Hoylake to suit Gentleman Jim
Ben Coley previews the 143rd Open Championship and fancies Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell to go well.
Royal Liverpool returns as host of the Open Championship for the first time since Tiger Woods put on a course-management masterclass in 2006.
Hitting just one driver all week, the greatest player of his generation plotted his way around a bone-dry Hoylake to beat compatriot Chris DiMarco by two shots, with a host of world-class links exponents helping to complete the top-10.
While much has changed in the life of Tiger since that emotional success, the course remains much the same. The odd bunker has been moved and a few yards have been added, but really we're talking about the same golf course and with that in mind the likes of Woods, Ernie Els, Jim Furk and Sergio Garcia should feel comfortable with what they see.
The key change aesthetically will be the colour of the course, which was nearer yellow than green eight years ago but is reported to be lush this time around. Certainly, it won't be as firm and fast as it was then, but with little rain in the forecast this will still be links golf in something approaching its purest form.
Phil Mickelson returns as defending champion, but it's a sign of the times that neither he nor Woods can get close to the head of the betting.
Instead, favouritism goes to Justin Rose, who arrives here on a hat-trick having secured victories in Scotland and Maryland over the course of the last month. Last year's US Open champion knows this is his time and while he likes to hit the ball high, he can adapt to just about any challenge as he enters his peak years.
However, there's no denying that this is the major Rose has struggled with since finishing fourth as an amateur some 16 years ago, and I can't imagine anyone is rushing to back him at 14/1. I certainly am not, though he'd be a fine and popular champion.
There are similar concerns around Rory McIlroy, whose struggles on links layouts are well documented and again appeared last Friday at the Scottish Open. That he rallied for 14th is a testament to his brilliance, but there has to be a concern that at least one of his four rounds will be enough to give Rory too much to do this week.
As such, the three to concentrate on at the top of the market may well be Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Martin Kaymer, three absolute links golf specialists who arrive with just a little less focus on them, despite having played some of the best golf we've seen this season.
Scott could and perhaps should have won each of the last two Opens, Kaymer is a two-time major winner with a links pedigree while Stenson chased home Mickelson at Muirfield last year and is creeping back to the level of form which produced explosive results late last year. Splitting this trio is next to impossible but victory for any of them would come as no surprise.
However, while convinced that we're highly likely to see a top-class winner of this event it might just be Jim Furyk who reminds us that he does remain in that bracket.
Gentleman Jim has changed perceptions over the last few years, and not in a way he'd like. Where once was a ruthless, unflappable collector of golf tournaments, there now is a weak finisher who has forgotten how to win, and that remains the concern going forward.
But that's the only reason I can find that he'd be chalked up as a 66/1 chance because the case for him otherwise looks outstanding.
Here we have a player who defies the flawed logic which says American golfers struggle in our Open Championship. The figures prove that this isn't the case, and Furyk helps strengthen them having placed in the event four times - of the four majors, it's this one and the US Open which have been kindest to him.
Those top-five finishes have come at Royal Troon, Royal Birkdale (twice) and here at Hoylake, where he finished fourth in the middle of a superbly consistent season back in 2006. In speaking to reporters that week, Furyk spoke of how he'd struggled for a few years at the Open as he'd tried to change what had always been a low ball flight to adapt to typical American conditions, but that he now knew what he had to do and could slip back into old habits when required.
So, we have a nice bit of course form and of all the other layouts on the Open rotation, I fancy that Birkdale and Royal Lytham might be the best guide for this - not least because they're all situated along the same stretch of coastline.
Furyk's form this year also offers plenty of promise. He's been runner-up at both Sawgrass and Quail Hollow, finished just outside the places at Harbour Town and in the Texas Open, and produced an excellent final round to get within a shot of the top-10 in the US Open last time out.
Unsurprisingly given those results, his all-round game is in great shape. Over the last three months, nobody on the PGA Tour has scrambled better than Furyk, who also ranks 14th for both greens hit and driving accuracy. He also leads the tour in par-four performance and ranks inside the top-10 for bogey avoidance, and really there aren't many players who can say they arrive here in better shape.
