The record books point to Henrik Stenson being a man to watch. Five of the past nine winners of an Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, after all, have been repeat champions. Nick Faldo, though, reckons an Englishman could prevail in this year’s Claret Jug joust and take away one of his records.
Faldo is the last player from south of the Border to have tasted victory in the world’s oldest major, chalking up his third triumph in the event at Muirfield in 1992. But, with Justin Rose, Paul Casey and, of course, local lad Tommy Fleetwood in good form this season, the six-time major winner believes that drought could be about to end at the Southport venue in July.
“I regard myself as British as well and Rory [McIlroy] stepped in and Paul Lawrie,” replied Faldo, speaking in a teleconference from Florida to promote the event, when reminded of how long it had actually been since the Cross of St George had sat alongside the name of a Champion Golfer of the Year.
“But, if we are talking Englishmen, the time is really positive right now with Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and Paul Casey. Maybe this is the time for the 25-year run to end.”
Rose, of course, has history at this year’s venue. A 17-year-old amateur at the time, he chipped in at the last to finish joint fourth behind Mark O’Meara in 1988. That was followed by a torrid start to his professional career, but Rose is heading back to Merseyside with one major in the bag, having claimed the US Open in 2013, and come perilously close to adding a second one when he was pipped in a play-off by Sergio Garcia in the Masters earlier this month. “Rose is definitely a serious contender because of everything – where he is in his career and the fact he’s a major champion,” added Faldo, pictured. “Having come up short in the Masters, he’s going to be hugely inspired going back to Birkdale.”
Fleetwood even more so, perhaps. He was born in Southport and still lives locally. The 26-year-old will be heading into a first Open Championship on his doorstep in the form of his life, having won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship this year, finished second to world No 1 Dustin Johnson in the WGC-Mexico Championship and, most recently, closed with a 62 to just miss out on victory in the Shenzhen International in China.
“I think he’s progressing,” observed Faldo of Fleetwood. “I’ve heard the players talking and they say he is very much Stenson-style solidity and strength in ball-striking. They [the English player] will be inspired by Danny Willett [winning the Masters last year]. They have played with Danny a lot and they think, wow, if he can do that, I can do that. They play with Sergio; if he can do that, I can do that. I think European golf is good and I think the European guys can contend at the Open.”
As for Faldo, he’ll have a microphone in his hand in July rather than a golf club, having decided to stick with his decision to call time on his Open career at St Andrews in 2015. “I had the most wonderful send-off on the Swilken Bridge,” he recalled.
“I had just birdied 17. I’m in the sunshine. I’ve got my old Pringle from ’87 and I didn’t realise until I got there that week that was my 100th major, so I think it all made sense. I don’t think I can have a better send-off from the Open ever.
“So, I’m very happy to call it a day playing the Open Championship.”