Open minded about American win
Ben Coley previews the Open Championship and has three Americans among his five-pronged attack, which also includes Ernie Els.
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The Open Championship makes a long-awaited return to Muirfield this week, 11 years after Ernie Els won a four-way play-off to land the first of two Claret Jugs.
A course that Jack Nicklaus once described as the best in Britain, it's one that has produced a wonderful list of champions. Nick Faldo, Gary Player, Nicklaus himself, Lee Trevino, Sir Henry Cotton - the roll of honour is a who's who of outstanding, all-time great golfers, with no exceptions in the modern era.
- 1pt e.w. Matt Kuchar at 50/1 (BetVictor 1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) - played well last year, twice a winner this year and overpriced
- 2pts win Ernie Els at 33/1 (Coral) - two Open wins in his last 11 appearances including here - what's not to like?
- 1pt e.w. Chris Wood at 150/1 (BetVictor 1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) - twice placed in just three Open starts and now a European Tour winner
- 1pt e.w. Bill Haas at 100/1 (Betfred, totesport 1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6) - red-hot at present and only a shot shy of top 10 last year
- 1pt e.w. Webb Simpson at 80/1 (BetVictor 1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) - won US Open on second start and could repeat that trick here
That phrase all-time great must apply to Els, too, a man who sits 18th on the total majors list alongside the likes of Bobby Locke and Phil Mickelson, and just one behind the late, great Seve Ballesteros.
Does this mean that we'll definitely get an all-time great this week? Absolutely not, but their name will go down in history alongside these exceptional winners at Muirfield.
It's always difficult to accurately predict what lies in store for competitors in any event, but even more so the Open Championship.
The forecast as things stand is for a dry, relatively benign week and reports from Muirfield are that the course is already fiery. On the one hand the lack of wind brings in more players, but on the other there will still be many unable to produce the variety of shots required.
In terms of scoring, Els won in six-under in 2002 and that despite a Saturday which saw some of the worst conditions in the event's history and ten players, including Tiger Woods, blown to a score of 80 or more. Conversely, just four - the most eye-catching of whom is Justin Rose - broke 70.
However, the projected absence of such a day this year should theoretically see that winning score go past -10, which is far from uncommon in this championship. Time will tell, but I'd expect something in the region of 12-under to be competitive.
That 2002 edition does little to help us build a profile in terms of establishing the key skills required. Els ranked a lowly 57th in greens hit but led the field in putting, whereas co-runner-up Thomas Levet missed a load of fairways yet still managed to top the greens hit charts along with Padraig Harrington, who was fifth.
In general terms, scrambling is a very important skill in any Open and while the last two champions have undermined that point, there are to a degree extenuating circumstances - an uncharacteristically soft course last year being one - which lead me to believe that a return to parity is due. And by parity, that means the winner will likely rank in the top 15 or so in scrambling, especially with firm greens likely to reject all but the best approaches.
Of course hitting greens will help, but I'm not convinced that season-long greens in regulation stats will necessarily point towards players who have the shot-making ability to find their targets this week. Launching eight-irons onto large, soft targets won't count for anything when you need to bump a five-iron over humps and hollows.
So, what are we actually looking for here? There really isn't an easy answer and my selections cover a range of characteristics. Ultimately, this is a tournament I find it impossible to be bullish about but, as always, the selections I've come up with tick the most important box: they're good value relative to the field.
And that's why I lead off on Matt Kuchar, who can be backed at 50/1 with BetVictor with eight places on offer.
Straightforwardly, Kuchar is one of two players at the top end of the market who leap off the page as, in my opinion, the wrong price.
Little over a month ago, the affable American went into the US Open challenging for second-favouritism and rightly so. After all, he'd just won his second PGA Tour title of 2013 - the only man other than Tiger Woods to win more than once on the tour - and has gradually been building towards a position where we might expect him to win a major.
Although disappointing his backers to an extent, Kuchar played four solid rounds of golf for another solid week at Merion and there was certainly nothing in his performance to suggest he's done for the season. Likewise his only subsequent start in France, where Kuchar made the cut on his course debut having been the subject of much media attention beforehand.
I therefore see little reason why he should be more than twice the price to win the Open Championship. I think it probably comes down to some vague perception that in the main Americans struggle over here, but that simply isn't true - in the last 18 years there have been more American winners of this event than the US Open and the Masters, and the same number as the PGA Championship.
