Blog 225, 7/17/12 - Open Championship Preview

lythamopenThe polar jet stream that affects the UK’s climate tends to be positioned much farther north at this time of year, usually ensuring temperatures in the high 60s and 70s, and keeping the rain out…well, most of it. The unusual path this high-altitude band of wind has taken so far in 2012 has wrought havoc on the country’s weather, however, taking the blame for Britain’s wettest April since records have been kept, and the wettest June with eight inches recorded in some parts. Last week, news agencies reported more than double the amount of rainfall July typically receives, had already been dumped on the sceptered isle in the month’s first nine days.
Wednesday may have ended with some welcome sunshine, but there was more heavy rain earlier in the day when a Met office (the UK’s national weather service) flood warning was in place.
Provided it’s not actually dropping buckets while they are playing, professional golfers tend to lick their chops when the venue for that week’s tournament gets a little moist underfoot. Drives might not travel quite so far as when it’s dry, but what’s one extra club when the likelihood they can fire their approach shot directly at the pin and expect it to stop is greatly increased? And when the course is only 7,118 yards anyway, the wet conditions really shouldn’t be that great a factor.
But there is a flip side, of course. Rain grows rough. And when a course has seen this much rain, the rough can get alarmingly lush. Eddie Birchenough, Royal Lytham’s head pro for the last 25 years (he retires on December 31st) insists this corner of Lancashire on the northern edge of the Ribble Estuary possesses a micro-climate that shields it from the worst of the weather. That theory hasn’t really worked for Birchenough this year though with the course suffering 72 days of rain out of the last 109.
The talk prior to this week’s Championship, the 141st edition, has focused on two main topics – if the run of different major champions will hit 16 (also if the streak of first-time major winners will reach 10), and how on Earth players are going to recover from what is surely the most malevolent rough the Open has seen since Carnoustie in 1999.
Ah, Carnoustie. Most readers will remember how a similarly wet spring caused the Angus course’s rough to get out of hand 13 years ago. Combined with some wind, rain and fairways the R&A should have known would be far too narrow, the long grass that week was responsible for a winning score of six-over 290, a cutline of 13-over 155, and the helpless 19-year-old Sergio Garcia’s 36-hole total of 30-over 172.
Mercifully, Lytham’s fairways are somewhat wider but, as Darren Clarke has indicated, anyone spraying the ball off the tee on Thursday and Friday will have absolutely no chance of surviving to the weekend.
Not only is the rough long, it is thick in a way that might actually humble some US Open venues. Tiger Woods has said the bottom six inches (note, the ‘bottom’ six inches as if that wasn’t tall enough) are as dense as any he’s ever seen, while others are predicting some balls will inevitably be swallowed up and lost despite large galleries and volunteer ball-spotters tracking their path.
The forecast does offer hope for a bright(ish) and warm(ish) weekend, but until then players will have to contend with more showers and temperatures in the high 50s. Safely arriving on the 1st on Saturday will obviously call for both world-class shot-making and a mix of patience and resilience that few players possess.
It’s certain the week will not be a happy time for many, bound up in raingear making violent slashes at a ball they can barely see and upon which they will have little or no control.
Defending champion Darren Clarke.
It would be easy to assume a golfer from the British Isles would fare best in conditions like these, just as Darren Clarke (2011), Padraig Harrington (2008), Paul Lawrie (1999), and Nick Faldo (1987 and ’92) did. But that assumption neglects two important factors; firstly Britain’s young professionals play the majority of their golf in the sunshine of America, Asia or Continental Europe these days and have done so for many years, and that golfers from overseas are equally adept at adapting to adversarial weather, most notably perhaps Tom Wesikopf at a rainy Royal Troon in 1973 and Greg Norman at an equally unappetizing Turnberry in 1986.
That said, three British golfers – Luke Donald, Justin Rose, and Lee Westwood – will begin the tournament among the favorites even if they do have a combined total of zero major wins between them. Donald, the number one player in the world for 53 of the last 60 weeks (only four players have ever accumulated more weeks at No. 1 since the rankings began in 1986 – Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, and Seve Ballesteros), arrives at Lytham after a disappointing final round 73 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart that saw him drop into a tie for 16th. Colin Montgomerie, eight-time European Order of Merit winner and now a TV analyst, suggests that because the Englishman is so short off the tee (relatively speaking of course – he’s averaging 287 yards in Europe and 274 in the US) he will need to hit more drivers than other players and will most likely miss more fairways as a result. Counter that though with his ability to get up and down from around the green and out of bunkers and a strong case for Donald winning the major championship that has so far proved elusive can easily be made.
