By Thomas Dodd

  • 146th Open Championship to be played out around Royal Birkdale in Southport, England, this week.
  • Henrik Stenson is defending champion from Royal Troon last year.
  • Padraig Harrington won Claret Jug last time event was staged here in 2008.
SOUTHPORT, UK – DJ? Rory? Another first-timer or a golden oldie? Here are five questions this year’s third Golf major at Royal Birkdale will answer.

 

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Eighth straight first time major winner?

The 2015 Open was the last time a previous major winner lifted one of golf’s big four prizes – when Zach Johnson captured his second victory after winning the Masters at August in 2007. Since then a host of thoroughly deserving golfers have had their week in the sun (the latest being Brooks Koepka at last month’s US Open) and joined an ever-growing list of those to crack the big time, emphasising too, the incredible field depth that every major tournament now possesses and the difficulty of predicting a winner at the start of the week four times a year.

Of those seven winners since Johnson, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson have gone on to become No. 1, while defending champion Henrik Stenson has spent 250 weeks ranked in the top 10 in his career. The main contenders to keep the run going will be Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Spanish sensation Jon Rahm and home hero Tommy Fleetwood – and it would be no surprise to see any of those four lift the claret jug on the 18th green on Sunday afternoon.

 

What of the world number one?

After a red hot start to 2017 it has been a much quieter spring for world number one  Johnson, who arrives at Birkdale after having not played since missing the US Open cut in June off the back of withdrawing from the Masters after injuring his back in a fall on the eve of the tournament. Three wins before April had vaulted ‘DJ’ to the top of the rankings and made him favourite every time he teed it up but there has been little to speak of since.

His Open record has been solid in recent years – after finishing runner-up to Darren Clarke in 2011 at Royal St George’s he has managed two more top 10s in 2012 at Royal Lytham and last year at Troon, and the American has not missed a weekend at the Open since his first major appearance on these shores at Turnberry in 2009. Johnson has proved he can mix his frightening length with a delicate touch and imagination and he will need that as Birkdale to contend. The only factor holding him back could be his lack of competition golf.

 

What of Rory McIlroy?

The Northern Irishman, arguably still the most recognisable golfer on the planet right now, is in desperate need of a boost to kick start his summer of golf with a busy Open, World Golf Championship, US PGA and Fedex Cup series play off schedule coming up. After a runner-up and two other top 10s to start the year, McIlroy missed a whole host of tournaments with a rib injury before coming back to finish 7th at the Masters.

Since then his best result is a T17 on the PGA Tour and he has missed the cut at the US and Irish opens – where he was defending his 2016 title. There’s still nothing to stop the world number two tearing a golf course apart on his day however, a fact proved by his closing 64 at the Travelers Championship in June, but a series of putter changes and (like  Johnson) a serious lack of golf could also keep him out of the running for back nine contention on Sunday. Nevertheless, the 2014 Claret Jug winner will remain one to look for in the early running, and even a solid finish in the upper regions of the leaderboard could propel him into another successful summer.

 

Winning score?

Back in 2008 Padraig Harrington claimed a four shot victory around the links in Southport with a score of 3-over-par. But golf has changed in nine years, and the technology both of club and ball now allows players to handle tough conditions so much better and since then only two majors (the 2012 and 2013 US Opens) have been won with an over par score.

Even in the wind and rain of Royal St Georges in 2011  Clarke finished at minus five, while Phil Mickelson finished three shots better than par when winning at a bone dry Muirfield in 2013. Last year’s tricky opening conditions in the first two days saw most golfers barely rattled as Henrik Stenson shot a final round 63 to reach an Open record 20-under-par.

Even this year’s tight and demanding US Open layout was beaten in submission by Koepka on 16-under. Barring some atrocious weather, expect this year’s Birkdale victor to be well into red number on Sunday afternoon.

 

Will the over-40s shine again?

While the younger generation of 20-somethings have been making their impact on the game’s biggest stages in recent years, the Open has played host to some wonderful fairytales and swansongs, allowing those in the twilight of their careers to shine, either once more, or for the first time after two decades of hard work and near misses.

Since Louis Oosthuizen at St Andrews in 2010 four of the last six Open winners (Clarke in 2011, Ernie Els in 2012, Mickelson in 2013 and Stenson last year) have been in their 40s and Johnson took home the Claret Jug from the home of golf at 39.

With its test of body and mind, links golf provides a challenge like no other to the pros, and the blustery conditions and rain mean even the longest hitters have the majority of their advantage through the air wiped away. Golf by the shore requires a golfer to keep the ball on the ground and get imaginative with his touch around the greens and the wiser heads of the game have shown the new crop of up and comers the way in recent years. Who knows, nine years after his last major as a sprightly 37-year-old, Harrington could even go back-to-back at Birkdale.

Whatever happens, we’re in for a fascinating four days of golf in Southport.

The Open starts on 20 July.

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