It’s always difficult in the wake of a World Cup, particularly one as enthralling as this one, to raise ourselves up off the canvas and get back to the mundanity of the regular sporting year. Still, the Open Championship/British Open – whichever you’re having – is a more than satisfactory quick fix in the wake of France’s victory in Russia.
With this year’s extraordinary hurling championship taking a week off and the Super 8s already a damp squib as predicted, Golf’s oldest major championship takes centre stage this week at Carnoustie. Despite Tiger’s return, which has actually been better than expected, the golfing year has been relatively humdrum to date. The Masters fizzed briefly on Sunday before the PGA Tour’s greatest pantomime villain prevailed, while Shinnecock Hills was memorable more for the contempt the players displayed towards the course and the USGA.
No one has grabbed 2018 by the scruff of the neck and despite the supposed intrigue of watching a multitude of bland young Americans repel a resurgent Tiger, something is missing. While Tiger’s return was an extraordinary boon for the sport, he has performed as a top 30 tour pro.
While Tiger’s spot as the all-time greatest is hard to contest, the game really needs Rory McIlroy to snap out of his relative malaise. The Northern Irishman’s inability to add to his haul of four majors, the drought now stretching to four years, increasingly becomes a point of conjecture as each major rolls around. Of course, the use of the word drought in the circumstances could be perceived as lazy hyperbole but the 2014 edition of McIlroy rightly drew comparisons with Tiger and this being the case, the yardstick applied is major victories and not merely success at regular tour events. McIlroy himself has acknowledged that at the rate he was winning majors, four years “seems like a long time”.
The reality is that none of McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jason Day and particularly defending champion, Jordan Spieth have enjoyed even temporary periods of dominance this year meaning the year’s most talked about moment was the victory for the much-maligned Patrick Reed at Augusta. From a business and viewing perspective, Tiger’s return obviously makes 2018 a bumper year for the PGA but on course, there has been little to get excited about. The majors generally shape the year but this year’s Masters and US Open will be remembered mostly for the unpopularity of their winner and host course, respectively.
However, with Carnoustie likely to play sympathetically to the big, and sometimes wayward, hitters, – McIlroy indicated that he and Jon Rahm simply took the rough out of play in practice on Monday by employing the driver – the course having played host to some extraordinary moments in Open history and Tiger’s ever-narrowing window, the sense is that the 147th renewal of the Open Championship should add brio to an otherwise unremarkable year.
Our most vivid memories viewing golf consist of Tiger’s evisceration of the field and the course in Augusta 1997, the same man’s one-legged and most likely last major victory over Rocco Mediate in 2008 and the truly incredible, heart-breaking meltdown suffered by Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999.
That Paul Lawrie actually won the tournament that year has become a mere footnote in time with the infamous shot of Van de Velde standing in the drain, pants rolled up to his knees, perhaps contemplating the cruel machinations of life now an iconic part of golf history. The moment, though truly harrowing for the Frenchman, managed to capture the perverse beauty of golf, a grown man barefoot in a drain wondering why the fuck he chose that club while millions watch on in sympathetic exasperation. While the moment was truly ridiculous, there was (with apologies to the great, Derek Mahon) also something sublime at the heart of Van de Velde’s actions that day.
Of course, Carnoustie also played host to Padraig Harrington’s first major victory, when once again the Barry Burn, crossing the approach to the 18th green, almost brought ruin to the chances of the most delightfully bonkers man in professional golf. Harrington somehow regrouped and saw off a petulant Sergio Garcia via playoff to spark an incredible run and perhaps the most remarkable, and unnecessary, swing change of all time.
Despite the run of dominance of Americans in the majors – five in a row and 14 of the last 20 – we’re going more Eurocentric with our picks but first a look at the honourable mentions. Favourite, Dustin Johnson’s availability at a price of 12/1 confirms both market uncertainty and a lack of a truly dominant force in 2018.
Tiger Woods (25/1)
At 25/1, Tiger probably represents a slightly more realistic price than on his return at Augusta when his odds were cut to less than half that price despite almost a decade out of contention at major championships. Unquestionably the most famous sportsman in this writer’s lifetime, there may be one last big one left in Tiger. It seems bizarre that people still marvel at the fact that Tiger was a complete asshole while all the time giving Phil Mickelson a free pass. That is until the big Californian showed his depraved, nasty streak by intentionally drawing a two-stroke penalty at Shinnecock Hills.
