Anything can happen in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale

Padraig Harrington hopes to be in the mix at Royal Birkdale. Picture: PA.
Padraig Harrington hopes to be in the mix at Royal Birkdale. Picture: PA.
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The Open. Rarely has the title seemed more appropriate. It would be stretching things to say that you could go all the way down the list of 156 players in trying to pick a winner for the event’s 146th staging, but it really is the most open of Open Championships for quite some time.

Strangely for this event or any of the other majors, there’s no-one sticking out as an obvious leading contender to become Champion Golfer of the Year in 2017, which is actually a good thing as it is making the season’s third major even more intriguing than 
usual.

World No 1 Dustin Johnson, of course, was set to head into The Masters back in April as a red-hot favourite on the back of three successive wins, including two World Golf Championships, until he injured himself and had to pull out without even making it to the first tee.

In truth, he’s never really come close to recapturing that red-hot form from earlier in the year, which makes second-ranked Hideki Matsuyama a more likely contender here, especially if he can produce the form that earned the Japanese player a share of second spot in last month’s US Open at Erin Hills.

Next on that world ranking list is Jordan Spieth and, having won twice on the PGA Tour this season, the Texan certainly can’t be discounted as he attempts to become the sixth American to claim the Claret Jug in Southport after Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983) and Mark O’Meara (1998).

Put it this way, it will be a surprise 
if Spieth doesn’t become Open 
champion one day and, by the sounds of things, this year’s venue has got his juices flowing. As those two victories testify, his putting is back to where 
it was when he won the The Masters and US Open two years ago and 
that makes him dangerous on any course.

What counts against the likes of Matsuyama, Spieth and also Rickie Fowler is that they don’t 
yet have the experience that seems to be key these days in this event. 
Only two out of the last 10 winners have been under 30, namely Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 and Rory 
McIlroy in 2014.

On the upside, Matsuyama and Fowler tick one box that could help point to the winner on Sunday. The last seven majors have all produced first-time winners, Jason Day having sparked that run when claiming the 2015 US PGA and since having been emulated by Danny Willett (2016 Masters), Henrik Stenson (2016 Open), Jimmy Walker (2016 US PGA), Sergio Garcia (2017 Masters) and Brooks Koepka (2017 US Open).

It’s a sequence of results that reflects golf really being blessed at the moment with a wide pool of talent and there will be no harm whatsoever done if that trend continues over the next four days on the Lancashire coast, where the weather had been majestic until a thunderstorm arrived around tea time on Wednesday.

By then, thankfully, most players had completed their meticulous preparations, with some having had more time to do that than they would ideally have liked. For McIlroy, though, arriving here earlier than scheduled after missing the cut in the Scottish Open could prove a silver lining. Yes, of course, he is under-raced this season in terms of competitive rounds and that’s not ideal heading into any event, far less the one he regards as the biggest of them all. He’s used that extra couple of days here, though, to reacquaint himself with a course he last played in the 2005 Amateur Championship.

Make no mistake, McIlroy will be back to his best before long and, 
provided he gets off to a decent start, then it could well be this week, when fifth-ranked Day is also more than capable of shaking off his similar indifferent form over the past few months to be another player who could end that burst of first-time major winners.

What also needs to be taken into account, of course, is the Scottish Open factor. Five of the last six Open champions played in the Scottish Open the previous week. Darren Clarke, in 2011, got that ball rolling and has since been joined by Ernie Els (2012), Phil Mickelson (2013), McIlroy (2014) and Stenson (2015).

If that’s the key again, then Matsuyama is ruled out but not Fowler. He used last week’s event at Dundonald Links to get himself ready for this test and, having won the 2015 Scottish Open at Gullane, the 28-year-old will probably fancy his chances more heading into this week than in any of previous seven Open appearances, which include a tie for second at Royal Liverpool in 2014 and a share of fifth at Royal St George’s in 2011.

With two second places and eight other top 10s, Masters champion Sergio Garcia certainly can’t be discounted. Neither, of course, can rising Spanish star Jon Rahm, especially on the back of his sensational six-shot success in the Irish Open at Portstewart. With Rafa Cabrera Bello having won the Scottish Open on Sunday, the Spaniards are on a links roll.

Incredibly, it’s been 25 years since an Englishman – Nick Faldo – picked up the Claret Jug and that should certainly be an incentive for the likes of Justin Rose, Matt Fitzpatrick, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and, of course, Tommy Fleetwood, who will have half of Lancashire out supporting him in an event being played in his home town.

Having completed back-to-back wins in the event here nine years ago, don’t be surprised to see Padraig Harrington in the mix again, especially after playing well on three out of four days in the Scottish Open, where a downbeat assessment of his game at the denouement suggests that Stenson doesn’t fancy his chances of doing what Harrington achieved in 2008 by hanging on to the Claret Jug for another 12 months.

It would be a surprise if a Scot – seven are in the field – emerged as a title contender but we can certainly live in hope, especially with it looking to be such a wide open contest. That storm will certainly have softened up this gem of a golf course in the dunes below Southport, where it is expected to be windy on all four days though without anyone really getting on either the good or bad side of the draw.

This, of course, is the first Open since the death of both Palmer and another former champion, Roberto de Vicenzo, with tributes being paid to both around the 18th arena, where all that intrigue will unfold at the finish on Sunday.