Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
As the best golfers on the planet gear up for The Open, All Square picks the main contenders to take home the world famous Claret Jug.
No one will be looking forward to the 148th Open more than Rory McIlroy, as the championship returns to his home country of Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. The greatest golfer the country has produced will enjoy home support at the spectacular links of Royal Portrush Golf Club on the north-east coast, just 100km from his birthplace of Holywood. McIlroy broke the course record here as a 16-year-old with a 61 in the North of Ireland Championship, but the par 71, 7,337-yards course has been remodelled and extended for The Open and will provide a fresh challenge for all competitors.
It could be a fairytale victory for the 30-year-old, but home advantage will bring added pressure as he attempts to win his first major since the PGA in 2014. Teaming up with putting guru Brad Faxon and performance coach Clayton Skaggs has yielded two wins on the PGA Tour this season, including golf’s ‘fifth major’, The Players Championship, and 11 other top-10s, but he has not threatened to add to his major tally. He finished 8th at the PGA and 9th at the US Open, and a disappointing 21st at The Masters – the one remaining major he needs to win to complete his career grand slam.
At the weekend the world number three finished tied 34th on 13-under at the Scottish Open, nine shots off the lead, but he saw it as a productive outing as he tries to fine tune his game and iron out mistakes. McIlroy’s record at this event would suggest he’ll be in the mix come Sunday. He won it in 2014 at Hoylake and finished fifth, third and second in the last three years. He expects the links at Portrush to be lush and green without much firmness, and anticipates using the driver off the tee more than one would normally expect at an Open championship. So accuracy with that club could be key.
The American’s prowess at the majors places him among the favourites at The Open. But he also has a secret weapon. His caddie, Ricky Elliot, comes from Portrush and played the course as a junior. This local knowledge will undoubtedly be an advantage for Brooks Koepka, and combined with winning four of the past nine majors and finishing runner-up twice, he represents an intimidating prospect for his opponents.
Koepka’s successful PGA title defence this season, following consecutive US Open wins, made him the first golfer in history to hold two major titles back-to-back simultaneously. He also won the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges back in October, but his form recently has been rocky, including finishing in 65th at the 3M Open last week. The 29-year-old is struggling for momentum going into The Open, but traditionally he finds his best form at the majors.
His record at The Open hasn’t, yet, set the world alight. He finished just inside the top 40 at Carnoustie last year but that was largely down to a third-round 75 on a day when pretty much every other contender shot forward. He finished sixth at Royal Birkdale in 2017 and tenth at St Andrews in 2015. However, with his ‘local’ caddie by his side, the Floridian could be about to win his fifth major in his last ten outings. Many of the bookies have him joint favourite with Rory McIlroy.
Like Justin Rose, Tiger Woods has not played competitively since the US Open in mid June, where he finished tied 21st. The world number five spent much of the past month travelling with his family in Thailand. In fact he has made only three starts since winning the Masters in April at Augusta National for his 15th major championship. After winning the green jacket for a fifth time, he didn’t play again before missing the cut at Bethpage Black at the PGA in May.
The omens would appear negative. As well as rustiness, the 43-year-old’s troublesome back and general fitness will be put under severe strain by the expected damp conditions and hilly terrain. But Woods has won The Open three times before, most recently at Royal Liverpool in 2006, and experience is an advantage at this tournament perhaps more than any other. Woods was also in contention at Carnoustie last year until a poor start to his back nine on Sunday, when he had a double-bogey on the 11th and bogey on the 12th, put pay to his title ambitions.
Woods has defended his scheduling ahead of the tournament and says the break at this stage of his career helps his golf. He played the entire Portrush course on Sunday and Monday after arriving from Florida and is expected to ramp up his practice by playing at least nine holes on Tuesday and Wednesday. He’s been given a favourable tee-time of 3:10pm local time on Thursday, and his unrivalled golfing intelligence is tailor-made for this event, as is his faded ‘stinger’ off the tee. On the 10th anniversary of Tom Watson’s near miracle at Turnberry at the age of 59, don’t be surprised to see Tiger with the bit between his teeth coming down the stretch on Sunday.
Finishing joint runner-up at Carnoustie last July behind Francesco Molinari meant that Justin Rose had finally bettered the fourth place Open finish he achieved as a 17-year-old amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998, when he announced himself to the golfing world. With that monkey off his shoulder and four top-25s in his last five Open appearances, the former world number one will have his eyes set firmly on winning the Claret Jug at Portrush.
Rose has been in fine form on the regular PGA tour this season, winning the Farmers Insurance Open in January and claiming six other top 10s. But he missed the cut at the Masters and tied for 29th at the PGA, and he was in contention at the US Open until shooting 74 on Sunday which saw him finish third. The current world number four is the most improved putter on Tour, an advantage on the undulating greens of Portrush, and that might give him a chance to become the first Englishman to win The Open since Nick Faldo in 1992. Rose’s style of playing ‘within himself’, preferring accuracy over length, might be a good hand to play at Portrush, though he is no slouch of the tee.
The 38-year-old hasn’t played since the US Open at Pebble Beach in mid June, and has never gone into an Open without playing a prep event. Instead he is relying on being mentally and physically fresh, which he sees as vital in the majors, especially the energy sapping Open with its unique weather and terrain challenges. With three top threes in the majors in the last three seasons, including two seconds, Rose will be itching to add to his sole major title, the 2013 US Open. Without his 17-year-old shadow following him, he could well do it.
Taking form and confidence into account, we should also consider the chances of Jon Rahm, the giant Spaniard who won his second Irish Open at Lahinch two weeks ago. Of the two build-up events on the European Tour, the Irish seemed a better option than the Scottish Open. It was a genuine links set up with Portrush in mind, the weather conditions were similar to what is expected at Portrush, and Rahm romped home with a tournament-winning 62.
If McIlroy wants to win on home turf, the golfing romantics will also note that its the 40th anniversary of fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros claiming his maiden Open victory at Royal Lytham. Rahm has yet to crack the top 40 in an Open start, but that’s likely to change this week as he enters the tournament with perhaps more current form than any other player. Rahmbo’s convincing victory two weeks ago at the Irish Open followed on from a runner-up result at the Andalucía Masters at Valderrama and a tied 3rd finish at the US Open.
Rahm remains in search of his first major, but he’s never begun one with more momentum. His power game is well suited to links golf, and the 24-year-old these days cuts a more mature, less fiery figure. That new found calmness will serve him well during the most patience-testing tournament of the year.
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