Sporting Life Open Championship tips: Ben Coley is backing experience at Carnoustie
Sporting Life Open Championship tips: Ben Coley is backing experience at Carnoustie

The Open Championship: Outright betting preview from Ben Coley

Golf expert Ben Coley tipped the winner of last year's Open Championship and includes two rank outsiders among his selections for Carnoustie.

Recommended bets:

2pts e.w. Alex Noren at 30/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

2pts e.w. Sergio Garcia at 28/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

1pt e.w. Branden Grace at 45/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Phil Mickelson at 66/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)

0.5pt e.w. Stewart Cink at 250/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

0.5pt e.w. Shaun Norris at 500/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

  • For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, click here

Specials: 15/2 any of the six tips to win; 7/1 all to make the cut; 150/1 any five inside the top 20

Ranking the four majors isn't easy, nor is it really necessary, but if you prefer things volatile, then The Open Championship may well be top of your list.

It's not that the best players in the sport don't win Claret Jugs, far from it. Four years ago, Rory McIlroy dominated at Hoylake and 12 months ago, Jordan Spieth did the same at Birkdale, albeit with a large dose of melodrama in the final round. Henrik Stenson, Phil Mickelson, even Zach Johnson - other recent champions had either won majors in the past, or had long looked capable of doing so. And if we go back through time we find golfers for whom a surname is sufficient: Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Watson, Woods. These are all-time greats - of course they found a way to become Champion Golfer of the Year.

But right back to Paul Lawrie's Carnoustie success over a paddling Jean van de Velde and a forgotten Justin Leonard in 1999, Open week has started with a feeling that something strange could well happen, one which has often stuck. Most surprising were victories for unheralded American duo Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton, but subsequent wins for Stewart Cink, Darren Clarke and, to a lesser extent, Louis Oosthuizen and even Ernie Els in 2012, were more surprising than you'll tend to find in the other three, notwithstanding the odd exception.

Links golf does that. The odd bounce here or there, a bad draw, a bad lie, the wrong bunker or the wrong gust at the wrong time; there are more variables here than you'll find at the pristine Augusta National and even the most rugged of nouveau venues selected by the USGA of late. Some might call it unfair, but Scotland is where golf was born and in Carnoustie, we have a true links test which will challenge not just the physical game but the mental, too.

On Sunday, rank outsider Brandon Stone carded a final-round 60 to win the Scottish Open. Conditions at Gullane were far friendlier than those which await at Carnoustie, but the point stands: shocks are less shocking under these conditions, because they are in fact more common. Think Oliver Wilson's remarkable Dunhill Links success along with those Open champions who would have been unthinkable winners of the Masters.

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All of this undermines the case for the in-form Dustin Johnson, former winners McIlroy and Spieth, the prolific Justin Thomas and the remarkable Jon Rahm. All are outstanding, capable of winning anywhere, but the way they press home their advantage in this sport is negated to at least some extent by the playground. The same goes for Rickie Fowler, a links winner and Open contender of the past, and Justin Rose, whose best performance in his home major is now 20 years old.

One of these players may still triumph, and with enhanced place terms extending all the way down to 10th with Sky Bet, Paddy Power and Coral, they don't need to win to secure a decent return. Yet with Carnoustie's fairways a fearsome shade of brown and none of the above particularly familiar with the layout, I just can't bring myself to back any of them. Fowler, who warmed up nicely at Gullane, is my preferred option but he's second-favourite in places and just - just - too short.

Part of my reluctance to side with Fowler, whose Augusta second surely serves as a precursor to a major breakthrough, is that Carnoustie would appear to hand something of an advantage to the European Tour regulars, particularly since the formation of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the start of the century. The course plays altogether differently in that late-season pro-am, but it must surely help to have gained experience here come rain or shine, and of those mentioned only McIlroy is a fairly regular attendee.

I also find it somewhat interesting that only one American - the aforementioned Leonard - has finished in the top five across the two renewals which have taken place here over the last 40 years. The other course which US players have found trickiest to master of late is Muirfield and these are arguably the two most difficult links layouts on the roster, made more so by the fact they twist and turn and demand recalculations on every single shot. Leonard is the only one to have managed it at Carnoustie, and 2013 champion Mickelson is the only one to have done so at Muirfield.

