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The Open is back, and the scene is set at possibly the most unpredictable venue in the rota.
Since the inception of the Official World Golf Rankings in 1986, only four players ranked outside the top 100 have won a major. Two of those occasions have been at Royal St. George's: Ben Curtis' shock in 2003, and Darren Clarke's run to the Claret Jug 10 years ago the last time the tournament was played here. RSG is considered quirky in some circles, unfair in others, but the sentiment remains clear that this is a place where the ball can bounce in some funny directions. Or, as one player once put it, welcome to "the world's largest pinball machine."
Between an unpredictable venue, steady winds in the forecast and a field that has been ravaged by COVID-related withdrawals, this feels like a week where some weird stuff can happen. So while I'm leading my picks with a notable former champ, I'm leaning much more heavily on high-priced options toward the middle and back of the pack. Often times in majors, it feels like the list of potential winners runs only 20 or 30 names deep. The possible candidates seem much more diverse this time around for the final major of 2021.
To Win (odds via PointsBet Sportsbook)
Jordan Spieth (+1800): I'm going against my own logic by investing in Spieth at a relatively short price, but that's how well his game seems to fit this week's test. Royal St. George's is a place where greens in regulation are hard to come by, with Curtis and Clarke both winning despite hitting 56 percent or less for the week (for perspective, Shane Lowry had a 79 percent GIR rate two years ago at Royal Portrush). Spieth remains one of the best iron players around, and his resurgence since February has been remarkable: 12 of his last 14 results have been inside the top 20. He has, quite simply, been a perennial contender. He won this tournament four years ago at Royal Birkdale, the last time it was held in England, and leads the field in SG: Total over the last six years at The Open. He has the requisite magic on and around the greens and the disposition to handle the inevitable bad bounce that will come his way.
Daniel Berger (+6000): Berger was a late addition to the field last week at the John Deere, and while he didn't contend at Deere Run he played solidly. A T-7 finish last month at the U.S. Open reinforced his pedigree in majors, and like Spieth's he's a tremendous talent with an iron in hand (14th this season in SG: Approach). His biggest weakness is around the greens, something that should be mitigated by the fact that the greenside bunkers at RSG are some of the hardest from which to salvage par. In short, everyone will struggle at times around these greens. Berger won earlier this year at Pebble Beach and has played to an elite level for weeks at a time. His ball flight should suit him well this week if (when) the winds kick up, and it feels like this price point is a bit too high for someone of his talent and pedigree.
Charley Hoffman (+15000): Now we're talking long shots. Hoffman is somewhat Spieth Lite since February, sparking a turnaround in his game with 13 straight made cuts. Included in that stretch are a runner-up at Valero, T-3 finish at Colonial and T-10 at Bay Hill, three courses where the wind can kick up with regularity. Hoffman is 12th this season on Tour in SG: Approach, speaking to the relative strength of his iron play, and he's inside the top 25 in both SG: Total and SG: Tee to Green. He has made the cut in each of his last four Open appearances, including a pair of top-20 results, and he's the sort of seasoned veteran who can sometimes break through unexpectedly at this particular major.
Top Finishers (odds via PointsBet)
Rickie Fowler (+650 top-10 finish): The turnaround continues for the player with the most endorsement deals on Tour. Fowler has taken a brunt of criticism in recent months, but his game is finally starting to show signs of life: a T-8 at the PGA, followed by a T-11 finish at the Travelers and a brief run up the leaderboard in Detroit. Fowler has actually played quite well in recent majors, finishing T-12 or better in eight of his last 16 starts in the biggest events, and he made the most of his special exemption at Kiawah. He's in this week's field by virtue of his T-6 showing two years ago at Portrush, and a similar finish this week wouldn't surprise on a course where he avoided the bunkers expertly en route to a T-5 finish a decade ago.
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Ryan Fox (+700 top-20 finish): The brawny Kiwi won't have as big an advantage off the tee this week as he does at other Open venues, but he's still a player to consider given he has made the cut in three of his four prior Open appearances, including a T-16 finish two years ago at Royal Portrush. Fox also has a pair of top-5 finishes at the Irish Open, including a playoff loss three years ago at Ballyliffin, so he's more than familiar with the requirements of links golf. He finished T-44 last week in Scotland but just last month spun together three straight top-15 finishes on the European Tour, with four such results over his last seven starts overall.
Aaron Rai (+800 top-20 finish): Rai proved his worth on links courses last year, winning the Scottish Open in the midst of the European Tour's return to mid-pandemic golf, and he has been scouting Royal St. George's for weeks. The Englishman doesn't often go low and he sometimes struggles making putts, but his accurate and consistent tee-to-green game often keeps him in the mix, and this week on a course where the winning score has been -5 and -1 each of the last two times, par likely won't be a bad score. Rai finished T-12 at the Irish Open and followed with a T-35 result last week in Scotland, showing that his game is in a strong position heading into this week's major in his home country.
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