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Paul Williams' Open Championship Tips

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Open Championship Tips 2021

Royal St George’s belatedly plays host to the 149th Open Championship this week after last year’s cancellation, and Shane Lowry finally gets to defend his title having held onto the Claret Jug for a year longer than he expected when he captured his maiden Major at Royal Portrush 2 years ago.

The very best in world golf are being joined on the Kent coastline by those who’ve qualified through the many and varied routes, as players battle to win the Claret Jug and title of Champion Golfer of the Year in what’s sure to be an enthralling 4 days on the links.

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US Open Champion Jon Rahm rates as the 8/1 favourite with a few firms at the time of writing; Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas are almost inseparable in the market though and all rate in the 18/1 to 22/1 range at best. As ever, there’s a case to be made for almost all of those near the head of the betting in what looks to be a pretty open affair.

Royal St George’s Golf Club – Sandwich, Kent, England: Designer: Laidlaw Purves; Course Type: Coastal Links; Par: 70; Length: 7,206 yards; Fairways: Fescue, and Bentgrass; Rough: Fescue, and Bentgrass; Greens: Bentgrass (40%), Fescue (60%).

Course Overview.

Royal St George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, Kent was the venue of the very first Open to be played on English soil back in 1894. A true classical links test, the course flanks the Kent coastline and is very much open to the elements with virtually no trees to offer respite from the wind.

It last hosted the 2011 Open Championship, when Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke captured his one and only Major at the age of 42. His 2011 win followed on from fellow Northern Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy capturing their first Majors at the 2010 and 2011 US Opens.

One of the sternest tests on The Open rota, Royal St George’s has traditionally proven tough to score on. Of the last five winners at the venue, Greg Norman is the only one to have recorded a winning total lower than -5/275, posting a stunning -13/267 in 1993. That remained a record low score in the Championship for 23 years, until Henrik Stenson shot -20/264 to win at Royal Troon in 2016.

After St Andrews, Royal St George’s has hosted more Opens than any other course on the rota. Founded in 1887, Royal St George’s hosted the first Open outside Scotland in 1884, won by Englishman J.H. Taylor.

St George’s position on the south-east coast leaves it extremely open to the elements. Positioned on Sandwich Bay, the course is set on a flat piece of land with no protection from the English Channel and with no trees for protection.

Famous for tall sand dunes, deep bunkers and firm Fescue/Bentgrass green complexes with plenty of surrounding run-off areas, St George’s is no picnic. Uneven lies aren’t just commonplace here, they are to be expected, and despite the levelling out of some holes via a Mackenzie & Ebert renovation pre-2011, there are masses of good looking shots which end up in serious trouble and vice-versa on this golf course. It’s true links golf at its very best.

And there’s been another Mackenzie & Ebert renovation pre-2021, which has included the restoration of the huge bunkers at the 4th and 7th holes, the reinstatement of a large sand area to the left of the 5th hole, conversion of two bunkers to the left of the 17th green into a swale, and the reconfiguration of the bunkering at the 18th hole to offer more choices from off the tee.

Back in 2011, World Number 1 at the time Luke Donald described the challenge of Royal St George’s far more eloquently and accurately than I can. He said, “As I’ve said before, there’s very few tournaments we play where the golf is anything even similar to this. You know, it’s a different set of circumstances, different grasses, different shots. You’re having to manipulate the ball a lot more, really control it, and especially when you get windy conditions like we had today, it’s a challenge. It’s not just standing up there and kind of swinging away; there’s a lot more thought to it and a lot more control of the golf ball that’s needed, and I think this is a tough one to win at.”

For more quotes from 2011, read Steve Bamford’s pre-event trends article for this year’s Open Championship.

open championship tips

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: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Combined Stats | Recent Majors Stats.

Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.

Winners & Prices. 2019:, Shane Lowry: 70/1; 2018: Francesco Molinari, 33/1; 2017: Jordan Spieth, 16/1; 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 on the European Tour since 2010 click here; for the same on the PGA Tour click here.

Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the area is here.

Royal St George’s is a little softer than the ground staff would like after a couple of months of wet weather, and there’s the prospect of more rain in the lead up to the start of this year’s Open.

Tournament days should get progressively warmer with sunny spells expected and temperatures reaching the mid-70s Fahrenheit. Winds will be moderate as high pressure builds, with a 15-20mph breeze expected to blow in from off the sea.

Tournament Trends & Key Factors.

