The Open golf challenge at Royal Birkdale is likely to surprise

The course would demand driving accuracy and solid iron play and putting over four rounds.

 |   Long-form |   20-07-2017
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After the fabulous victory of Roger Federer on the famed Wimbledon grassy greens last Sunday, the sporting world would move on to the no less famed greens of Royal Birkdale to witness the 146th edition of The Open - another sport bequeathed by the British and now celebrated as a traditional annual ritual like Wimbledon. The golf tournament will be played from July 20-23.

The Royal Birkdale (set up in the year of the French Revolution, 1889) will host The Open (in keeping with tradition in true British style, it still continues to be called as The Open and not as the British Open) for the tenth time and the golf course is spread over 7,700 yards with sand dunes guarding each fairway; it would incidentally be the longest course in The Open’s history.

The links course along the Lancashire coast of England will pose quite a challenge as a combination of elements - intermittent rains, slopes, deceptive roughs and howling winds - can take the wind out of the sails of the cruise control steadiness of players over the last holes, especially on the final day. 

The course would demand driving accuracy and solid iron play and putting over four rounds. The closing holes have two par fives (15 and 17) which can actually close one completely out of contention if not contending with comfortable swing and stable mind.

These apparent easy holes, reachable in two strokes, appear when either one begins to breathe easy if leading, or is anxious if trailing, compelling risk-taking to stay in contention; there is risk and reward both ways and results depend on baggage of nerves and mind.

Going by history, the winning scores are expected to be rather high (unlike the lowest {-20} recorded last year by Stenson) as Padraig Harrington won at three over 283 in 2008 and the best score was clinched by Baker Finch at 272 in 1991. The towering sand dunes on each fairway will test long hitters (like Dustin Johnson and Koepka) but they always have an option of playing like Tiger Woods in 2006 at The Open (when he used the driver only once over four days).

This Open will be watched with interest - whether the streak of the seven straight first-time winner will continue or whether the longest one of 9 (from McDowell, 2010 US Open, to Webb Simpson, 2012 US Open) would be broken.

One must also not miss the fact that in the last 6 of 7 Grand Slam titles, runner-ups were actually major winners. So, it’s not that they didn’t count but that they missed by a whisker. And in Birkdale, experience counts more than one-off brilliance. Going by history, only 2 of 8 were first-time winners at Birkdale (Ian Baker Finch won the only major here).

The Open is truly “open” as the links courses challenge (mentioned above), combined with the inherent unpredictability of golf itself, has unlimited potential of throwing up a champion who later ended up doing nothing of consequence, like Ian Baker Finch and Ben Curtis.

Birkdale is the course where young Justin Rose (last hole chip in to come fourth as an amateur in the 1998 Open), Seve Ballesteros (as teenager shared second with Nicklaus after showing super touch while executing superb chip shot that negotiated several bunkers on final hole) and Sergio showed their talent when they appeared (in 1996) for the first time on the big stage.

Let us analyse the chances of players winning the fancied claret jug.

Rickie Fowler prepared for the howling winds of link courses by playing in the Scottish Open, to win the next major and silence the howls of the best player not to win a major - much like Dustin, Stenson, Sergio did during last year and Mickelson and Tom Kite did earlier.

anirban-embed_072017081302.jpgAnirban Lahiri will play The Open. Photo: Reuters

Steve Stricker is too old now to overcome that. Fate fails to favour Fowler in crossing the final frontier in winning a major. He has the talent, game and plays with finesse but continues to falter over final holes on the fourth day. Both he and Dustin had tonnes of talent to tame any course to win the major but both needed serious talking down by Butch Harmon (Fowler’s coach) and Wayne Gretzky (Dustin’s famous father-in-law) respectively, questioning whether courting celebrity trappings and a celebratory lifestyle was the overriding goal than actually winning majors.

In both cases, advice worked; Dustin actually won the US Open last year and Fowler has been forever closing in to win a major. Though both have the skill sets to play link courses (ably shown by Fowler at the last US Open at Erin Hills even though the howling winds were missing), I think they may fall short.

For Fowler has still not mastered the art of keeping his mind and game together in negotiating the final homeward stretch and Dustin will have to dust off both mental and physical fatigue of not playing the final weekend since winning the US Open last year, even though he displayed super form in three straight victories in the early part of the year.

Brooks Koepka’s prolonged celebration tour after the US Open victory didn’t allow him to play later.

