Course Insight: The 146th Open at Royal BirkdaleThe more things change, the more they stay the same. When Royal Birkdale Golf Club last hosted The Open Championship in 2008, former World No. 1 Tiger Woods was recovering from his first arthroscopic knee surgery, current World No. 1 Dustin Johnson was a PGA Tour rookie colt about to embark on a 10-year winning streak, and 14-year old, uber-talented Jordan Spieth was runner-up at the Junior British Open, dreaming of becoming a major champion. As the 146th Open gets underway this week in England, 156 hopefuls will compete for the right to be called Champion Golfer of the Year, and another chapter in the compelling and unpredictable history of this oldest major in golf will be written.
Henrik Stenson aims to become the first player to successfully defend The Open title since Padraig Harrington did it in 2007 and 2008, and is joined by a marquee class of major champions including Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, and Adam Scott. Over the past decade, The Open has favored crafty veterans over young upstarts, with eight of the last 10 Open winners checking in at ages 33 or older. However, twenty-somethings Wesley Bryan, Tommy Fleetwood, and Jon Rahm hope to end that trend and emerge as the eighth consecutive first-time major champion.
With its towering dunes and pure, raw, links character, Royal Birkdale is one of the finest championship challenges on The Open rota. At 7,156 yards it’s certainly not the longest course, but this par-70 track might be the most fascinating. It’s a demanding but fair test that neutralizes power play, rewards ball positioning, offers up tons of options around the greens, and tests every aspect of a player’s game.
The Par 4 sixth-hole at Royal Birkdale Golf Club
Tall, thick rough will devour errant players off the tee. Remorseless pot bunkers can force big numbers anywhere on the course. Steep-fronted greens will rattle skulls. And winds attack from different angles with very few consecutive holes playing in the same direction, making complete control of ball striking a must to avoid utter carnage, let alone stay in contention.
Then, of course, there are the elements. Temperamental weather can change day to day, even hole to hole, potentially eviscerating a player in a blink of an eye. Birkdale’s a strong golf course that doesn’t give up many scoring opportunities, but with a variety of ways to play it well, it suits all styles of play.
Birkdale will set up this week very similar to the way it did in 2008, and nine years ago the par-4, 499-yard 6th hole proved toughest of all. No. 6 played to an average of 4.76 strokes giving up only 10 birdies while meting out a devastating 306 bogies or worse. Finding the fairway is compulsory to avoid a big number here, and players will have three bunkers to contend with on this sweeping dogleg-right hole. The pesky bunker on the right corner of the dogleg can be particularly hostile and requires a 280-yard carry. On approach, things don’t get easier with the green protected by three bunkers in the front and surrounded by thick rough.
No.14 is the last of a quartet of par-3’s and played as the easiest hole in 2008, in part because of its very large putting surface. The 14th checks in at a fairly short 200-yards with two deep pot bunkers defending both sides. However prevailing winds can turn this seemingly innocent hole into a tricky test of survival for wayward shots that don’t hit the green.
View of the 15th Hole from the 18Birdies App
The par-5, 542-yard, 15th is the first of two par-5’s on the course and presents a real eagle opportunity for the longest hitters. It also presents bonafide agony for carelessness with the driver. No. 15 was the second most difficult hole in 2008 with more than 15 pot bunkers peppering the fairway and protecting the green. Players who attempt to reach the green in two will need to avoid two hellish bunkers off the tee at 302-yards and 313-yards out. Shorter hitters who opt to lay-up will have to deal with eight bunkers about 75-yards to 150-yards out. The green is protected by deep bunkers on the left and right, but staying below the hole is most crucial. Firing long into the green is disastrous and will leave players with a cold-blooded, downhill, side-sloping putt.
Players To Watch
It wasn’t that long ago when Rory McIlroy just rolled out of bed and woke up awesome. After McIlroy won the FedEx Cup last year, expectations for 2017 were justifiably sky-high. So far this season has been a painful disappointment for Rory however, as he’s battled injury and generally been searching for his best form. The good news is after two consecutive missed cuts there’s nowhere to go but up for McIlroy. The bad news is there’s nothing to suggest the frustration surrounding his game will disappear this week just because it’s a major. Rory was haphazard off the tee at Erin Hills and his Driving Accuracy Percentage of 57.9% is one of the lowest clips in his career. There’s no doubt it would be more fun to see Rory battling near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday, but sadly it’s just wishful thinking. Expect McIlroy to finish outside the top-20.
Dustin Johnson is another player searching for his form, although Johnson at least was dominating earlier this year before a tumble down the stairs prior to The Masters sidetracked his season. Like McIlroy, Johnson’s also coming into Royal Birkdale trending in the wrong direction with two missed cuts. However, since 2010, DJ’s recorded 11 rounds in the 60’s at The Open, clearly indicating he loves playing The Open rota. Johnson’s a leading favorite to win this week along with Spieth, and though I don’t think he picks up career major number two, DJ should be in contention on Sunday and I expect him to finish inside the top-10.
I referenced earlier that The Open tends to favor older players. I also mentioned that the last seven major champions were first-time winners. Who checks both of these boxes? England’s own Ian Poulter, and Poulter’s played inspired golf since almost losing his Tour card nearly three months ago. Yes, Poulter faltered down the stretch last week and finished a distant ninth at the Scottish Open, but he’s trending in the right direction and exhibiting the swagger of a player about to do something special. Poulter’s the kind of player who thrives on intensity, as evidenced by his Ryder Cup pedigree, and while social media gathered around the trash fire to celebrate what was supposed to be the end of his career, Poulter dug in and started playing some of his best golf in years. Ian’s locked in right now and the last laugh will be his come Sunday evening when his name gets carved on the Claret Jug.