Let’s take the final skill statistics from Darren Clarke, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson from the latest 2011 Open Championship held at Sandwich. This gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:

  • 1st, Darren Clarke (-5). 312 yards (17th), 41.1% fairways (56th), 70.8% greens in regulation (2nd), 35.7 % scrambling (61st), 1.69 putts per GIR (11th).
  • 2nd, Dustin Johnson (-2). 335 yards (1st), 50.0% fairways (29th), 65.3% greens in regulation (6th), 41.3% scrambling (41st), 1.66 putts per GIR (6th).
  • 2nd, Phil Mickelson (-2). 307 yards (27th), 48.2% fairways (36th), 69.4% greens in regulation (3rd), 52.1 % scrambling (17th), 1.76 putts per GIR (31st).

Tournament Skill Averages:

  • Driving Distance: 15th, Driving Accuracy: 40th, Greens in Regulation: 4th, Scrambling: 40th, Putting Average 16th.

Looking back at 2011 Sandwich really seemed to suit the longer hitters. Lucas Glover, Rickie Fowler, Anthony Kim, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson from an American perspective all had parts to play across the 4 days of action, and all sat in the top 80 for Driving Distance on the PGA Tour arriving in Kent.

Royal St George’s was fast enough on the fairways, with plenty of roll-out, but in the main the longer hitters thrived, and naturally that included Darren Clarke, who averaged 312 yards with the driver, good enough for 17th across the week.

Ultimately though, in this pre-Strokes Gained era, Greens in Regulation was the key statistic at Sandwich in 2011. Clarke was 2nd at 70.8%, with runner-ups Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson ranking 6th (65.3%) and 3rd (69.4%) for Greens Hit. And when you look at shock winner Ben Curtis and his statistics from 2003, the Ohio man ranked 21st for Driving Distance at 304 yards, 3rd for Total Driving, 16th for Greens in Regulation and 3rd for Ball Striking.

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, 14 Open Champions from the last 20 renewals (70%) 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), Henrik Stenson (16), Jordan Spieth (17),Francesco Molinari (18) and Shane Lowry (19) 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 nick. 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.

Recent Form:

Shane Lowry’s success at Royal Portrush in 2019 was his 2nd win of the season having won the Abu Dhabi Championship at Rolex Series level earlier in the year.  He finished runner-up on the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open the month before his Major triumph and adds even more gravitas to the fact that in-form players are the ones 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 8 champions we can see a pattern that’s easy to extrapolate:

  • 2019: Shane Lowry in 2019 had won the stellar year-opener, the Abu Dhabi Championship on the European Tour and backed that up with his most successful period on the PGA Tour. 3rd at the RBC Heritage (coastal), 8th at the Bethpage Black-hosted PGA Championship and 2nd behind Rory McIlroy at the RBC Canadian Open had preceded top-30 and top-40 outings at the US Open and Irish Open.
  • 2018: Francesco Molinari, like Zach Johnson in 2015, arrived in Scotland directly off the John Deere Classic charter flight from Illinois and his confidence must have been sky high. A huge win (his 5th on the European Tour) in May at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth was followed by 2nd at his home Italian Open when defending. But the Italian’s summer got even better when he flew out to Washington in July to player Tiger’s tournament at TPC Potomac, which he won and in doing so captured his first tournament in the United States. He arrived in Scotland having just shot a field best -7/64 in the final round to finish T2 in the John Deere Classic.
  • 2017: Jordan Spieth flew into the northwest of England fully fresh and rested his 10th PGA Tour victory which he’d racked-up at TPC River Highlands when clinching the Travelers Championship in a spectacular play-off victory over Daniel Berger 4 weeks prior. In Strokes Gained parlance he was 7th for Approach, 2nd for Around The Green and 1st for Tee to Green, whilst he wasn’t bad with the putter finishing 3rd for Putts per GIR.
  • 2016: Henrik arrived in Ayrshire fresh from a free-wheeling 13th at the Scottish Open played at Caste Stuart. 76 in Round 1 was then followed by rounds of 69-66-70. However a fortnight prior to the Scottish Open, Stenson had won the BMW International Open at Gut Larchenhof with a -17/271 total. His performance in Germany and his 3-shot winning margin was made even more impressive by the fact that he topped Driving Accuracy, Total Driving, Greens in Regulation and All-Round categories. He was also 2nd for Scrambling. Henrik had also finished 4th at Bro Hoff Slot in June as well as 3rd at Bay Hill and 2nd in Houston earlier in the season on the PGA Tour.
  • 2015: Zach arrived at Edinburgh airport on the charter flight direct from Silvis, Illinois where he’d just finished a single shot behind Jordan Spieth at the John Deere Classic. 5th at Las Colinas and 6th at TPC River Highlands in preceding PGA Tour outings highlighted a player at the top of his game – even now the fact that he was available at 110/1 to win at St Andrews is jaw-dropping!
  • 2014: Rory had won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, a track which had always been his nemesis until his closing 66 destroyed the field. He then limbered up with a free-rolling 14th at Royal Aberdeen the week before triumphing in Cheshire, where a horrible 78 on Friday was surrounded by rounds of 64, 67 and 68. Rory was 18/1 second favourite prior to the tournament.
  • 2013: Phil Mickelson had already won at TPC Scottsdale and finished 2nd on the tough tests of Merion (US Open) and TPC Southwind before he touched down in Scotland. Arriving at Castle Stuart the week before The Open, Phil was a 20/1 shot to win the Scottish Open, which he duly did before travelling down the east coast to Muirfield where he shot an incredible 66 on Sunday to win by 3 shots from Henrik Stenson again at 20/1.
  • 2012: Ernie Els was available at 45/1 prior to Royal Lytham in 2012. With 4 Top-5 finishes (Fancourt, Copperhead, Bay Hill and New Orleans) plus a 7th at Wentworth and 9th at the US Open just prior to the Open, he had huge momentum and was in the right place at the right time when Adam Scott collapsed over the closing 4 holes. It’s fact that Ernie was the latest in a long line of form players to triumph at the Open Championship.

