Unlike the well-known courses that hosted the first three golf majors of the year — Augusta National, Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach — we have next to nothing to go on when it comes to Royal Portrush, the Northern Ireland course where this year’s British Open will take place starting early Thursday.
The course — which features ominous-sounding hole names such as Giant’s Grave, Himalayas and Calamity Corner (the 16th hole, a long par 3 that plays uphill and usually into the wind while also requiring golfers to clear or at least avoid a rough-filled gorge down the right side) — last hosted the British Open in 1951 and has been significantly redone since it hosted the 2012 Irish Open, to the point where any attempt at predicting the result based on course history would be akin to me trying to birdie Calamity Corner.
But prognosticate I must, and the last couple of majors have worked out well for yours truly. While failing to predict Brooks Koepka winning the PGA Championship, I did target the solo second-place finisher (Dustin Johnson), T-3 (Patrick Cantlay), T-8 (Rory McIlroy and Gary Woodland) and T-16 (Hideki Matsuyama) while also predicting that Tiger Woods could struggle at Bethpage Black (he did, missing the cut). Then I targeted 80/1 long shot Woodland as a U.S. Open contender, and he came through with the first grand-slam win of his career. (I also foresaw Phil Mickelson having some trouble, and he tied for 52nd.)
Here’s how I’m going about my predictions for the year’s final major, and some of the golfers I’m thinking could raise the Claret Jug on Sunday.
As Steve Schirmer of the Sports Gambling Podcast points out, seven of the past nine British Open winners and five of the past seven had won an event in the year leading up to the tournament. Last year, for instance, Francesco Molinari had two wins and two second places in his five tournaments that preceded his title at Carnoustie. The year before at Royal Birkdale, Jordan Spieth won his final start before the Open. In 2016, Henrik Stenson had a win and a T-13 in the two tournaments he played in before outdueling Phil Mickelson to hoist the Claret Jug at Troon.
So I’ll be looking at contenders who have played well recently.
Strokes gained: tee-to-green
Strokes gained: off the tee
Strokes gained: putting
As of Monday, the weather forecast suggested Thursday may be the roughest day of the tournament, with winds approaching 15 mph as the day goes on. At least some rain is forecast for all four days. No matter the conditions, proper placement off the tee, the ability to grind though the course and weather, and accuracy with the putter should be key this weekend.
THE FAVORITES (all odds as of Wednesday via Super Book USA golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman):
Rory McIlroy (8/1)
Playing on his home soil, on a (now-altered) course at which he famously shot a 61 as a 16-year-old in 2005, McIlroy is the favorite for many reasons. He leads the PGA Tour in SG: tee-to-green and SG: off the tee, is T-26 in scrambling and 40th in SG: putting and has two wins this season — one of them in early June at the Canadian Open, on a course also designed by Royal Portrush architect Harry Colt — to go along with nine other top 10s. But McIlroy also will be feeling an almost unbearable amount of pressure to win Northern Ireland’s first Open Championship in 68 years along with his first major since the 2014 PGA Championship.
Brooks Koepka (10/1)
Koepka, as you’ve probably heard, is a monster at majors, winning four of the last nine and three of the last six he’s played. This year, he won the PGA Championship, tied for second at the Masters and was alone in second behind Gary Woodland at the U.S. Open. His numbers off the tee have been solid this season, and there’s also this: Ricky Elliott, Koepka’s Irish caddie, grew up only about a quarter-mile from Royal Portrush and estimates that he’s played more than 1,000 rounds on the course. It also should be noted, via ESPN’s Chris Fallica, that each of the last six British Open champions were ranked in the top 25 of the Official World Golf Rankings — four of the last six were ranked in the top eight — yet none of the last 10 champions finished better than 30th in the previous year’s tournament. Ranked No. 1 in the world, Koepka was 39th last year at Carnoustie.
Jon Rahm (16/1)
The hot-tempered Spaniard ranks fourth in SG: off the tee and 15th in SG: tee to green and won his most recent start earlier this month at the Irish Open, firing a final-round 62 to win on a Lahinch course that should prove to be a pretty good comparison to the conditions at Royal Portrush (Rahm also has a PGA Tour win at the Zurich Classic in April). But he’s been boom or bust at majors: Over his last seven grand slams, he’s either finished in the top 10 (four times) or missed the cut (three times, most recently at the PGA Championship last month). Rahm also fits the Fallica criteria listed above (he’s No. 8 in the world and missed the Open Championship cut last year).