All of this is fairly broad analysis, and not every American player is alike, but I am keen to explore the European options first at a course which saw Ireland's Padraig Harrington beat Spain's Sergio Garcia in 2007, with the latter awarded the headline vote.

Second here in 2007 when losing a play-off to Harrington after a remarkable finish to the event, Garcia has unfinished business at Carnoustie and his Masters victory last spring means he can approach the task with the confidence of a major champion.

Garcia was part unfortunate, part at fault for failing to break his duck 11 years ago, but for which he might well have a collection of majors by now. Having opened with a round of 65, he ended each day top of the leaderboard but a bogey at the 72nd hole opened the door for Harrington, who did not carry quite the weight of heartache which resulted in Garcia declaring afterwards that higher powers were working against him.

Sergio Garcia after missing a putt for the Open in 2007
Sergio Garcia after missing a putt for the Open in 2007

There are many other examples of opportunities missed in this major, the one which appeared to best suit a former winner of the Amateur Championship who can bend the ball to his will and boasts one of the most creative games in the sport.

Sergio has been fifth and second at Hoylake, fifth and sixth at St Andrews and twice inside the top 10 at St George's, and has just about rediscovered his form in time to add Carnoustie to the list of Open courses at which he's twice been in the frame.

Two starts ago, he emerged from one of the longest slumps of his career with 12th place in Germany and followed it with eighth in France, where he paid the price for trying to win the tournament on the final hole and fell out of the places having found water with his approach.

While it was his ball-striking which powered an improved display at Gut Larchenhof, Garcia's scrambling was back where it needs to be in Paris and last year's European Tour leader around the greens looks to have pieced together his game in the nick of time.

Garcia had been no better than 19th in his three starts prior to the '07 edition and returns a better player, in better form, and no longer destined for heartbreak. With one of the best Open records in the field, doubts around those ahead of him in the market and positive signs having emerged this summer now that he's adjusted to fatherhood, he looks primed to go well.

Tommy Fleetwood was given a favourable mention at the end of last year and must surely go well, but at almost twice the price there's a similar case to be made for Alex Noren and he's therefore preferred.

Noren's rise has been similar to that of Fleetwood, only with more trophies. He's won six in almost exactly two years, three of which have come in the UK, where he's been comfortable ever since landing the Wales Open towards the start of the decade.

Part of the reason he plays well in this part of the world is that the climate, in broad terms, is similar to his native Sweden. However hot the summer gets, there's always the risk of wind and rain and a chill in the morning air, and it's under such demanding conditions that this improving 35-year-old is at his most dangerous.

Although his first European Tour title came in 20-under-par, Noren's best form coincides with higher scoring. All told, six of his 10 titles qualify as tough: in each of the six, the runner-up scored single-digits under-par; that he was seven ahead in Sweden (-15) and six ahead in South Africa (-14) shouldn't hide the fact that these were no shootouts, instead one player just coped much better than the rest.

Noren warmed up for the Open Championship with victory in France, his second Rolex Series title and one which came at the expense of Rahm, Thomas, Fleetwood and others in a seven-under total which further confirmed his love for a challenge. And while not a links course, I would consider Le Golf National just as suitable a preparation ground as Ballyliffin or Gullane, both of which played much easier.

The chief reason Noren is a considerably bigger price than Fleetwood, then, is that the Englishman has twice contended for the US Open, including last month where for much of Sunday his clubhouse total - posted off the pace in a Noren-esque performance - looked good enough to earn a play-off.

By contrast, Noren's major performances are on the whole less impressive and he's yet to hold a serious chance to win, but if we look only at the Open, things improve. Ever since an excellent share of 19th on debut in 2008, he's shown an affinity for seaside golf in the UK and subsequent top-10 finishes at Lytham and Birkdale mean his Open Championship record is far superior to that of the current Race To Dubai champion.

As for Carnoustie, some will reference Fleetwood's course record 63 at last year's Dunhill Links. While played under much friendlier circumstances, I do consider it a worthwhile pointer but it's notable that prior to it, the record belonged to Noren, who shot 64 on his latest start in the event one year earlier, when conditions were tougher.