There is absolutely no guarantee that Kuchar has what it takes to produce at Muirfield, but there are certainly reasons to believe that he might. For starters he's an excellent scrambler, putts superbly, finds fairways and says that firm and fast conditions are his favourite to play on.
Secondly, as touched upon earlier, his career is one of steady progression. A star amateur who then struggled before really finding his feet over the last five years, winning a WGC and Players' title, his timeline is actually almost identical to that of US Open hero Rose.
Admittedly, Kuchar's general Open Championship record is poor but so was Rose's US Open record prior to this year. Both are different, more confident animals these days, and it just so happens that Kuchar produced his best ever Open finish last year when ninth, albeit under different conditions than we expect here.
It's well-documented that 14 of the last 17 major winners were first-timers and there can be few men better equipped than Kuchar to make it 15. He just looks ready. Where two years ago there was a consistent player who could win in his turn, now there's a ruthless winner of golf tournaments who has the all-round game so suited to an Open test.
So many major champions - even those who were deemed surprise winners - dropped a big hint earlier that season by winning an event. YE Yang, Darren Clarke, Louis Oosthuizen, Keegan Bradley and even Todd Hamilton did it, so it really is a big positive that Kuchar has won not once but twice this year.
And finally, look at his recent record in the big events. Kuchar has been inside the top 30 in 12 of his last 14 majors, a remarkably consistent effort. Better yet, five of those including three of his last six were top 10 finishes.
He has a third and a first from three appearances in the WGC Match Play, three top 10 finishes from his last four visits to Doral and the WGC Cadillac, and a run of 9-19-8 in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
Big-time performances in big-time events.
Even with so many positives the bottom line has to be that I'm hopeful rather than confident, but at 50/1 I can't help but believe Kuchar has been very much underrated purely because he's an American who isn't as flashy as some. So he's the headline bet.
As ever, there are cases to be made for a dozen and it's difficult to leave Graeme McDowell out of the staking plan. A major winner with titles to his name in Scotland and Wales, three wins this season and a personal best Open effort last year, his chance is obvious and I was close to backing him.
However, what on earth is he doing at a shorter price than Ernie Els? I don't have the answer and the Big Easy is must-back material at 33/1.
Here we have the man who won the event when last it came to Muirfield and who won last year's renewal. He won in Germany just two starts ago, too. Nobody bar Woods and an out-of-sorts Padraig Harrington can boast his record in this event. Yet McDowell, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Rose and Phil Mickelson are all priced as more likely winners.
I find it baffling, to be honest.
Of course there are concerns. That he didn't make the weekend at Castle Stuart is one, although his record there is poor and he was well down the field prior to winning the Open last year. The fact that he has the pressure of defending is another, but at 43 and having done so twice before you'd have to hope he'll manage.
Other than that I don't really see negatives, bar the fact that in any given Open Championship even the best links player in the best form can be undone by one hole, one hour, one day in the worst of the weather.
But at 33/1 I don't think those concerns are worth dwelling on for too long. After all, in addition to two wins in his last 11 Open starts he has a further 11 top 10 finishes, the very first of which came here at Muirfield in 1992.
"I really can't wait for Thursday, I have a good feel about it," Els said on Monday and I have a good feel about him too - in my opinion he's clearly the second most likely winner of the event so 33/1 will do nicely.
After this it gets harder. I've spent the last six months expecting to back Sergio Garcia, who went well here in 2002 and won the Amateur Championship at Muirfield in 1998 in what must go down among the most impressive displays in the event, but his price relative to twice-Open winner Els is just not right.
Similarly, Brandt Snedeker could build on last year's effort at Lytham but I make him less likely to win this than Matt Kuchar and therefore at a shorter price he too is passed over.
Instead, the net is cast wider and Chris Wood catches my eye as the best value among the home contingent.
Wood is a confirmed links specialist. Back in 2008, he was fifth as an amateur at Birkdale before coming so close to victory a year later at Turnberry when eventually settling for a share of third.
Of course, so many amateurs to impress in the Open fade into obscurity; but not so Wood, who turned professional between those performances, earned his tour card through qualifying school, and has steadily become one of the better players on the circuit.
For a long time questions were rightly asked when he repeatedly contended without winning, but they were put to bed in the most emphatic terms when he made a closing eagle to win the Qatar Masters earlier this season.
That event, played at Doha Golf Club, is one which has gone to countless wind specialists given its exposed nature. Els, Scott, Thomas Bjorn and Henrik Stenson are past winners, while twice-champion Paul Lawrie won the title before his Open Championship triumph at Carnoustie in 1999.