The other golfers in the field who are ranked in the top 25 of the OWGR yet finished 30th or worse last year: Dustin Johnson (12/1), Bryson DeChambeau (25/1), Gary Woodland (60/1), Paul Casey (50/1), Bubba Watson (200/1), Matt Wallace (50/1) and Marc Leishman (60/1).
Justin Rose (20/1)
The Englishman has only two top 10s at the British Open, but one of them was last year’s T-2 at Carnoustie. He also has a win this year at the Farmers Insurance Open in January and is coming off a T-3 at the U.S. Open, his most recent tournament, when he entered the final round just one stroke behind the leader Woodland but faltered with a 74 on Sunday. This season, Rose ranks 23rd in SG: tee-to-green, 18th in scrambling and fourth in SG: putting.
Patrick Cantlay (25/1)
The 27-year-old is making only his second British Open appearance after last year’s T-12 at Carnoustie. The stats are there — Cantlay is 10th in SG: off the tee, fourth in SG: tee-to-green, first in scrambling and 25th in SG: putting — and the current form is, as well: Cantlay beat out a pretty strong field to win the Memorial in early June and has top 10s in seven other tournaments, including both the Masters (T-9) and PGA Championship (T-3).
Henrik Stenson (25/1)
There is, of course, Stenson’s masterful win three years ago at Troon, when he beat Mickelson by three strokes (to illustrate the separation those two had, Lefty finished 11 shots ahead of third-place J.B. Holmes). Stenson also has a second-place finish and two T-3s on his British Open resume. Always strong off the tee, the Swede tied for fourth at last weekend’s Scottish Open and tied for ninth at the U.S. Open, his two most recent tournaments.
Bernd Wiesberger (80/1)
This is purely a recent-form play, because the Austrian almost exclusively contends on the European PGA Tour, which guards its strokes-gained statistics much more closely. Wiesberger’s lone American tournament this year was a 76th-place finish at the U.S. Open and he’s never finished better than T-16 at a major, but the European Tour’s points leader is coming off a playoff win at last weekend’s Scottish Open and a T-2 behind Rahm at the Irish Open the week before, plus a win in Denmark in May that he followed up with an eighth-place finish in Belgium the next week.
Webb Simpson (80/1)
The 2018 U.S. Open winner ranks second in scrambling and 22nd in SG: putting this season, and while he hasn’t won in 2019, the 33-year-old has finished no worse than T-29 in his last six tournaments, with a T-2 behind McIlroy on the aforementioned Harry Colt-designed course at the Canadian Open and a T-16 at this year’s U.S. Open.
But what about Tiger Woods (16/1)?
Woods has won this tournament three times and memorably announced his return to competitive major play at last year’s British Open, tying for the lead on Sunday’s back nine before faltering and finishing three strokes behind Molinari. But he’s only played three tournaments since his Masters win in April, one of them a missed cut at the PGA Championship when he was done in by Bethpage Black’s hills and length. Royal Portrush has similar undulations and is the third-longest course on the Open Championship rotation, which doesn’t bode well for someone with noted back problems. Throw in some possible weather, and another major this year doesn’t seem all that likely.
The Golf Channel’s Tiger Tracker didn’t like what it heard from Woods in his remarks to reporters after a practice round Tuesday.
ODDS (all odds as of Sunday via Super Book USA golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman)
Rory McIlroy 8/1
Brooks Koepka 10/1
Dustin Johnson 12/1
Jordan Spieth 14/1
Jon Rahm 16/1
Tiger Woods 16/1
Justin Rose 20/1
Xander Schauffele 20/1
Francesco Molinari 25/1
Patrick Cantlay 25/1
Tommy Fleetwood 25/1
Justin Thomas 25/1
Adam Scott 25/1
Henrik Stenson 25/1
Rickie Fowler 30/1
Matt Kuchar 30/1
Louis Oosthuizen 40/1
Jason Day 40/1
Hideki Matsuyama 40/1
Bryson DeChambeau 50/1