart also.
The top of the market is fascinating with world No.1 Dustin Johnson still favourite at the time of writing but having missed his last 2 cuts and having not played since the US Open, his supporters are taking a leap of faith that he's sharp enough for this week having become a father for a second time recently. Jordan Spieth hasn't warmed up locally either, however he does arrive off the back of a win on his last start at the Travelers Championship; Jon Rahm, on the other hand, has had a local warm-up and victory in Northern Ireland, however this week is likely to be a far stiffer challenge which may well test the young man's patience. Masters champion Sergio Garcia and US Open champion Brooks Koepka would be joining an elite club by adding a second Major to their tally in the same year and Henrik Stenson would have to overcome the pressure of defending his title to triumph here. Hideki Matsuyama has looked in good form recently and nobody knows this course better than Southport's own Tommy Fleetwood who's not without a chance, despite his prohibitively short price.
Below those names we have the likes of Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Alex Noren and a number of others who again you could make a case for with some justification - this is a truly open Open Championship. My selections are as follows:
It was interesting, albeit frustrating, watching Rickie Fowler's performance at Erin Hills when carrying our money at the US Open last month. A sparkling 65 had put the 28 year-old in pole position after the first round, however a conservative strategy throughout the rest of the week wasn't going to work in such a free-scoring event and he eventually finished in a disappointing tie for 5th. In more challenging conditions, or on a more challenging course, that approach may have been more successful and the 4-time PGA Tour may well have lifted his first Major trophy, however he may not have to wait much longer as he has another decent opportunity here this week.
If we're into ticking boxes then the Florida resident, who was born in California, has the lot here this week. At 10th in the world rankings, Rickie's the perfect fit with 3 of the past 4 Open Champions rating inside the OWGR top 10 the week before their victory. Season form is strong with a win at the Honda Classic earlier this year on a PGA National course where the last Birkdale winner Padraig Harrington has also seen success back in 2015 and US-based finishes since then of 3rd (Houston Open), 2nd (Memorial), 5th (US Open) and 3rd (Quicken Loans National) suggests he's lost little of his form as we approach golf's oldest Major. As discussed in the preamble, a warm-up of any description prior to The Open is generally positive and last week's tie for 9th at Dundonald Links is ideal preparation given that those same 3 out of the last 4 winners also finished inside the top-14 in the Scottish Open and the odd one out, Zach Johnson, finished 3rd on the PGA Tour before hopping onto the charter flight to St Andrews.
Fowler has recorded top-5 finishes in each of golf's Major Championships over the years and 5th (2011) and 2nd (2014) at The Open itself highlight a player who's more than capable of taming Royal Birkdale. Links golf isn't a problem for Rickie who played a lot of his formative golf in windy conditions where he mastered the different shots required to shape the ball against the elements and although he's proven that none of the four Majors is out of his reach, The Open is the one that I think he's best suited to. The classical nature of Royal Birkdale will appeal to Rickie's shot-making and with his game in great shape this has to be a huge opportunity to finally break through and grab his first Major.
A former Scottish Open champion on a links track (Gullane 2015) and with another positive showing last week in that same event to encourage further, what's really caught the eye with Rickie's play of late has been his control from tee-to-green and that should set him in great stead here this week. 5 times in his last 12 starts he's ranked inside the top-5 for Ball-Striking, which is no mean feat, and his long game looked in pretty rude health for the most part last week in Scotland with accuracy and GIR rankings both inside the top-10 relative to the field. We also know that Fowler is an exceptional putter when at the top of his game - he ranked 1st in the field for putting at this year's Masters and was 6th on the same count on his penultimate start at the Quicken Loans National - and if the putts start to drop this week then he'll take a lot of beating. 6th for scrambling last week in Scotland was also impressive and 1st for sand saves on the PGA Tour for the season to date just about completes the argument for me. Americans have a strong record here at Royal Birkdale and this may well be Rickie Fowler's time to shine. Result: T22
This year's Masters was tough to take for followers of Justin Rose who was two ahead with 6 holes to play at Augusta and looked likely to extend that lead with Sergio Garcia in trouble on the par-5 13th and he himself on the green in two. A massive momentum switch followed though with both players ultimately parring the hole and the Spaniard eventually proving victorious in the play-off on what would have been Seve's 60th birthday, leaving Rose backers frustrated after being in what was such a strong position.
Rose is an experienced man of course - a Major Champion, Olympic Champion and veteran of 4 Ryder Cups - however even for the most resilient of players that kind of disappointment is tough to take and, for me, the Englishman has been a watching brief since then, however I'm now ready to pull the trigger and back him here. A light schedule has understandably followed his Masters effort and some back niggles and 65th at The Players and a missed cut at Erin Hills aren't the most positive of results, however closer to home he's shown far more encouraging signs with a 12th place finish at Wentworth and 4th at Portstewart a fortnight ago. Buried within the stats for those two efforts we find GIR rankings of 3rd in the field for both events and that's the most positive of signs for backing the 36 year-old whose wins tend to follow when his irons are on song. 10th for scrambling in Surrey and 4th on the same count in Northern Ireland are also encouraging on a week that will undoubtedly require a deft touch when putting surfaces are inevitably missed, however Rose's chance of success here is predominantly down to the number of greens he's likely to hit in the requisite number rather than those he misses and subsequently recovers from.