With the two set to engage in a $20 million head-to-head, sadly not on their own dime, a win for either would bring added lustre to a wholly unnecessary event. Tiger seems the more locked in of the two and he’s slowly coming to the boil but without the explosiveness and intimidatory skills of old, a 15th major seems a bridge or burn too far.
Rory McIlroy (18/1)
Four years ago McIlroy’s ceiling seemed boundless but his downward spiral to the oblivion of eighth in the world suggests the once anticipated era of total domination may be beyond the County Down man. Rather than catch Nicklaus or Tiger, McIlroy may just have to settle for being one of the ten greatest players ever. His round with Rahm appears to have piqued his confidence but without evidence of any sustained period of consistency on the greens, it’s difficult to believe that this is the week when McIlroy gets it right again.
Brooks Koepka (20/1)
There was a time when we slavishly punted on Koepka, picking up fairly regular each way money safe in the knowledge that he’d come good in a major sooner rather than later. And he did, just after we’d stopped showing faith in him. A resilient, massively composed defence of his US Open title last month means Koepka has thrown his hat into the ring as a genuine star and his Open form is extremely promising. However, we’ve built an ailing gambling career on a stubborn refusal to backtrack so, if victorious, Koepka will somehow have to try and enjoy victory this week in the knowledge that Straight Up Sport abandoned him before he made it big.
STRAIGHT UP SPORT PICKS
- Alex Noren (25/1)
Noren appears here as a form pick – winner in Paris two weeks ago – and with his best Open finish (6th) coming last year, the Swede merits serious consideration this week. Often a high quality, though slightly undervalued player, hits form in the month leading up to a major and Noren may well just fit that bill this week. A very popular gambling pick this week as evidenced by the rapid shortening of his price so at least if he fails in his quest for victory, a few of the more ikey gamblers will go down with you.
- Francesco Molinari (28/1)
The Italian veteran appeared to be faltering somewhat right up until the middle of last year. However, Molinari has seen a remarkable resurgence of late, culminating in a first and tied-second at his most recent starts, The Quicken Loans National and John Deere Classic, respectively. The 35-year-old has form on both sides of the Atlantic this year with a victory on the European Tour this year at Wentworth in May. Molinari always ranks toward the back of the pack in driving distance but is remarkably accurate and has tons of birdies in his armoury. If one of the leading lights came into the Open with a portfolio of work like this for 2018, they’d be half this price so the Italian looks a great each-way option.
- Henrik Stenson (25/1)
Removed himself from the ‘Greatest Never to Win a Major’ conversation with an incredibly dominant performance at Royal Troon in 2016. Accurate iron play, two top sixes in this year’s previous majors and allied to his victory in 2016, Stenson has placed in the top three on four separate occasions at the open. Of this week’s field, only Tiger boasts a better record in the Open Championship.
- Jon Rahm (20/1)
The inevitable victory for Jon Rahm at a major will lead to a plethora of shit headlines: “Rahm Slam”…. “Rahmpant Rahm…..” but a wordplay-friendly name isn’t the only reason we’ve focused on the weirdly American accented, Spaniard. He’s a bomber, has an extremely impressive GIR percentage and putts well. Indeed, if a few more had dropped on the Sunday in Augusta, we wouldn’t have had to sit through the most muted green jacket presentation in history. Though he’s yet to leave any mark on this tournament, Rahm was victorious in Ireland last year and acquitted himself admirably during his defence earlier last month. There’s no question that Rahm will win a major before long and this week offers a tantalising opportunity. Either way, we won’t be making the same mistake we made with Koepka.
Of the four picks, Noren and Molinari’s respective odds have probably slimmed down just a little too much but their form is irresistible. Stenson is hard to ignore when you consider the bare facts while Rahm, at just 23, is already pounding on the door.
Rahm has been one of the most consistent performers this year, like Molinari achieving victory on both the flagship tours and, despite the limited sample size, his game appears suited to links courses. Given his ability, form and reasonably attractive odds, we’ll side with the Spaniard to break the US stranglehold on the major championships.
However, as recent history has confirmed at Carnoustie there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip so don’t be surprised if the Barry Burn once more has the final say come Sunday evening.