Last 10 event form of Open Championship winners since 2010 reads as follows (most recent result on the right):

  • 2019, Shane Lowry: 62/MC/MC/24/MC/3/8/2/28/34
  • 2018, Francesco Molinari: 17/20/49/16/MC/1/2/25/1/2
  • 2017, Jordan Spieth: 12/30/MC/11/MC/MC/2/13/35/1
  • 2016, Henrik Stenson: 11/3/2/24/MC/MC/4/WD/1/13
  • 2015, Zach Zohnson: 20/9/MC/17/13/19/5/72/6/3
  • 2014: Rory McIlroy: 25/7/8/8/6/1/15/23/MC/14
  • 2013: Phil Mickelson: 3/MC/16/54/3/MC/2/2/MC/1
  • 2012: Ernie Els: 4/12/MC/2/MC/41/7/58/9/52
  • 2011: Darren Clarke: 12/48/MC/77/1/45/63/46/MC/66
  • 2010: Louis Oosthuizen: 3/44/2/1/MC/MC/21/20/MC/MC

For current form stats for this week’s field click here.

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.

9 of the last 10 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:

  • 2019, Shane Lowry: 37/32/9/MC/MC/MC/MC
  • 2018, Franceso Molinari: MC/13/MC/MC/39/9/15/40/36/MC
  • 2017, Jordan Spieth: 44/36/4/30
  • 2016, Henrik Stenson: MC/34/48/MC/3/13/3/68/2/39/40
  • 2015, Zach Zohnson: MC/MC/MC/20/51/47/76/16/9/6/47
  • 2014: Rory McIlroy: 42/47/3/25/60/MC
  • 2013: Phil Mickelson: 41/24/76/MC/11/30/66/59/3/60/22/MC/19/48/2/MC
  • 2012: Ernie Els: 2/10/28/24/2/3/1/18/2/34/3/4/7/8/MC/MC
  • 2011: Darren Clarke: 11/2/MC/30/7/3/37/59/11/15/MC/MC/52/44
  • 2010: Louis Oosthuizen: MC/MC/MC

For event history stats for this week’s field click here.

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 were the two to achieve this. For reference, Shane Lowry was 33rd in the OWGR before his victory in 2019.

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.

Royal St George’s has hosted The Open on 14 occasions, 6 of which have come from 1981 onwards with players that we’re more familiar with. Greg Norman’s 13-under total in 1993 is the lowest score of those renewals, with Sandy Lyle’s +2 in 1985 the highest. Although even in perfect conditions this par-70 is still a challenge, I suspect that this will be a year that sees slightly lower scoring with softer conditions than hoped for only being partially offset by a moderate breeze.

What does this mean? Well, for me firmer, tougher conditions would swing the pendulum towards the more experienced veterans and links specialists, whereas softer conditions as expected might favour a more ‘modern’ style of golfer.

Second-guessing seaside conditions can be a dangerous game to play, however the forecast does seem fairly stable at the time of writing, if a little breezy, and I’m not expecting a Darren Clarke-style tournament and result. All of that said, to lift the Claret Jug a player will also need to demonstrate masses of guile and determination coming down the stretch on Sunday under the most intense of pressure.