I would put my wager on the quartet of Jon Rahm, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Rose. Two Spaniards show contrasting styles: Rahm is in the mould of the mercurial Ballesteros – a youth with raw talent and totally fearless that can yield rich dividends, as it did in winning the recent Irish Open at 24 under, beating the field by six strokes, but also showed meltdown at Erin Hills when he showed flashes of anger and frustration and folded up after showing brilliance in patches. Rahm has missed cuts three times and has failed to break the top 25 in four tries at majors after turning pro.

Cabrera-Bello is more in the mould of Jose Maria Olazabal - he goes about his business in the usual no fuss manner with occasional endearing smiles thrown in. It mirrors his similar steady climb in world rankings and is capable of playing a round of sublime golf of controlled aggression, amply shown in shooting 64 last Sunday in the Scottish Open and winning in a playoff (after Collum Shink’s last putt on 72nd hole didn’t sink in, showing how callous was fate to Collum).

Woods further retreated into the jungles of secrecy to lick his wounds and recover and is likely to live with another ignominious record - of tumbling from world number 1 ranking to 1,000 now. But, like the great Nicklaus said, his record and contribution calls that the world stand by him in support of his recovery - both physical and mental.

Patrick Reed will surely contend and one wishes that the brilliance shown often for three days is also carried to one more day of play. Ian Poulter sizzled on the last day in the last week of the Scottish Open, like he often does on days in the Ryder Cup, but is inconsistent in showing brilliance over 72 holes. Wonder why Luke Donald doesn’t sizzle on major stage despite having one of the smoothest swings. Bubba can surprise but excessive risk-taking would not help him.

Like an eternal favourite to emulate Woods’ record, Rory McElroy is again expected to roar. His talent and shot-making brilliance combined with growing up playing on link courses seem a perfect combination that can conquer any course on his day.

But he seems short in confidence as his recent statements indicate he wants all elements of his game to click together. He even sought help from lady luck by reprising his journey through ferry across Scotland and played the Irish Open much like he did in 2004 when he won Hoylake. 

But golf is a difficult sport and his efforts at the Irish Open and Scottish Open failed as he missed cuts in both. As stated in my earlier articles, he needs a cushion of strong early lead allowing his free flowing style of play – a style that helped decimate the opposition in earlier major victories.

And he is having the putting yips, which isn’t no good news anytime anywhere for any golfer. About time he consults the famous Little Red Book of Harvey Penick - lifelong coach of Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite.

This year is a boon for Sergio as he won his first major and is marrying in July and combining that with winning the Open will sound like ringing bells celebrating his winning the Grand Slam. He is an old fox and has the record of finishing in the top 10 in 10 Opens out of the 20 times he played - a very high percentage.

Golf is a funny game. Think of Jordan Spieth, once rated as the best putter on the Tour is now struggling to retain the strong part of his game. His driving accuracy can pose problems at Birkdale. But one mustn’t forget that he now has a similar record of Woods - 10 Tour victories before the age of 24.

Fleetwood has a big stage temperament and had shown fleeting scenes of victory when he came close to winning at the US Open at Erin Hills on the final day. Birkdale will surely give him a home course advantage. Fleetwood has risen from world number 99 to 14.

He is the best British bet to win the Open. His school boyish charm and easy demeanour hides the seriousness of his intention. His posing a challenge is good news as it shows that golf is not merely about power play but players with touch and feel count in equal measure. 

Besides the record of seven successive first-time winners, golf’s unpredictability can also be seen in how during the last three years the world number one spot has changed the very next year, when all indications showed the new world number one would dominate for at least a few years.

Jordan Spieth burst from the ranks and won two majors and came close to winning the third and became world number one in 2015 and was hailed as the next Woods; however, towards the latter part of the year, Jason Day won a major and showed such dominance in others to become world number one and the very next year he was replaced by Dustin Johnson, who in the latter part of this year is not looking like the number one player and if he continues like this, he would again be replaced. This also shows there is not much difference in the skill sets of the top world players.

Finally, I know that both Shiv Kapur and Anirban Lahiri will play The Open. I wish Lahiri rides the leher (wave) and comes ashore with top five or ten finish. And Shiv Kapur again puts his name on the top of the leaderboard as he did some years ago and finishes fine.

Also read: 2017 US Open golf champion Brooks Koepka is no Tiger Woods

Writer

Sushil Kumar Sushil Kumar

Film enthusiast and a senior IAS officer

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