Noren's links form also includes a victory at Castle Stuart in the Scottish Open and his short-game is set to be a massive asset at a course where 'Chippy' Lawrie and master scrambler Harrington - who led the field for the week in 2007 - have come out on top.

Winning back-to-back shouldn't be an issue for a player who collected four titles in a run of 10 starts two summers ago and nor should a break since Paris be considered a negative, given that four of his last five wins have come after at least a fortnight away.

Noren has been eighth for scrambling in each of his last two starts and only one player hit more fairways in France. Given that the challenge at Carnoustie typically involves avoiding bunkers off the tee and getting up and down when greens are inevitably missed, his game just looks perfect for the task at hand.

His attitude is another huge asset and the only negative is his absence from the Irish and Scottish Open fields. It doesn't really concern me and he's worth backing to earn Sweden back-to-back Open wins on Scottish soil, two years on from Henrik Stenson's Troon success.

Branden Grace is always towards the top of the shortlist for an event like this one and the South African is another to consider strongly at around the 40/1 mark.

I put up Grace at 66/1 late last year but am prepared to go in again given enhanced place terms and a rock-solid case about the South African, whose low ball-flight and tenacity have been key factors in his rise through the ranks since the beginning of the decade.

Here we have a regular major contender who, like Lawrie and Harrington, has won the Dunhill Links and carded plenty of solid rounds at Carnoustie. He shot 62 on his way to a top-10 finish at Birkdale last year and will be no less suited by this more demanding test.

Grace has also gone close in the Scottish Open, won twice in Qatar where many of the world's best links players tend to thrive, and triumphed at Fancourt Links in his native South Africa. His effort at the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay rates as another firm pointer, as does his sole PGA Tour success by the lighthouse at Hilton Head where his low, bullet drives were a massive factor.

Don't be unduly concerned by his absence since Shinnecock - both US Open top-fives were his first start in a month - and focus instead on a player who has made all seven Open cuts and played well for much of the season without yet winning.

Sky Bet specials

80/1 - any three of Ben's tips inside the top five (including ties)

14/1 - any three inside the top 10 (including ties)

16/1 - any four inside the top 20 (including ties)

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It stands to reason that in-form players tend to win this event, as they do most. It's blindingly obvious that good golf is good golf and no surprise that it translates; the last two winners had all triumphed elsewhere within weeks of the start of the Open and the fact that conditions were very different just didn't matter.

However, Carnoustie may again prove an exception, so difficult and so unique is this test. Harrington wasn't playing well - on paper at least - ahead of his victory over a similarly struggling Garcia, and Lawrie had been in poor form for several months, as had nearly-man van de Velde, while forgotten man Leonard was hardly at the top of his game.

Both champions and all contenders were simply ready and prepared for the challenge, brilliant around the greens, and the eventual winners could also call upon victories earlier in the season - Lawrie in Qatar, Harrington on home soil in the Irish Open.

All of these themes apply to Phil Mickelson, and of the stateside contingent it's the 2013 Open champion who appeals as overpriced at 50/1, enough to ignore concerns about his suitability to this particular course and my overall inclination to look beyond the Americans.

Mickelson won in Mexico earlier in the season, at which time he was playing some of the best golf of his career. His play-off success over Thomas ended a trophy drought which dates back to his Muirfield triumph and looked set to ignite a massive summer, while all but guaranteeing a Ryder Cup spot.

Since then, Mickelson has just dipped a little but there have still been bits and pieces of encouraging form, such as fifth place in the Wells Fargo, and prior to the US Open he bagged back-to-back top-15 finishes in the Memorial and FedEx St. Jude Classic.

Then he made headlines for all the wrong reasons in a moment of pure madness at Shinnecock, before a thoroughly disappointing follow-up interview in which the darling of US golf refused to apologise, instead attempting to downplay one of the most remarkable things many of us have ever seen in a professional tournament.

Mickelson, though, did produce some good golf away from that controversy in the US Open, shooting 69 on Friday and again on Sunday, and he opened 66-69 at the Greenbrier before a disappointing weekend saw him fall down the field. In other words, his game didn't look too far away before a narrow missed cut in the Scottish Open where he was in full experimentation mode.