My selections are as follows:

My 2021 Open Championship Selections Are As Follows:

Brooks Koepka 3pts EW 18/1 (9EW, 1/5) with William Hill

The odds about favourite Jon Rahm began tumbling on Friday last week when he motored into an early 4-shot lead at Renaissance and he went odds-on with many players still having yet to start their second round, however golf is rarely that straightforward and in the end he had to settle for tie for 7th place. 8/1 is fair but this is undoubtedly a tougher test than last week and there are some truly world-class players that he’ll need to beat to justify that price.

Rory McIlroy’s missed cut last week did nothing to convince me that his ‘work in progress’ under Pete Cowen is anything more advanced than exactly that, work in progress, and reinstated world number 1 Dustin Johnson has been unconvincing since winning the Saudi International in February. In truth, DJ was unconvincing when he won that event too with a stone-cold putter only just being offset by his long game superiority.

Brooks Koepka makes far more appeal to me than any of those ahead of him in the betting, as well as those just behind him such as Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, and with his knee having had plenty of time to recover since he gingerly returned to competitive action back in April at The Masters, he’s a must-back for me this week.

A missed cut when hobbling around Augusta National wasn’t a surprise, however as he’s continued on his path to full recovery so normal service has resumed when it comes to his Major Championship performances, with a runner-up finish to Lefty at the US PGA Championship before ending up in tie for 4th behind Jon Rahm at Torrey Pines. A month further on and I see little reason to suspect that he won’t be fitter and stronger than on either of those performances.

Fact is, the Florida resident is single-mindedly focussed on gathering more Major titles and believes that most of the field are beaten before they even tee it up at the 4 big ones. 84-under since 2016 in the Majors that he’s played is more than 60 strokes better than his nearest competitor, and 4 titles in that time is double that of Dustin Johnson and 4 times that of anyone else in the field.

The fact that he won in Phoenix earlier this year in a regular PGA Tour event ticks the ‘season win’ box if we’re checking that Brooks fits the trends that I outlined in the preamble, and from 6 Open Championship appearances he has 3 top-10 finishes and a best of 4th behind Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush in 2019. The 31 year-old’s last 4 Open attempts read 10/6/39/4 and he’s clearly getting more comfortable and confident in this event, which won’t have been hampered in any way by spending some of his formative professional years on the European Tour.

Despite his injury and 5 missed cuts from 11 starts in 2021, Koepka still ranks 10th for SG Off the Tee, 10th for SG Approach and 3rd for SG Tee to Green for the season to date on the PGA Tour. 65 to close at the Travelers Championship on his last start suggests that his game is in a decent place and 1st for SG Tee to Green that week tells us all we need to know about his game right now. RESULT: T6

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Louis Oosthuizen 2pts EW 33/1 (9EW, 1/5) with William Hill

Assuming I’m right and everyone other than Brooks is playing for second place, then one player who’s got more experience of late fulfilling that bridesmaid’s role is Louis Oosthuizen.

Maybe that’s a little unfair on the OWGR number 13 who’s run into an inspired Phil Mickelson at the US PGA Championship and Jon Rahm’s putting heroics over the final 2 holes at the US Open, however despite the brave face he’s put on both near misses, it’s got to smart more than just a little bit. Golf’s a fickle game though and in an alternative reality he could have quite reasonably added to his 2010 Open Championship title and be at least halfway to a personal grand slam by now. Add 3rd place at last year’s US Open to the list too and we have a player who’s undoubtedly knocking loudly on the door at golf’s biggest events right now.

Winless since the 2018 South African Open is the only significant negative that I can offer about a player who otherwise ticks just about every box. 12 Open appearances have garnered another Major runner-up finish for his collection (2015 at St Andrews) in addition to the title that he won at the same venue 5 years prior, and having decided to pull out of the Olympics, this week must be a big focus for the 38 year-old.

Aside from his two Major finishes this year, Oosthuizen’s form has been solid without a missed cut to his name in 2021. 8th at the Valspar Championship and 18th at the Memorial Tournament preceded both of those near misses as he kept his game in check before a week’s break ahead of the main events, and 42nd at the BMW International Open before heading back to the new farm for some family time is of no concern. He shot a 2nd round 67 that week which was beaten by just 2 players to suggest that his game is ticking over nicely, and following some R&R he should be ready to go again this week.

