The 149th Open: Experience Matters

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Hello, old friend. The Open returns for its first playing since 2019 and its 149th overall. Over the last couple of decades, there haven’t been too many surprises at this championship despite the inherent luck that it may take to claim victory. As it was here 18 years ago at Royal St. George’s Golf Club that an unknown American by the name of Ben Curtis came through after disaster struck the great Dane that is Thomas Bjorn on the 70th hole of the championship.

The following year at Royal Troon Golf Club, it was Todd Hamilton’s turn to play Cinderella. The clock almost struck midnight on the 72nd hole as Ernie Els faced a 12-foot birdie putt for the claret jug. Alas it wasn’t meant to be for the smooth-swinging South African, who would later grab his second Open title at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club eight years down the road. Instead, it was Hamilton’s moment, as the journeyman, who spent more than his fair share of time on the Japan Golf Tour, carded four pars in the four-hole aggregate playoff to win by one-stroke.

From them, the only other outlier lies in that of Darren Clarke at this very property eight years removed from Curtis’s unlikely claim to the claret jug. Holding off the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, and Anthony Kim was no small feat as the golf gods had their Champion Golfer of the Year picked out from the start.

This does beg the question; how much can we take from 2003 and 2011? While both winners were unlikely, the leaderboards as a whole were not. Clarke struck his irons beautifully that rainy week in July, ranking second in greens in regulation (GIR) percentage. Curtis took a more balanced approach in his browned-out Open, ranking inside the top-25 of: driving distance, driving accuracy, greens in regulation percentage, scrambling percentage, and total putts.

It’s a simple concept, but an all-around player will be needed with iron-play and experience being weighted a touch more. While luck may abandon us at times, we’ll target those players in head-to-head matchups that have an even keel demeanor and are able to take the bad breaks on the chin and simply move onto the next shot.

Head-to-Head Matchups (Odds Via PointsBet Sportsbook):

Brooks Koepka (-143) over Bryson DeChambeau

In a matchup that everyone would love to see come down to the final hole on Sunday, I don't see it going that far. While Koepka has ample experience playing in this area of the world, having spent a period of time on the European Challenge Tour, DeChambeau does not.

The 2020 U.S. Open champion has struggled when he’s made the short trek across the pond. In three appearances in The Open, DeChambeau has two missed cuts and a T-51 finish, coming at a firm and fast Carnoustie in 2018.

Not only that, but the argument could be made that this year doubles as a debut. A completely transformed golfer compared to years past, DeChambeau’s bomb and gouge strategy has yet to take the links golf test. Add in a brand-new caddie whose first loop will be this week at Royal St. George’s and the task at hand becomes all the more difficult. While the long drives may help, it’s his struggling short-game that makes me thinking he may fail this examination.

Koepka on the other hand is an A-student when it comes to major championships. A runner-up finish at the PGA Championship and a top-5 finish at the U.S. Open were to the surprise of no one, despite recent injury concerns. The way he’s been striking the ball, it’s likely he finds himself in a similar position come Sunday, as he did in 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club when he finished in a tie for fourth.

Louis Oosthuizen (-127) over Viktor Hovland

This head-to-head will kick-off a theme for our next three matchups. While it’s always a tough bargain to wager against some of the brightest stars in the game, The Open justifies it. Especially when considering not only their opponents, but the status of their games.

Hovland has yet to truly contend in a major championship and I don’t see that changing at The Open. After withdrawing from the U.S. Open, Hovland went to Munich, Germany and captured the BMW International Open. Despite the victory, Hovland’s tee-to-green game was actually a bit sloppy.

Finishing the week 35th in Strokes Gained: Approach and 90th in SG: Around-the-Green, Hovland’s putter carried the load. Gaining north of nine-strokes on the greens, it’ll be hard to repeat such a performance. If the rest of his game doesn’t pick up, it could be an early exit for the wide-eyed Norwegian.

Truth be told, I can’t envision Oosthuizen finishing runner-up for a third consecutive major championship. That being said, he should still have a solid go around Royal St. George’s. The irons have been impeccable and when the short-game is in tune, Oosthuizen contends. He’s one of the best putters in professional golf and when faced with momentum-saving putts to avoid bogey or worse, I am more confident in his ability than Hovland’s.

Patrick Cantlay (-121) over Collin Morikawa

Simply put, I love Cantlay this week. His possesses all the skillsets needed to contend in The Open, it may just be a matter of getting more reps under his belt. That being said, I still expect him to have a very solid week at Royal St. George’s given the nature of his game.

Straight off-the-tee, precise with irons, competent on and around-the-greens. A T-12 in his Open debut at Carnoustie Golf Links has been his best finish thus far, but he still made the weekend at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Conditions and weather alike should be similar to that blustery, wet week in Northern Ireland, and that experience just two years ago should come to Cantlay’s aid.

Morikawa got his feet wet on the links golf scene last week at the Scottish Open. Outside of a nine-hole stretch on Friday, it wasn’t pretty. While we have grown accustomed to precise iron shots from the 2020 PGA champion, links golf may take some time to learn, especially at Royal St. George’s. If the irons are just a touch off, the short-game won’t be able to keep up, and Morikawa could struggle.

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Lee Westwood (+182) over Scottie Scheffler

Experience, experience, experience. This will be the truest test of our theory as Westwood comes to The Open with not a ton of form. Having grabbed the lead at the Scottish Open in the third round, Westwood promptly made two double-bogeys and dropped himself out of contention. However, he showed me more than enough at the Renaissance Club and should always be a consideration at The Open.

A top-5 finish at Royal Portrush Golf Club in 2019 only added to his lengthy number of close-calls in major championships. In The Open specifically, he boasts another top-5 in 2013 and hasn’t missed the weekend since 2014 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. Links golf is an acquired taste and with most of his game in a solid spot, Westwood’s week has the potential play out similarly to Clarke’s in 2011.

Scheffler is rolling, there’s no denying that. Strong showings in the World Golf Championships have been followed up with top-10 finishes at the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open. He came to Scotland, fired a second round 63, and looked undisturbed by the links golf setting. Yet, I still have my doubts about his prospects for the week.

Outside of his driving, the rest of his tee-to-green game was lacking. 61st in SG: Approach and 111th in SG: Around-the-Green were masked by a hot flat stick. That is typically Scheffler’s route to success, but he has yet to follow up a great putting performance one week with another one the following week. I can’t imagine Royal St. George’s is the spot where this trend bucks, and if that proves true, he may run into his fair share of trouble.

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