THE wait has been long, but boy is it good to be back on the linksland, awaiting four days of major championship action. Just walking through the gates on Sunday afternoon proved soothing to the soul: the flags on the back of the 18th green grandstands, the famous yellow scoreboard, the distant dunes, and the neatly-dressed golfers strolling across golf’s natural terrain.
Shane Lowry has retuned the Claret Jug after his unlikely two year hold on it and now the fight is on to become the 149th Champion Golf of the Year. The course is in wonderful condition and first sighting of it for me was the 18th green, an extraordinary putting surface that looks like a duvet cover that has been tossed across someone sleeping in a very awkward position. The desire to go and have a putt on it was strong. Alas, I’ve got no hope. That challenge awaits the field – who will prevail? Here’s three (actually four) men with a great chance.
Expect a lot of guarded, and sometimes not so guarded, comments about Royal St George’s this week. The course is famous for it hog’s back fairways and the random kicks they produce. Balls can land in the middle of the fairway, apparently safe, then ricochet towards the rough or bunkers that are notoriously difficult to make progress from. Head green-keeper Paul Larsen has widened the fairways, but it’s safe to say that many players will be missing fairways and frustrated. For Jordan Spieth, on the other hand, it will be business as usual.
Another key element of the test this week will play rather more straightforwardly into Spieth’s hands: those undulating greens, regularly referenced as among the sloppiest on the Open rota by players in 2011. Putting maestro Ben Crenshaw has often cooed at the imagination Spieth utilises to tame the Augusta National putting surfaces and the man himself says his best performances are fuelled by difficult greens. More good news, then.
And then there is his form, which is excellent (10 top-20 finishes in his last 12 strokeplay starts) and his Open record strong, too. He first threatened to win in 2015, missing out on a play-off by just the one shot; he completed victory in sensational style at Royal Birkdale in 2017; and he shared the 54-hole lead at Carnoustie 12 months later.
I remain keen on the chances of Tyrrell Hatton, but there’s no need to repeat what I wrote in the ante-post preview two weeks ago – we’ve got him on-board and he closed last week with a superb 65. Next up, then, is South African Branden Grace who fulfils three trends of winners of the Claret Jug: nine of the last 10 had already recorded a championship top 10, nine of 10 played the week before (six of the last nine played links golf), and eight of the last ten were winners that year. Grace finished tied sixth at Royal Birkdale in 2017, made the cut last week at The Renaissance Club, and won the Puerto Rico Open in February.
That victory came by the ocean and it’s far from his only decent golf in such locations. He’s a winner of the Dunhill Links Championship, has finished second at Castle Stuart, and has also won at Harbour Town on the PGA Tour which, in marked contrast to Royal St George’s, has flat fairways, but winners and runners-up at RSG do have rather a good record there for what it’s worth. Perhaps more importantly, Grace is in a really nice trot of form: he contended until the final round at the PGA Championship, finished tied fourth at the Memorial, and then landed tied seventh at the US Open.
Matt slammed in the winner of the US Open with his main pick!
⛳️ It's been a staggering 13 years since Tiger Woods produced one of the greatest wins of his career!@MattCooperGolf previews this year's edition, and has a sensational 80/1 tip he fancies to go all the way #USOpen
— Unibet (@unibet) June 16, 2021
Final selection is a big price, but veteran Stewart Cink could give us a great ride this week. He’s perhaps most famous for blowing a raspberry at the 2009 Open, defeating Tom Watson in a play-off and thus blowing a hole one in what would have been golf’s greatest-ever story. He struggled a bit with that knowledge and it took him another nine years to record another top three finish anywhere in the world, and two years on top of that before he won again.
That happened earlier this season at the Safeway Open and he backed it up with an even more impressive effort in The Heritage at Harbour Town, winning by four shots. In themselves, those results are excellent, but here’s what he said a week earlier, as he exited the Masters: “I think I can definitely compete and win a major. I’ve never played with the kind of control I’m playing with right now. Life is in a good spot for me.” He hasn’t missed a cut since that second win for the year and his long game stats last time out were superb. I also really like that, even when he struggled with his game elsewhere, he played well at the Open. In fact, he’s finished top 25 in three of his last four starts. With the big price it might be an idea to split the stake between both the outright and first round leader markets.