Inside the top-25 for GIR on each start from The Masters onwards tells us that his irons are sharp enough and 11th for SG Putting at the Memorial before ranking 4th on the same count at the US Open is encouraging for a player whose flat stick performances aren’t generally his strongest suit.

Perhaps all the stars will align this week and Louis will find a way over the line for the second time in his career at this championship, however if not then there’s a strong suggestion that he’ll go close enough to reward each-way backers. RESULT: T3

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Branden Grace 1pt EW 66/1 (9EW, 1/5)with 888Sport

With Garrick Higgo and Christiaan Bezuidenhout representing South Africa in the Olympics next month, Branden Grace – like Louis Oosthuizen – can focus on the task at hand this week. Compatriots Daniel van Tonder and Dean Burmester are recent winners from the rainbow nation and if you add in the likes of Erik Van Rooyen and an improving Charl Schwartzel, it’s fair to say that there’s a buzz around South African golf at present.

Last week’s tie for 54th at Renaissance has kept a lid on Grace’s price, despite season-long form that includes victory on the coast at the Puerto Rico Open, 4th at The Memorial and 7th on his last Major start at Torrey Pines. Losing his Dad earlier in the year has helped him focus his mind judging by a number of references to that loss in interview and on social media, and perhaps a maiden Major title would help him in this new chapter of his life.

Career-best finishes of 18th at the Masters, 3rd at the US PGA Championship, 4th at the US Open and 6th at the Open Championship all came 4 years ago or further back, so it was interesting to see that 7th place effort recorded at last month’s US Open as he heads to far more compatible surroundings for this week’s task, given that links form is in abundance for the 33 year-old.

2 wins from 2 attempts on his home track at Fancourt Links on the Sunshine and European Tours gave us some early clues for his liking for this kind of terrain. 2 wins at the Dunhill Links and 2 wins at the Doha-hosted Qatar Masters, which demands a similar style of game, backs up the assertion and his best efforts in Majors have tended to come on tracks with some correlating features. Branden also holds the record for lowest round at The Open, shooting 62 at Birkdale back in 2017 on his way to his best finish at golf’s oldest Major.

With the prospect of some breeze from off the sea this week, the South African’s low ball flight should help keep him out of trouble and with Strokes Gained rankings of 4th for Approach and 1st for Tee to Green at Torrey Pines it’s clear that his long game is in the kind of shape to contend at present. A low-key effort in Scotland, which closed with a bogey-free 68, should have got him loose ahead of this week’s task and a big effort is quite possible in my view. RESULT: MC

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Marc Leishman 1pt EW 66/1 (9EW, 1/5) with 888Sport

Finally, if South African golf is in a good place right now, then Australian golf is positively flying of late. With Cameron Davis grabbing his breakthrough PGA Tour title at the Rocket Mortgage Classic just over a week ago, Lucas Herbert winning the Irish Open on the same day and Minwoo Lee proving victorious in Scotland over the weekend, confidence and motivation will be coursing through the veins of the Aussies.

Of those from down under in the field this week, Marc Leishman gets the nod for my team in the Major that he’s come the closest to winning. A 4-hole play-off defeat to Zach Johnson at St Andrews in 2015 was the renewal in question having had his chances to seal the deal in regulation play, however 5th in 2014 and 6th in 2017 tells us that it wasn’t a one-off. Two of those efforts came in slightly more scoreable renewals with 12- and 15-under totals, and with the prospect of softer than hoped for conditions underfoot, I suspect that he’ll enjoy how this week sets up being an excellent player in the breeze.

5th at Augusta earlier this year was Marc’s first Major top-10 finish in 3 years, and he followed that up a fortnight later when winning the Zurich Classic pairs event alongside Cameron Smith. 3rd on his last start at the Travelers Championship came courtesy of a flying final round of 64 which threatened briefly to give him a backdoor chance at a play-off, before Harris English and Kramer Hickok eventually finished a shot ahead of his total.

5th for Total Driving that week was an eye-opener for a player who rarely excels in that part of his game and 3rd for SG Off The Tee was his best rank in that respect since the Sony Open at the start of 2020. Leishman won at Torrey Pines the after that effort 18 months ago, holding off Jon Rahm by a stroke in a decent quality field.

In interview the 37 year-old has talked about how good his game feels right now and with stats that back up that assertion, I can see him feeding off the positive vibes from his countrymen’s recent success here this week and producing a strong finish. RESULT: MC

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Odds and bookmaker offers correct at 12:50BST 12.7.21 but naturally subject to fluctuation.