Furyk also fits the current trend for Open winners being in the latter stages of their careers. Mickelson was preceded by Els who in turn took over from Darren Clarke, while in 2009 it was veteran Stewart Cink who got the better of Tom Watson in a play-off for the Claret Jug. Here more than anywhere, experience is a massive plus and 44-year-old Furyk has it in spades.
There are a couple of imponderables. There always are. Will Furyk get a bit of luck with the draw; will he play this week the way he's played for most of the year? If he does, how will he cope when push comes to shove? But at 66/1, there looks to be plenty of juice in the price so let's pay to find out.
When considering who to back this week, I filtered players by attitude wherever I could. To my mind, this championship favours not just experience, but players who are prepared for the good breaks and the bad and approach this week as a great opportunity and not some sort of weather-dependent lottery.
Along with the fact that Americans tend to be underrated in the betting, it helps me settle on Brandt Snedeker at 50/1 and upwards.
Few professionals play the sport with such level-headed grace as Snedeker, who knows he's lucky to be in the position he's in and is having a great time making hay while the sun shines.
Two years ago, he was spotted pulling pints behind the bar of a pub near to Royal Lytham on his way to third place, and he was again popular with the locals in Scotland last year as he finished just outside the top 10 at Muirfield.
"I loved growing up watching The Open on TV," he told reporters 12 months ago. "I liked how different it was from what I was used to seeing. Playing in a few of them now, I appreciate it. I have a lot more appreciation now than I did the first time I played.
"There's not one way to hit any shot. I love that. It brings out some imagination. It's a lot of fun to play this kind of golf. We don't get to do it very often. So when you do have a chance, I try to enjoy it."
I firmly believe that this attitude, one he says he learned to adopt after playing with Watson a couple of years ago, is a big reason why he's played so well under two very different sets of conditions at Lytham and Muirfield and why he might be able to bring that type of form to Birkdale.
The concern in backing Snedeker would be that this season hasn't gone to plan. His best finish so far is eighth in the Arnold Palmer, whereas this time last year he'd won at Pebble Beach and gone close on a number of other occasions.
It's a drop in form which has now seen him leave long-time coach Todd Anderson and confirm a link-up with Butch Harmon, who he has been consulting for a little while now.
Anderson describes Harmon as a coach who fixes little things which have gone wrong, and I found it interesting to read that Butch has a reputation for instant results such as Mickelson's 2007 win in the Players' Championship.
Snedeker says he feels excited again and it's certainly showing in his golf, with a top-10 finish at the US Open and two solid weeks subsequently helping underline that he's close to really contending again.
Last year I chose Matt Kuchar - similarly affable and a known lover of links golf who can also get up and down from anywhere - over Snedeker, as he was on offer at a bigger price.
However, one year on and it's Snedeker who might just be under the radar and I fancy him to go well once more.
One trend in majors, more specifically the Open, is for winners to have already landed a title earlier in the season - it's one I first became aware of thanks to podcast guest Matt Cooper, and one which would've helped you find Louis Oosthuizen, Clarke and Mickelson in recent years.
Applying that method isn't easy this time given the amount of surprise winners in America, and how few of the European Tour winners have actually made the field for the Open. However, the likes of Ross Fisher, Russell Henley, Brendon Todd and Jimmy Walker all make some sort of appeal while Garcia's Qatar Masters win makes him difficult to pass over even at 28/1.
But the one for me is Graeme McDowell, who arrives here at the top of his game having landed the Open de France two weeks ago.
We've seen all year that success breeds success, with Kaymer and Rose the most obvious adverts for that theory, and McDowell knows all about holding his form into the key events on the calendar.
Back in 2010, he arrived at Pebble Beach for the US Open two weeks after his previous start had ended in victory and took that confidence through to a first major title. It's a formula he could well go on to repeat.
Granted, McDowell's Open record doesn't leap of the page but he seems to be getting there, with a share of fifth at Lytham two years ago an eye-catching pointer. Many expected him to better it at Muirfield last year, but the combination of a slow start and incurring the wrath of officials for slow play ensured he was never able to get to grips with the leaders in the middle of what was an up and down season.
