PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Who will surprise, who will disappoint, who will be a dark horse that can contend, and who will win the 148th Open Championship? Our team of writers at Royal Portrush weighs in with predictions for the last major of this decade.
REX HOGGARD: Tiger Woods. Despite his status as one of this week’s betting favorites and his history on links courses, the 15-time major champion will struggle to make the cut. Similar to the PGA Championship, where he missed the cut, Woods hasn’t played in a month and admitted on Tuesday that his game isn’t where he wants it to be. That’s a disastrous combination on an exacting and windblown links.
RYAN LAVNER: Brooks Koepka. It’s a testament to Koepka’s greatness that The Open actually represents his “worst” major, and he still has two top-10s in his last three appearances. Still, this isn’t an ideal fit for his skill set, with an emphasis on shot-shaping and finesse. Betting against Koepka is foolish, but it wouldn’t shock if he finished outside the top 10 here.
WILL GRAY: Webb Simpson. The former U.S. Open champ has quietly been playing stellar golf, highlighted by the Canadian Open where he was left in Rory McIlroy’s wake. But he has finished outside the top 20 just once in six starts since the Masters, and while bookmakers have listed him well down the sheet, he has finished T-40 or better at The Open each of the last four years.
NICK MENTA: Joaquin Niemann. The 2018 Latin American Amateur champ, who locked up his PGA Tour card for this season as a non-member last year, was slumping his way through his first full Tour campaign before a breakout in the last month, with three top-10s, including two top-5s. He won’t be the Champion Golfer of the Year come Sunday, but at long odds, he has top-10 potential.
HOGGARD: Rory McIlroy. The native son certainly has the local knowledge to succeed this week at Portrush and his form this season, two victories and 11 top-10s on the PGA Tour, demands he be considered one of the favorites. But the buildup and emotional toll of The Open returning to Northern Ireland will prove to be too much of a distraction.
LAVNER: Tiger Woods. With just 10 tournament rounds since Augusta, Woods was refreshingly blunt in his assessment of his rusty game, and penal Portrush isn’t the kind of place to ease into the week. That the weather will be cool and damp also doesn’t portend well for the 43-year-old with an achy back.
GRAY: Francesco Molinari. Handing back the claret jug might be the last newsworthy moment for him this week. The defending champ seemingly still hasn’t gotten over his heartbreak from the Masters, as five subsequent starts have yielded few results to speak of. While a less than stellar week in Portrush won’t detract from last year’s glory, there won’t be any thoughts of a Padraig Harrington back-to-back for the Ryder Cup star.
MENTA: Rory McIlroy. The Ulsterman doesn’t get it done. For McIlroy, who’s been Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance-ing his way through 2019, this has to be right there with a win at Augusta for the biggest single victory he could hope to bag. He’ll have a chance at the Masters each April. Even if the R&A decides to come back here in short order, he might only get a couple cracks at an Open at Portrush. No matter what he says about patience and perspective, this week brings with it another P-word: pressure.
HOGGARD: Louis Oosthuizen. The South African sails into another Open under the radar but his track record can’t be ignored. He won the 2010 championship at St. Andrews and came up just short at the ’15 Open. He also has the perfect demeanor for a layout that promises plenty of odd bounces and quirky shots.
LAVNER: Shane Lowry. One of the few players with experience at Portrush, Lowry has played solidly this season, starting with a win in Abu Dhabi and continuing with top-10s in three of his last five starts, including a T-8 at the PGA. Listed at 80-1, Lowry is an appealing long shot.
GRAY: Hideki Matsuyama. Once ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, Matsuyama has slid to 29th but enters this week amid a remarkably consistent season. He has gone a full year without missing a cut, the longest such streak on Tour, and he hasn’t finished worse than T-33 since January. In the major that values ball-striking over putting more than the other three, and on a course that should exacerbate that trend, his skill set will shine.
MENTA: Marc Leishman. He has finished T-6 or better in each of the last three Open Championships, with a playoff loss at St. Andrews in 2015. The 24th-ranked player in the world, who gets less attention than his fellow Aussies, is 60-1. He’s also one hell of a landscaper.
HOGGARD: Brooks Koepka. Because he’s Brooks. His record in his last four Grand Slam starts is first, second, first, second so it’s easy to see where this trend is heading and he has the added benefit of having Ricky Elliott, a member at Royal Portrush, on the bag.
LAVNER: Xander Schauffele. Golf’s quietest primetime player is trending in the right direction, with top-3s in two majors this year (and top-16s in all three). At age 25, he’s primed for a major breakthrough: He knows he’s good enough to win, he got the necessary experience of being in the hunt last year at Carnoustie (where he was in the final group Sunday) and he has no weaknesses throughout the bag.
GRAY: Jon Rahm. The fiery Spaniard becomes an adopted son of Ireland, having already won an Irish Open down the road at Portstewart and coming off a title two weeks ago at Lahinch. Rahm has been trending, finishing T-3 or better in three starts including the U.S. Open, and his links acumen is evident. Long viewed as a player with major potential, this week he gets the job done.
MENTA: Brooks Koepka. Far from original or inspired, but there’s no compelling reason to think Brooks Koepka won’t be rounding third on Sunday. Koepka passes Rory McIlroy with major No. 5 – in Northern Ireland, no less – and they both drive down Magnolia Lane in April on the precipice of the career Grand Slam.