The Angus course is a different test this time, compared to when it was dubbed “Car-nasty” in 1999 and also when it last visited here 11 years ago. It’s running so fast, in fact, following the recent dry spell that players have been getting close to the Barry Burn in front of the 18th green in practice rounds. To put that into perspective, the toughest closing hole in golf measures 499 yards and Paul Lawrie hit a 4-iron for his second shot there in a play-off when he claimed the Claret Jug 19 years ago.
“It’s similar to Muirfield in 2013 when Phil Mickelson won,” observed Lyle as the world’s top players finished off their preparations for the season’s third major, the eighth time it has been held at the Angus venue after producing wins for Tommy Armour (1931), Henry Cotton (1937), Ben Hogan (1953), Gary Player (1968), Tom Watson (1975), Paul Lawrie (1999) and Padraig Harrington (2007). “I’d never seen it like that. That year only one player finished under par. The course showed its teeth that year and I think it will be the same here.”
Creativity is set to be the key, according to the man who has excelled when faced with this sort of test in the past. Tiger Woods, remember, negotiated his way around Royal Liverpool in 2006 without hitting a single driver as he claimed the last of three wins in the event. He will be hitting his driver here, but a similar strategy will be in operation. “I think it’s just understanding how to play the golf course and how to play these kind of conditions,” said Woods, pictured, who is making a welcome return to the championship after missing the last two due to his chronic back trouble. “I think trajectory means a lot. This course can be played so many different ways and what is going to be the real interesting test is how we’re going to manage our way around the golf course.
“Because the ball is going to be rolling 80 yards, it’s just hard to keep it in play. Even hitting sometimes 4 and 5 irons, they’ve been running 50, 60 yards. It’s going to be an interesting test to see which clubs we’re going to be using off the tees, and a lot of it is dependent on which way the wind blows.”
That is set to be at its strongest on Sunday, with gusts of between 20-25mph being predicted as this battle to be “Champion Golfer of the Year” reaches the business end. According to the bookmakers, Dustin Johnson (12-1), Justin Rose (14-1) and Rickie Fowler (16-1) are the three leading contenders, followed by Rory McIlroy (18-1), Jon Rahm (20-1) and defending champion Jordan Spieth (20-1).
Based on what has happened in recent majors, it will be an American winner on Sunday night. Since Sergio Garcia won the Masters early last year, the game’s biggest prizes have gone to Spieth in this event 12 months ago at Royal Birkdale, Brooks Koepka (2017 and 2018 US Opens), Justin Thomas (2017 US PGA Championship) and Patrick Reed (2018 Masters). Though Europeans have enjoyed lots of success on the PGA Tour this season, it would be a timely boost heading into the Ryder Cup in France in September if the Claret Jug stayed on this side of the Atlantic on Sunday night.
That’s not going to happen, according to the results of some data crunching of the statistics of every winner since 1966. Commissioned by GolfCare, one of the game’s leading insurance companies, it helps to be right-handed – only one-left handed golfer has won in the last 52 years. The average Open winner is 33 years old, married and has three children. On average, he can hit the ball 298 yards, his typical score is nine under par and the average margin of victory is three. The player that most matches that profile in this week’s field is Johnson. He is closely followed by Rose, though, and the Englishman is my tip to come out on top.
Nick Faldo, in 1990, was the last Englishman to pick up the Claret Jug but, with seven players currently in the world’s top 50, this could well be the year for that Open drought to end. It is exactly 20 years since Rose finished fourth as an amateur at Royal Birkdale. You get the feeling he is ready to deliver as a professional in this event. His form has been great coming into this week and, a bit like at Merion, where he won the 2013 US Open, this is the sort of test that should be right up his street.
South African Branden Grace, a links specialist, as he showed when becoming the first player to card a 62 in a men’s major in the third round a year ago, is another player likely to be quietly fancying his chances, as will Fowler after his encouraging Scottish Open warm- up at Gullane last week, while you certainly can’t discount Spieth’s hopes of becoming the first back-to-back winner in 2006 since Woods. Can he win? Well, those eyes were glistening as he talked about this week’s challenge and that means he’s fancying it, for sure.
In its fast-running condition, this magnificent course will sort the men from the boys over the next four days, with recent history here suggesting it will take more than 72 holes to determine a winner. The last three Open stagings at Carnoustie, after all, have all required play-offs.