This time around, he arrives having made every weekend bar Augusta, and having finished inside the top 25 in nine of his 12 starts so far in 2014. Clearly, his victory in France was coming as it came on the back of a sixth-placed finish in the Irish Open, one which could've been so different had his putting not deserted him in the final round.
As is typical of the man, McDowell put that right straight away by rolling it beautifully in France and as we saw four years ago, that for him represents the perfect preparation for the Open - which he confirms in his typically candid blog.
Eight years ago, day one lead belonged to McDowell but he wasn't able to capitalise. Now, he returns to Hoylake as a proven winner in superb form and he's ready to follow Kaymer in securing the second major title of his career.
Trends fans may notice that none of my selections featured in last week's Scottish Open, which has produced the last three Open winners since leaving Loch Lomond. There's no real reason for it, except that I don't think three years worth of evidence is enough to make a firm conclusion and the players I fancy just didn't tee it up last week.
The exception is Rickie Fowler, a fine links exponent who is mature enough to win this title even at 25 years of age. I have him on-side ante-post, though, and won't be going in again at 40/1, so I can't advise you to even if I do think he has everything required to be a factor on Sunday.
Instead I'll take Dustin Johnson, who can also be backed at 40/1 but should surely be shorter than Fowler in light of his greater wealth of experience and proven ability to churn out victories.
Johnson was close to winning this title in 2011, just as he's been close to winning both the US Open and the US PGA, and I'll be surprised if he isn't contending in majors on a regular basis over the course of the next decade.
Already, aged just 30, DJ has nine PGA Tour victories to his name and they've come under all sorts of conditions. These wins help to underline that he's one of the standout talents in world golf and I don't believe his failure to win a major already is much of a concern - just see Rose and Scott for examples of players who need to lose before they know how to win.
Johnson's record in this event is extremely good, extending beyond that tie for second three years ago. It was preceded with 14th at St Andrews and he's subsequently finished ninth and 32nd, so that's four good weeks under four different sets of conditions and on four different golf courses.
Add in the fact that he was fourth in the US Open before a good week at the Travelers and his preparation for this looks solid. I particularly like the fact that he's 16th for bogey avoidance, a category in which he's finished outside of the top 100 on tour in three of the last four years and one which is a strong pointer towards those who perform well in majors. Indeed, Johnson currently sits second in the PGA Tour's all-around ranking which is testament to the quality of his game right now.
DJ has at least one top-10 in a major every year since 2009 and he's ready to win one. The Open Championship is as suitable as any and he's in the form to do it if he gets a bit of luck along the way.
My final selection is somewhat left-field and is recommended to small stakes only. He doesn't fit any of the key trends and hasn't played in this event before.
But Brendan Steele is a player I think might just relish the test which awaits this week and, at a monster price, he's worth a small play.
Winning this championship on his debut in it would be an all-time shock were Steele to do so, but it's been done as recently as 2003 when Ben Curtis overcame Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh.
Curtis succeeded Steele as Texas Open champion in 2012, and reading through transcripts from Steele's interview that week I was intrigued to see comments about how he had the right attitude for the windy, difficult conditions that championship presents and how that gave him an edge over some of the field.
"It's so tough that a lot of guying are going to be walking away shaking their heads," he said of TPC San Antonio. "I think it's a good test and it's a little different test than we see kind of week-in, week-out."
Those are the type of comments we often hear from those relishing the challenge of the Open, and Steele has the right game for this on paper. It's a game which has taken him to fifth place in two of his last three starts, too, so we know he's in good form.
Furthermore, that issue about it being his debut is in part negated by the 2011 PGA Championship. That was Steele's first ever major and he led after 54 holes before, understandably, struggling in the heat of battle on Sunday and dropping to 19th.
He's also shown an aptitude for playing well outside of the USA having been seventh on both visits to Le Golf National in Paris, another wind-swept, tough layout, and there's just something about his attitude and his game which makes me think he could surprise a few at a huge price.