It shouldn't surprise us that Wood's win came at such a venue. Two years earlier, he spurned what was his best chance in the Iberdrola Open, an event played in gale-force winds and won by Darren Clarke on his way to Open Championship success. Then in 2012, he chased home Thorbjorn Olesen on a coastal layout in Sicily before Olesen went on to impress at Lytham.
Wood is, plain and simple, a wind and links specialist. That's why I'm slightly disappointed to see that the forecast is for little wind this week, but I'm not going to bank on that being the case just yet. Either way, conditions ranged from very easy to very tough at Turnberry and his Doha win showed that low-scoring, wind-exposed events are just as suitable.
The chief negative is that the notoriously fragile Bristolian has struggled a little for form since withdrawing from the BMW PGA Championship with an injury.
However, a look at winners of the Open since 2002 shows that their latest start didn't offer much of a clue. Ignoring Tiger, they read 13-59-51-17-MC-MC-66-52, and only the 13th from Ben Curtis represented anything close to a season's best by the player who produced it.
That fact tells me that having winning form earlier in the season is much more important that playing well the week before the Open, when many players are experimenting with their eyes firmly on the big prize.
It's therefore a positive that Wood got four rounds under his belt at Castle Stuart, as it's exactly what both Clarke and Els had done - scored poorly, finished way down the leaderboard, but prepared properly for the Open.
With two Open places from three Open starts, Wood might've made appeal regardless of how the season has gone. But with a win and inspiration from Andy Murray I think he's a massive price.
Others at huge prices worthy of a glance include Brett Rumford and Mikko Ilonen, two names you wouldn't expect to win an Open but both equipped to produce their best on links layouts in a year that's seen them return to form.
Likewise there's some temptation to take 200/1 about former Open champion Stewart Cink, who managed his best finish since that remarkable triumph in the AT&T National at the firm, fast and tough Congressional just over a fortnight ago.
However, it's the winner of that tournament who I like and that man is Bill Haas.
Like Kuchar, Haas is a nice guy who doesn't make too much noise but, again like Kuchar, his career is one of progression with the next logical step contending in majors.
True, it's something he's failed to do so far but he seems to be getting there and the Open Championship is a good platform for him to really get involved.
In fairness, he wasn't that far away last year - just a shot outside the top 10 despite a poor final round - and like last year he arrives as a winner in 2013 courtesy of that triumph at Congressional.
Although his first two tour wins came in relatively modest company and low-scoring events, there's a theme emerging with Haas now and that theme is that he wins big tournaments on tough courses when conditions are firm and fast.
Who can forget the first of them, when the drought in Georgia meant that instead of plummeting deep into water, Haas's approach to the 17th hole at East Lake was playable? He went on to win the TOUR Championship and accompanying FedEx Cup bonus with a winning score of eight-under.
The next season, he beat Mickelson and Bradley in a play-off at Riviera, when again conditions were tough, rough was penal and greens were firm. And this year Congressional was his victim. Again it was firm, fast, tough - conditions in which this supreme ball-striker absolutely thrives.
Haas ranks sixth on tour in bogey avoidance - a statistic that Kuchar sits second in - and, as with Kuchar, I believe his profile, personality and nationality see him overpriced because his chance is surely better than 100/1.
Finally, I'll complete my American-based staking plan with Webb Simpson.
Simpson describes Haas as like a big brother, and I'm hopeful that he can use his friend and fellow Wake Forest graduate's win at Congressional as a springboard to get back on track this season after an up and down few weeks.
Simpson has four top six finishes this year along with three missed cuts, and following up a solid fifth in the Travelers with 41st when fancied for the Greenbrier rather sums up how things have gone.
But we saw when second to McDowell in awful conditions at Harbour Town that Simpson loves to tough things out, and that's why he's always worth a second glance in any major.
Of course, he has one in the bag already courtesy of his victory at the firm, fast Olympic Club in 2012 and I find it interesting that it was his second start in the event after a top 20 on debut.
Simpson has played the Open once, finishing inside the top 20 at Royal St George's before missing the event last year due to the birth of a child. He'll therefore be relishing the opportunity to play it again having spoken of how much he enjoyed the challenge in Kent.
A fine scrambler and putter, solid driver and a player who has absolute control over his ball-flight on approach to greens when on-song, I think he has the ideal game for Open Championships and at 80/1, given his strike-rate of a win every 40 or so starts and one major to his name already, I think the price is generous.