The Open 2016: Who has the best chance of lifting the Claret Jug?
The Open Championship
- Royal Troon
- 14-17 July
- Live text commentary on BBC Sport website from 06:30 BST. BBC Radio 5 live 10:00-19:00, BBC Two highlights 20:00-22:00.
Those players skipping the Olympics because of fears about the Zika virus in Brazil would probably play this year's Open if there was Bubonic plague in Scotland. What's a spot of gangrene when you could win the Claret Jug?
So while the top four golfers in the world rankings - Australia's Jason Day, Americans Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy - are all giving Rio a miss, expect one of them to be in contention on Sunday afternoon at Royal Troon. If we're lucky, it might be all four of them.
The new Big Two?
The fickle nature of golf means the hierarchical dunes shift more often and more unpredictably than in any other sport. Last year, Spieth came to St Andrews having won the Masters and US Open and seemed on the verge of world domination. Twelve months on and he seems like a passing fad.
Instead, Day and Johnson have established themselves as the two best players in the world after a litany of near misses in major championships.
Day, 28, says it was last year's heartbreak at St Andrews - both he and Spieth, playing in the final group, missed the play-off by a single shot - that gave him the strength to win the USPGA at Whistling Straits the following month.
Day won five times between August and May to become world number one, had top-10 finishes at this year's Masters and US Open and finished third at the recent Bridgestone Invitational. The Queenslander's Open record before last year was poor but his two-irons under the wind and scrambling under pressure mean it will be a surprise not to see him on the leaderboard on Sunday.
Johnson, rightly or wrongly, had earned a reputation as a serial choker before winning his first major title at this year's US Open. When the 32-year-old won the Bridgestone Invitational in his very next tournament, after Day dropped four shots in his final four holes, it suggested the floodgates had left their hinges.
Johnson's major derailments include the 2010, 2011 and 2015 Opens but no-one has ever doubted he has the game to triumph in links conditions. His mind always seemed to be the problem, although it seems to be a problem no longer.
Yesterday's men? Surely not.
Former world number one and four-time major winner McIlroy has endured a maddeningly inconsistent season. The 27-year-old missed St Andrews because of injury and has not won a major title since his Open-USPGA double in 2014.
This year he missed the cut at the US Open but did win the Irish Open, his first trophy of the season, before finishing third at the French Open, his last event.
Two top-five finishes in his last three starts show that his best form isn't too far off, despite three-time Open champion Sir Nick Faldo claiming he has spotted flaws in the McIlroy swing that might help explain his fall down the rankings.
McIlroy has never been a player who relishes wet and wild conditions (witness this year's US Open) and if the wind blows hard in Ayrshire and the rough gets drenched, which it is likely to do at some point, he could fade from contention.
At last year's Open, a three and four putt in his final round scuppered Spieth's hopes of a season Grand Slam, while a back-nine meltdown at this year's Masters further demonstrated that the Texan is not, in fact, a golfing automaton.
However, Spieth's iron play was ominously good when he finished third behind Johnson at Firestone a fortnight ago. Spieth has been in Scotland since last Saturday and thorough preparation is often the difference between success and failure, especially in links golf.
Home fires burning?
The last Scotsman to win the Open was Paul Lawrie in 1999, while no Englishman has won the Claret Jug since Faldo in 1992. Furthermore, the only British player to win an Open at Troon was Arthur Havers in 1923.
Aside from McIlroy, the highest-ranked player from the United Kingdom is Masters champion Danny Willett, the world number nine. But the Yorkshireman has suffered a dip in form since winning his first major, meaning patriotic punters wanting to back a Brit might want to look elsewhere.
World number 22 Chris Wood announced himself with top-five finishes in his first two Opens, in 2008 and 2009, and won the BMW PGA Championship in difficult conditions in May. Wood has been in impressive form for the last few months and if he isn't hampered by a recent neck injury, he could feature.
Former US Open champion Justin Rose has had his fair share of struggles at the Open since finishing fourth as an amateur in 1998. He finished tied for sixth at a rain-sodden St Andrews last year but he has been hampered by a back injury this season. Rose missed the cut at the US Open and was well off the pace at Firestone.
After many years of being the reluctant nearly man of golf, people have almost stopped talking about Lee Westwood being a potential major contender. But the former world number one has cut down his schedule and been in pretty decent form of late. If his old mate Darren Clarke could do it in 2011, then maybe Westwood can too.
And keep an eye out for home favourite Colin Montgomerie, an honorary member of Royal Troon who will hit the first tee shot on Thursday.
Montgomerie might be 53, but so was Greg Norman when he finished third in 2008, while Tom Watson was 59 when he almost won in 2009. In addition, three of the last five champions were over 40, while Zach Johnson was 39 when he triumphed last year.
The global challenge
Zach Johnson beat Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman in a play-off to win at St Andrews last year but hasn't had a win this season. However, he comes to Troon with top-10 finishes at the US Open and Bridgestone Invitational behind him.
Johnson and his fellow Americans might be pleased to know that the last six champions at Troon have hailed from across the Atlantic, ranging from the legendary (Arnold Palmer in 1962, Tom Watson in 1982) to the unheralded (Todd Hamilton in 2004, the last time the Open was played at the course).
|The Open first round: key Thursday tee-off times|
|06:35 Marc Leishman (Aus), Colin Montgomerie (Sco), Luke Donald||09:25 Danny Willett (Eng), Rickie Fowler (US), Jason Day (Aus)|
|08:25 Padraig Harrington (Ire), Louis Oosthuizen (SA), Jamie Donaldson (Wal)||09:36 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Rory McIlroy (NI), Bubba Watson (US)|
|09:03 Justin Rose (Eng), Jordan Spieth (US), Shane Lowry (Ire)||14:15 Zach Johnson (US), Adam Scott (Aus), Henrik Stenson (Swe)|
Rickie Fowler missed the cut at the Masters and US Open, hasn't won all season but has had a host of top-10 finishes. Fowler often thrives in tricky conditions, as shown by a fine third-round 68 at Royal St George's in 2011.
Australia's Adam Scott threw away the chance to become an Open champion in 2012, when he made four bogeys at the last four holes to hand the title to Ernie Els, and again at St Andrews last year. Scott, Masters champion in 2013, has won twice this year and there are few better ball-strikers in world golf.
On the European front, a decent outside bet is Germany's two-time major winner Martin Kaymer. Kaymer has slipped to 52 in the world rankings but has four top-10 in finishes in six European Tour events this season, as well as finishing 13th at last week's Scottish Open.
The par-three eighth at Royal Troon is the shortest hole on the Open rota but also one of the most terrifying, especially when the wind is blowing.
The Postage Stamp only measures 123 yards but its green slopes towards a cavernous bunker to the right, which has ruined the Open dreams of many. It is also not unusual for a player to take a wedge one day and a six iron the next, depending on how hard the wind blows in off the Firth of Clyde.
The par-four 11th is a horror show. Having turned into the wind at the 10th, players face a blind tee shot, with gorse lining the left-hand side of a narrow fairway and a railway line, which gives the hole its name, out right. Even if they find the short stuff, there remains a long second into a small green nestled next to the tracks. On his Open debut in 1962, Jack Nicklaus made a 10 here.
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