The 145th Open Championship will be played next week, kicking off what might be the most frenzied stretch of big-time professional golf ever. We just put the World Golf Championships – Bridgestone Invitational in the books this past weekend, and the next couple months will see the following high-profile tournaments roll through the schedule: The Open Championship, the RBC Canadian Open, the PGA Championship (yes — that’s two majors in three weeks!), the Olympics, the four FedEx Cup Playoffs events and, finally, the Ryder Cup. That list doesn’t even include some of the more exciting “regular” Tour events, many of which have been moved around on the schedule to accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics.
But first, the Open. The host this year is Royal Troon Golf Club in western Scotland, which last hosted the golf season’s third major in 2004. That year, relatively little-known Todd Hamilton pulled one of the starkest upsets in 21st century golf history, beating South Africa’s Ernie Els in a playoff to secure his first and only major championship. Much has changed in golf in the last dozen years, with a totally new generation — seemingly the most talented ever — taking over the game and winning the lion’s share of major championships.
So who’s going to take home the Claret Jug this year? Here are four names we wouldn’t be surprised to see in contention come Sunday afternoon:
The Big Easy is 46 years old but seems to be making a late-career rally, coming off a solid finish at the Quicken Loans Invitational a couple weeks ago at Congressional Country Club, where he won his second of two U.S. Opens back in 1997. If specific courses bring out the best in Els, there’s good reason to believe he could turn back the clock at Troon and try to avenge his playoff loss of 12 years ago. Many thought that Els’ unlikely triumph in the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes would be his major championship curtain call, but they may have spoken four years too soon.
Els is far from the only South African with the game to win the Open Championship this year. Of the younger set, the strongest contender at the moment is probably Branden Grace. Grace is one of the best drivers of the ball in the world at the moment, and his low, penetrating ball flight off the tee is perfect for a links like Troon, where windy conditions may wreak havoc on other players’ tee shots. He has proven that he can return high finishes in majors, having finished in the top five of the last two U.S. Opens.
Henrik Stenson was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, the golf-themed “ShackHouse,” co-hosted by Geoff Shackelford and Joe House. They interviewed Stenson, who sounded as confident as ever, coming as he does off a recent European Tour victory in Germany. The 40-year-old Swede, like Grace, is long and accurate off the tee, and he sports a wonderful long-iron game to match. It would surprise no one to see him finally win a men’s major for Sweden at Troon.
Oh, Sergio. It seems like he’s held the “Best Player Without A Major” title forever now. The Open Championship represents the enigmatic but incredibly talented Spaniard’s best chance to break the seal on his major championship résumé, as the normally slower greens tend not to expose his streaky-at-best putting abilities as much as do the American major venues. But in order to finally get it done, he’ll have to overcome not only an incredibly deep field, but his own doubts and demons. If he does, it will be one of the most emotional stories in recent golf history.
A final note: There is a connection between this year’s Open Championship venue, Royal Troon, and Myrtle Beach’s own golf scene. Troon’s most famous hole is also its shortest: the par-3 eighth, nicknamed “Postage Stamp” for its diminutive putting surface. It turns out there is a replica of this hole on the Grand Strand, at World Tour Golf Links. To book your golf there or at dozens of other area courses, visit MyrtleBeachGolf.com.