The addition of the Irish Open to the links-based warm-up for this week is interesting as, for me, it allows for a little bit of leniency in the Scottish Open 'rule'. Does playing in the Irish Open the week before on a links track, instead of the Scottish Open, make a player any less likely to win The Open? I think not and I certainly wouldn't be ruling anyone out on that basis alone, however I am of the opinion that playing one or other of the weeks is a good move and that equally goes for Rose. In fact I was more than impressed with the 2013 US Open champion at Portstewart as he finished 4th without breaking a sweat and save for a number of putts that literally burned the edges he could have been far closer to Jon Rahm's total. A more exacting test here won't hurt his chances one iota and he looked relaxed and in good form which bodes well for this week.
A fresh-faced Justin Rose was the leading amateur here in 1998 after holing out on the 18th to finish in a tie for 4th and whilst that effort remains his best finish at The Open, he's clearly proven himself in elite company since then by bettering that finish in each of the other Majors over the years a well as accumulating 8 regular European Tour and 6 PGA Tour titles to go alongside his US Open triumph. A 2014 Scottish Open victory at Royal Aberdeen is his most tangible links form, however he clearly got a lot out of his visit to Northern Ireland that will set him in great stead for this week, "There's a lot specific to links golf that I practiced this week, figuring out how the ball comes out of the rough, learning to play the flyer, obviously short game-wise, my short game was sharp. Made a couple of bump and runs and hopefully stuff that will stand me in good stead for Birkdale," he said after finishing 4th at a canter. Result: T54
There are undoubtedly a number of mid-priced players that you could make a case for this week. Marc Leishman (55/1) is never far from my thoughts at Major Championships and 2008 Birkdale victor Padraig Harrington (66/1) has been showing some interesting form in the past couple of weeks, despite his bizarre walking follow-though. In truth you could make a case for a number of players - and if you're interested in some 3-figure outsiders then read Steve Bamford's column here - however for I'll finish with 2 players who can handle the wind and links golf in general:
First up, Branden Grace who was quietly fancied to go well at Erin Hills by a lot of punters before eventually tailing off to 50th place following a Sunday round of 77, however I'm happy to give him a chance after a positive finish in Scotland last week. The case for Grace on links courses is pretty straightforward: twice a winner on his home track of Fancourt Links (Volvo Golf Champions & Vodacom Golf Origins Final, both in 2012), the 29 year-old has also won the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship before losing in a play-off to Phil Mickelson at Castle Stuart in 2013. Two wins at the perennially windy Qatar Masters are also of some relevance, as are 4th and 3rd place finishes at Chambers Bay (2015 US Open) and Whistling Straits (2015 US PGA Championship) respectively. 20th is Grace's best finish in an Open Championship (St Andrews, 2015) however I'd certainly expect him to improve on that significantly before his career's finished and with additional each-way places on offer here this week, I'm happy to take the chance that he can manoeuvre his way into a paying position by Sunday night. 15th last week in Scotland after an opening round of 75 looks like the ideal warm-up for an assault on the Open Championship title and 4 birdies in his final 6 holes will have set him up nicely for this week's test. 50/1 (8 places) or 55/1 (6 places) is available on Grace at the time of writing, however I'll take the 10 places option here with Sky Bet to maximise my chance of a return. Result: T6
Brandt Snedeker 0.5pt EW 70/1 - PLEASE NOTE: Snedeker withdrew on Wednesday pre-event due to a rib injury.
Finally I'm going to oppose the links warm-up trend here and go with the wind-positive American Brandt Snedeker who's already come close to success at the Open having finished 3rd behind Ernie Els in 2012 after opening up with a record-equalling 130 strokes for his first 2 rounds. Although a bit of a surprise to many at the time - Snedeker rated a 175/1 shot at the start of that week - the 36 year-old had already won at Torrey Pines earlier that year and has gone on to add another 5 PGA Tour titles to his name since then, 2 of which have come at Pebble Beach on about the closest correlating course to a British links that the Americans see most years. Snedeker clearly enjoys the style of play as is evident from his results over the years and in interview he gave some insight into his mindset when presented with a links challenge, "I realise the nuances, the different shots you need to hit and how uncookie-cutter this kind of golf is. There's not one way to hit any shot. I love that. It brings out some imagination. It's a lot of fun to play this kind of golf. We don't get to do it very often. So when you do have a chance, I try to enjoy it."
With a breezy forecast in store for the players this week, perhaps the most tangible form to consider for this week is Snedeker's second Farmers Insurance Open title that he won last spring. Played in a howling wind with truly attritional scoring, Brandt produced a closing round of 69 which under the circumstances was considered an incredible performance and was ultimately good enough for victory. More windy, coastal form can be found in his most recent success at the Fiji International last October on the European Tour and whilst he's not produced any more silverware so far in 2017, top-10 finishes at Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, the WGC Mexico Championship and at Erin Hills on his penultimate start all bode well for this week. 80/1 (8 places) is available on Snedeker at the time of writing, however as with Branden Grace I'll take the 10 places option here with Sky Bet to maximise my chance of a return.
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