By Neil Leverett
- The 149th Open Championship begins at Royal St. George’s in Kent on Thursday morning
- England stages season’s final major for first time since calendar switch two years ago
- Course in Sandwich hosts Open for 15th time, last won by Darren Clarke in 2011.
SANDWICH, KENT – As the final major of the year begins on Thursday, who will take home the Claret Jug in the 149th Open Championship at Royal St. George’s?
After a wait just short of two years, this week finally sees The Open make its return as arguably the biggest tournament in golf, as Royal St. George’s in Kent host the 149th staging of the event.
Last on the R&A’s rotation now a decade ago, Darren Clarke was a hugely popular winner here in 2011, when the Northern Irishman held steady over the final round to win an unexpected first major, in what was his 20th attempt to win the Claret Jug.
The west Kent course has often been criticised in the past for being too tough, and though the fairways have now been widened for fairer play, and with more favourable and softer conditions expected over the week, Royal St. George’s will still test the cream of golf.
Not only home to the deepest bunker on the Open rotation – the fourth hole’s horror-inducing ‘Himalaya’ – due to the extensive rainfall in the region, the rough is at its thickest and sternest, perhaps ever.
So whilst scores are expected to be relatively low, the 2021 edition of The Open should nevertheless, thrill until the very final putt.
Rahm the man to catch
How Jon Rahm‘s fortunes have changed since heartbreak at Memorial just over a month ago.
Having claimed his first major with US Open victory at Torrey Pines last month, the Spaniard has put aside the disappointment of testing positive for COVID-19 whilst holding a six-shot lead in Ohio, to also reclaim his World number one status. – but now having dropped to second in the rankings.
Making his return to European shores in last weekend’s Aberdeen Scottish Open at Renaissance, Rahm’s challenge rather faltered in North Berwick, but the 26-year-old has always looked most at ease on Links courses will be a sure-fire contender here.
Although it should be noted, his best finish to date in the Open was last time out, where he finished outside the top 10.
‘Rahmbo’ however, is a very different player in 2021.
Now a father for the first time and with the pressure eased since his maiden major win, Rahm’s rather fiery temperament remains, but his game meanwhile, has come on in leaps and bounds.
The outstanding favourite to win back-to-back majors for only the 14th time in the game’s history this weekend, the man from the Basque country will take some stopping.
Lowry defends Claret Jug
Having held on to the famous Claret Jug for longer than any other player on single-win basis, this week, Shane Lowry finally gets his chance to the defend the title he won at Royal Portrush in 2019.
Romping home to victory on the island of Ireland, his task of being only the 10th man in history to defend a major crown is a tall one indeed, however, now a fully-fledged player on the PGA Tour, the Irishman will relish the test of St. George’s.
But with no Tour victory since his win at Portrush at home or abroad, is Lowry in the form to challenge once again? Lack of form hardly hindered him two years ago…
Just two men have retained the Claret Jug in the new millennium; Tiger Woods and Padraig Harringtonduring a remarkable four-year spell. Could the man from Offaly make it three?
Contenders at Royal St. George’s
With a different name winning every major since the 2018 PGA Championship, the contenders for the Claret Jug at Royal St. George’s, remain numerous.
Aside from Rahm, Brooks Koepka once more looks like his closest potential rival and having performed well in Open Championships of the past, the Floridian’s experience on the European Tour should stand him in good stead at a tilt for a third of four different majors to add to his wares.
Like Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen fell short at Torrey Pines, but the South African is getting ever closer to his second major title; His first of course, was at St. Andrews in 2010.
Oosthuizen will surely be a contender this week.
As for Bryson DeChambeau, since his US Open win last year, the Californian’s bludgeoning style has got him into trouble on a number of occasions, and on a course that will require precision at times, DeChambeau may struggle if his number of missed fairways begins to tot up.
The British challenge however, looks like it could come from all directions.
Rory McIlroy‘s seven-year drought rolls inexorably onward, but after a much-improved showing at Torrey Pines, could the Northern Irishman yet make another home impression and claim a second Open crown?
The name to watch out for in Kent could though, be Ian Poulter.
Finishing just a shot off the winning score at last weekend’s Scottish Open, the 45-year-old is in the 25th year of his career but is playing some of his best golf.
If one was to look for omens furthermore, Clarke’s win in the Open’s last visit to Royal St. Georges was, as documented, his 20th Open Championship; Poulter this year, will play his 20th also.
Having finished runner-up and third in previous editions, could the man from Hitchin finally get his moment in the sun?
Other names to watch could include Harris English, who has two PGA Tour wins under his belt this year, most recently at the Travelers’ at the end of last month.
The American may also be joined in contention by compatriot Rickie Fowler, who many have thought of as a future Open winner.
Once again however, despite the withdrawals of all three of Hideki Matusyama, Bubba Watson and Matt Wolff, you could throw a blanket over a host of other potential winners this weekend.
Another Ben Curtis on cards?
As one of only four courses on the current R&A rotation in England, the Open Championship this week returns to the south of the country for the first time in 10 years.
After its turn on the calendar took two years longer owing to both the return of Royal Portrush and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the east Kent course once more throws Open its own challenge for the Claret Jug.
Since its first staging of a major in 1894, Greg Norman, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and Sandy Lyle have all won here. The winner in 2003 however, is still perhaps the most famous – if largely forgettable.
It was that year that American Ben Curtis, appropriately from Kent, Ohio, won The Open in one of the most remarkable stories every written in golf history, as a player ranked 396 in the World, making his major tournament bow no less.
A player who would win just four PGA Tour and one European Tour events in his career, Curtis claimed the most famous trophy in golf via a playoff, coming out on top against Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh – the closest either man has since come.
For Curtis, it was a remarkable achievement; only Tom Watson has also won on his major debut, after his own Open win at Carnoustie in 1975.
Darren Clarke’s win 10 years ago may not have been as far-fetched, but could we again see another name emerge from relative obscurity?
In a field stacked with more potential winners than ever before that might take some doing. However, for a tournament that has seen no less than nine one-off major winners since the turn of the millennium alone, will this year’s Open prove another for the underdog?
The 149th Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in Kent, begins on Thursday.
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