British Open preview: Contenders, pretenders at golf’s final major

Despite what the PGA Tour calendar will tell you, the 2021 golf season in earnest wraps up this week across the Atlantic. Because even though the Tour Championship is a big deal, it’s not a major.

Golf’s major championship season wraps up this week with the British Open. Or, to those overseas as well as rights-holders stateside, “The Open Championship.” Prepare for early starts (thanks to the time difference) and bad weather (thanks to it being in England on the seacoast). Look for a European or two to come out of nowhere to make a run, perhaps only to implode on Saturday or Sunday morning.

And sadly, no Sandy Lyle or John Daly trying to relive past glories. Lyle is past the “retired champions” age of 60, and Daly has elected not to participate this year while sinking to the bottom of the leader board. (Daly had a rough go at the PGA in May).

Royal St. George’s Golf Club has hosted this event 14 times since 1894, with Darren Clarke winning the most recent Open held on its grounds in 2011. Despite its century-plus history, this southeast England course was out of the rotation from 1949 through 1981, meaning Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player didn’t post one of their combined eight titles on its grounds. It even missed the championship runs of Tom Watson and Tiger Woods.

Instead, the Royal St. George’s gets to hang its hat on the likes of Bill Rogers, Ben Curtis and Clarke.

Favorites (odds courtesy cbssports.com)

Jon Rahm (9-1): The 26-year-old is coming off of his first major win after triumphing at the U.S. Open last month. He’s first on the PGA Money List. Rahm tied for 11th in 2019. (The Open was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.) Rahm finished seventh in last weekend’s Scottish Open.

Rory McIlroy (11-1): The 2014 champion missed the cut in 2019 after tying for fifth, fourth and second from 2016 to 2018. A soccer injury kept him from defending his title in 2015. Since winning the Wells Fargo Championship in early May, he’s finished 49th at the PGA Championship, 18th at the Memorial Tournament and seventh at the U.S. Open.

Dustin Johnson (12-1): The 2020 Masters champ has endured one rough 2021, missing cuts in both the Masters and PGA Championship before tying for 19th at the U.S. Open. Johnson tied for 51st in 2019, but tied for second in 2011 at Royal St. George’s while three strokes off the winning pace.

Bryson DeChambeau (14-1): He’s ranked second on the earning’s list but hasn’t finished in the top 20 at a major since his U.S. Open victory last September. DeChambeau has missed two of three British Open cuts, tying for 51st in 2018. He’s going to get little bounce from his missing the cut at the Rocket Mortgage the first weekend of this month. We won’t dare call him a one-hit wonder … yet.

Brooks Koepka (14-1): Koepka has contended at the British Open in the past, tying for fourth in 2019 to wrap up one monster year: runner-up finishes at the Masters and U.S. Open plus his second straight PGA Championship. After placing fourth at the U.S. Open last month, he finished fifth at the Traveler’s Championship before leaving for Europe.

Jordan Spieth (18-1): The 2017 winner has tied for ninth and 20th in his last two Opens and after tying for third at the Masters has recorded 30th and 19th place showings at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. But the 27-year-old ranks sixth on the Money List and has seven top 10 finishes since the start of February.

Former champs, current contenders and recurring names

Justin Thomas (20-1): He ranks third on the Earnings List, but since winning the Player’s Championship in March, hasn’t posted a top 10 finish stateside, missing the cut at the PGA before tying for 19th at the U.S. Open. The Open Championship hasn’t been his thing; he’s missed the cut twice in four tournaments, and his best showing was tying for 11th in 2019. But Thomas tied for eighth at the Scottish Open.

Xander Schauffele (20-1): He’s yet to win a major, but has posted a pair of top tens every year since 2018, when he tied for second at Carnoustie behind Francesco Molinari. And while the 27-year-old hasn’t won a tournament this season, he does have three runner-up finishes.

Louis Ousthuizen (28-1): The 2010 winner is enjoying a bit of a resurgence this year, tying for second at the PGA Championship while finishing second at the U.S. Open. Ousthuizen’s best finish since his title was 2015, when he tied for second behind Zach Johnson at St. Andrew’s. The South African tied for 54th the last time the tournament was played at Royal St. George’s.

Shane Lowry (40-1): The defending champion tied for 21st at this year’s Masters and fourth at the PGA Championship while tying for 65th at the U.S. Open. The 34-year-old tries to become the tournament’s first repeat winner since Padraig Harrington went back-to-back in 2007-08 (other repeat winners in the modern era include Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer).

Collin Morikawa (40-1): The 2019 PGA Championship winner makes his British Open debut fresh off a strong spring where he posted four top-10 finishes in five tournaments that included the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open. He won the PGA as a first-time participant, could he continue his run of beginner’s luck here?

Phil Mickelson (50-1): The reigning PGA Championship winner doesn’t have the heartbreak here that he does at the U.S. Open, but the 2013 champ has finished runner-up twice in this event-including 2011 at Royal St. George’s. Since his 2016 second place showing Phil’s missed two of three cuts at the Open.

Former champions hoping to make the cut

Francesco Molinari (66-1): The 2018 titlist tied for 11th in 2019 and missed the cut when the tournament was held at Royal St. George’s 10 years ago. The Italian is dealing with a rough 2021, missing the cut in four of his last six PGA tournaments.

Henrik Stenson (66-1): The 2016 winner tied for 20th in 2019 and placed 68th in 2011 at Royal St. George’s. He’s also missed the cut in four of his last six majors played, and the Swede has missed the cut in six of his most recent nine PGA tournaments.

Stewart Cink (125-1): The 2009 winner tied for 20th in 2019 and finished 30th in 2011. The lone top 10 finish in a major since his British Open victory was when he tied for fourth at the 2018 PGA Championship.

Padraig Harrington (150-1): The champion in 2007 and 2008 hasn’t made the cut since 2016. His repeat victory in 2008 was also the last time he finished in the top 10. Harrington became the first Irishman to win the tournament in 2007. Shane Lowry has since joined him.

Ernie Els (500-1): The two-time (2002 and 2012) winner tied for 32nd the last time the Open was held, and missed the cut in 2011 at Royal St. George’s. His triumph nine years ago ended a run of 12 top tens in 18 years as Els hasn’t finished in the top 20 since.

Darren Clarke (500-1): The 52-year-old last made the cut in 2016. Clarke fired 68-69-69-70 to finish five under par to win the 2011 Open at Royal St. George’s.  He became the first native of Northern Ireland to win the Open (predating Rory McIlroy by three years). Meanwhile, Wales is still looking for its first Open Championship winner (even the crown dependency Jersey has a champ).  The country has more James Bond theme singers (Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones) than Open winners. What are the odds?

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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