Donald is the first to admit his major record is not yet worthy of letters home. In 36 appearances he has made the top ten just five times – his best performances third-place finishes at the 2005 Masters and 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah. At the US Open four weeks ago, he chopped his way to a two-round total of 151 and missed the cut by three shots. His best finish at the Open is a fifth at Turnberry in 2009 when he finished two shots out of the Stewart Cink/Tom Watson playoff.
You’d expect the best player in the world to put on a good show in his home country. At only 34 he has plenty of time to build a collection of majors, and his putting and short game prowess will surely keep him competitive for many years to come. But is it conceivable he might toil in vain to win the game's biggest prizes just as Montgomerie did?
It's a question that bothers Westwood too. The 39-year-old's ball-striking is significantly superior to Donald’s but his putting lags far behind. He missed the cut here in 1996 when Tom Lehman won, and finished 47th when it was last here in 2001, the year David Duval won his first (and only?) major.
He returns to Lytham as a former world number one (22 weeks total in 2010 and ’11) and the current number three, and with a hugely impressive record at the majors over the last four or five years. He has come close to landing his first major on several occasions, but hasn’t yet holed the all-important final putt or come through with a storming final nine holes. As the years drift by, one wonders if Westwood is becoming slightly anxious about the ‘0’ in the majors column, and thus harming his chances of winning the Grand Slam event his game has long deserved. With two Open appearances and a handful of Lytham Trophies from his amateur days behind him, he is very familiar with a course he says is one of the best on the Open rota. A victory here would come as no surprise, and yet Westwood and his fans would no doubt breathe an audible sigh of relief were he to remove that nagging, tedious monkey from his back.
So much water, some toxic some sweet, has passed under the bridge since Rose holed his third shot at Royal Birkdale’s 18th to finish fourth as an amateur at the 1998 Open Championship. After enduring 21 missed cuts on the European Tour early in his pro career, the 31-year-old Englishman’s star is rising steadily. Now No.9 in the world (he has actually been as high as six), and the winner of four prestigious tournaments on the PGA Tour and four in Europe, Rose finished 30th here in 2001 and, one gets the feeling, is well-prepared physically and mentally to win his first major.
Will he be smiling late Sunday afternoon?
Equally sound of body and mind it seems is Tiger Woods who, after three big wins on this year’s PGA Tour, has only to win a major to convince the doubters he is genuinely, positively, absolutely back. Despite saying the rough is unplayable in spots, the world No. 4 believes Lytham is a fair test and has good memories of the course having finished low-amateur here in 1996. Five years later he finished a disappointing T25, but there seems little reason to doubt he can rack up major No. 15 this week. He certainly doesn’t have a good record in really bad conditions, and he strangely fell down the leaderboard at the US Open at Olympic last month after going into the weekend tied for the lead, but if he packed his ‘A’ game this week, gets lucky with the draw (he goes out on Thursday at 9.42am local time and 2.43pm on Friday, but to be honest the forecast says it will be raining all day on both days), and if he can make it to the weekend in good position, he may just be the man to beat.
World No. 2 Rory McIlroy has been rather subdued the last few weeks, missing the Aberdeen Scottish Open and missing four cuts in five tournaments (including those at the US Open and BMW Championship at Wentworth), so it’s difficult to know what to expect from the Ulsterman especially as he indicated last year that poor weather and links courses might not be an ideal recipe for him (although he did try to downplay that remark earlier this week).
If McIlroy were to win, the 2011 US Open champion would of course break the sequences of different and first-time winners, sequences that Donald, Westwood, Rose, Bill Haas, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Steve Stricker, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan, and Matt Kuchar will want to maintain. You have to say the last three on that list may possess swings that are excessively flat to attack the ball out of the rough, but their stature in the game now almost demands they begin adding majors to their records.
Others looking good this week include Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington. And what about recent Irish Open winner Jaime Donaldson who won his first European Tour event on the magnificent links of Royal Portrush? Or Jeev Milka Singh who captured last week’s Aberdeen Scottish Open? Yes, Lytham has a mighty list of winners including six Hall of Famers (Bobby Jones, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros), so Donaldson or Singh would be regarded as anomalies. But weren’t Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, winners of this year's Masters and US Open, similarly unfancied at the start of the week? I’m not saying Donaldson or Singh are going to win. But they could.

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