Monday, December 11, 2017

Who and what to watch in the Open Championship

tom jones' two cents

We're halfway through the summer, halfway through the year and halfway through golf's majors. With that in mind, as well as the Open Championship being held this week, it's a perfect time to take stock. Here's a look back at the first half of the PGA season, as well as a Two Cents look at this week's Open Championship.

Who has been the PGA Tour's biggest surprise?

Jason Dufner

Dufner spent a good chunk of the last decade on the Nationwide Tour, then came into the spotlight in August when he held a five-shot lead with only four holes to play in the PGA Championship before losing to Keegan Bradley in the playoff.

Overall in 2011, Dufner missed eight cuts in 23 PGA tournaments. But this year he has missed only one and, best of all, has two victories — the first two of his career. Both have come in his past five tournaments, which also includes a runnerup finish and a fourth-place finish at the U.S. Open.

Who has been golf's most disappointing in 2012?

Rory McIlroy

Have early success and the bright lights of celebrity gone straight to the head of the 23-year-old Irishman?

At the 2011 Masters, McIlroy took a four-shot lead into the final day of the Masters before blowing up on Sunday. But then at the U.S. Open, he shot 16 under (a U.S. Open record) and won by a stunning eight strokes. He was the No. 1 player in the world and seemed poised to go on a major run.

But this year has been a bummer, at least of late. McIlroy won the Honda Classic in March and is eighth in the FedEx standings. He was even No. 1 early this year. But then he tied for 40th at the Masters and missed the cut at the U.S. Open. In fact, in his past four events in the United States, McIlroy has missed three cuts, including the Players Championship.

And don't expect him to turn it around this week if the weather is rough. Even though he's from Northern Ireland, McIlroy insists he doesn't like damp, windy weather and that he'd much rather play when it's sunny, 80 degrees and barely a breeze. Sorry, but the British Open doesn't often do a lot of sunny, 80 degrees and barely a breeze.

Who has been the PGA's best rookie?

John Huh

It has been a strong rookie class. There are 25 rookies on Tour, not counting Joe Affrunti, who has been out since April with shoulder surgery. Two have already won. Ted Potter won last week in West Virginia, and John Huh won in February in Mexico. Seung-yul Noh has made a rookie-best 10 cuts in a row.

But there's no question that Huh has been the top rookie performer. Aside from his win, Huh has a runnerup finish amid five top 10s. He has been the low rookie finisher seven times, more than anyone in 2012. Most impressive, he's 15th overall in the FedEx Cup standings.

How's the course for this year's Open Championship?

Like most British Open hosts, Royal Lytham in Lancashire, England, is a links course. The course is not on the coast but close enough that there's plenty of breeze. The biggest hazards, however, are of the sand variety. The course has 206 bunkers. (Yes, you read that right: 206!) Another interesting fact: The first hole is a par 3.

Royal Lytham is hosting its 10th British Open and first since 2001. The past two times it has hosted the tournament, Americans have won: David Duval in 2001 and Tom Lehman in 1996. And don't be surprised if you see low scores. Duval won at 10 under, and Lehman was 13 under.

Who has the best chance to be a first-time major winner this weekend?

Plenty of candidates due to this amazing stat: Six of the current top 10 players in the world have never won a major. At the top of that list are the Nos. 1 and 3 players in Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. They also both happen to be Englishmen and are trying to become the first Englishman to win the British Open in England since Tony Jacklin at Lytham in 1969.

Who definitely will not win the Open Championship?

There is absolutely zero chance that U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson will win this week. Why? He isn't playing. Simpson is staying at home to be his wife, who is expecting the couple's second child.

By the way, the last golfer to win the U.S. and British Open in the same year? Tiger Woods in 2000. Before that? Tom Watson in 1982.

Who's the favorite?

Who else? Tiger Woods. Even when Woods isn't playing well, he seems to be the darling of the oddsmakers, who have once again made Woods the favorite at 7-1.

On one hand, you can see why Woods is the favorite. He has won a PGA Tour-leading three tournaments this year. He's on top of the money list. He also has 14 majors, including three British Opens.

" I expect him to do well,'' ESPN analyst Curtis Strange said. "I think he can get away with some driving the ball erratically over there more so than in the U.S. Open, and I think he can iron it, and his imagination and short game is still very sharp.''

On the flip side, he hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open and he missed the cut last week in West Virginia. You wonder if Woods is having doubts about winning another major, let alone the four he needs to tie Jack Nicklaus' record 18.

"I think there's one person that's been a little impatient about Tiger winning a major championship, and that's Tiger himself,'' ESPN analyst Andy North said. "I think for the first time in his career it looks like he's maybe trying harder at major championships because he knows he desperately needs to get that first major championship win again, and we'll see how he handles (this) week.''

What about defending champion Darren Clarke?

This guy has been so bad over the past year that we almost forgot he was the defending champ. Since winning last year's Open, the 42-year-old has enjoyed life off the course but not so much on it. Get this: He has made only one cut this year on the European Tour and missed three cuts in four regular stroke-play tournaments on the PGA Tour. His game appears to be a mess, yet 2002 Open champ Ernie Els picks Clarke as a dark horse this week.

Which Americans have the best shot at the Open Championship?

Jim Furyk often shows up on the leaderboard at the majors, but he has had some difficulty at the Open. In the past three years, he has tied for 48th, missed the cut and tied for 34th. However, in his career, he has five top-five finishes.

Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar are all ranked in the top 10 of the World Golf Ranking, but none has had success at the British Open. Watch out for Rickie Fowler. He tied for fifth in last year's Open and tied for 14th in 2010.

"It's a very odd time,'' said ESPN's Mike Tirico, who will host the network's coverage from the Open. "Will we see guys break through? Will we see somebody consolidate this and take that mantle of having been there and done it and continue on and grow to become the next generation of rivalries that are out there?'

Of course Phil Mickelson, no matter how he is playing, is always worth paying attention to in a major.

Who would we like to see win?

< How about Sergio Garcia? No longer a kid, the 32-year-old Spaniard is running out of time to win a major. But this tournament appears to be his best shot. He has seven top-10 finishes in the Open.

Who will win?

Not going out on a limb here, seeing as how he is the No. 1 player in the world, but it's Luke Donald's turn.

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