Gladly, he's now held his hands up for what happened a month ago and if that allows him and us to move on, there's no reason this proven links performer can't leave behind some poor rounds at Carnoustie in the past.

Remember, the Open comes back here for the first time since 2007. Back then, Mickelson's Open record was abysmal: it was his 15th start, he'd managed just one top-10 finish and on nine occasions had finished 40th or worse. The left-hander simply didn't have the patience or even the skills required for proper links golf.

But like many of the greats, he found a solution to the problem and in nine subsequent starts, Mickelson has won a Claret Jug at Muirfield, which ties in nicely with Carnoustie, while he's also finished second twice (first at Royal St George's and then, famously, at Troon) as well as landing a Scottish Open.

In recent years, Muirfield and St George's have been the two courses closest to Carnoustie in terms of difficulty and while Troon developed into a shootout between Mickelson and Stenson, let us not forget that they were in a different parish to the rest - for most, it remained a challenging week.

For all his electric, birdie-making capabilities, Mickelson is in fact really well suited to a grind in which his short-game and experience can be extraordinarily useful. Even his PGA Championship success came in four-under, and only one of his five major titles - the 2010 Masters - was in double-figures under-par.

To underline the improvement he's shown under links conditions, Mickelson was 66th on his previous visit to Muirfield before winning there in dominant fashion five years ago and while the competition has improved since, many of the fancied runners have plenty to prove at a golf course like Carnoustie.

So does Mickelson in terms of his performances at the course, but he's been working on a game plan for it which includes leaving driver in the bag wherever possible, and in an Open which could again prove to be a test of short-game credentials he's surely overpriced at 50/1 (10 places), let alone the standout 66s.

Phil Mickelson was penalised two shots for hitting a moving ball
Phil Mickelson can make headlines for the right reasons at Carnoustie

Old sparring partner Tiger Woods is tempting, too. Placed on his last start and a fairly frequent contender since returning to the circuit this season, the three-time Open champion will enjoy firm and fast conditions and I believe if he is to win a 15th major, it'll likely be in the Open or at Augusta.

Woods can afford to leave that troublesome driver in the bag at a baked Carnoustie, as he did when plotting his way to victory at Hoylake just over a decade ago, and would've been in the staking plan at just a slightly bigger price.

All selections so far have one thing in common - experience - and while respectful of the young talents currently dominating the sport, I'll never be happier to take them on than when faced with this sort of examination.

The Open, regardless of venue, has been the major most vulnerable to an ageing winner. It's less than a decade since Tom Watson almost won aged 59 and was instead denied by the veteran Stewart Cink. More recently, Mickelson, Stenson, Clarke and Els have defied their advancing years while 2015 winner Zach Johnson, like Cink, wasn't far short of his 40th birthday.

So while the current major champions are all in their twenties, and all are of course good enough to defy any experience disadvantage, a proper links challenge does still appear to tip the scales in favour of their elders. The last truly demanding Open was Muirfield in 2013, where Mickelson beat Stenson with the likes of Woods, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Zach Johnson and Adam Scott in behind, with Leonard, Angel Cabrera and Miguel Angel Jimenez just outside the top 10, and something vaguely similar may unfold.

Poulter is tempting, having returned to winning form this year and held his form well since. He was involved in a controversy of sorts in Scotland last week which may not help, but otherwise there are few negatives on the back of an eye-catching US Open performance.

Having been 27th here in 2007 and bagged some sub-70 rounds in the Dunhill Links, the 42-year-old has plenty in his favour as he seeks to continue a five-yearly assault on the Claret Jug, having chased home Harrington in 2008 and again been on the charge behind Mickelson at Muirfield.

However, at a considerably bigger price I have to side with Cink, who has been fourth, second and 23rd on his last three starts, his short-game a notable strength throughout the latter of those efforts, and who was sixth here in 2007.

Granted, Cink hasn't won anything since so cruelly denying Watson at Turnberry almost a decade ago, but that's more than accounted for in quotes in the 250/1 region and his Open record is generally strong.

The price underestimates the strength of his current play, how well suited he is to links golf and the fact that being 45 need not be a barrier in this particular major.

Fellow former winner Zach Johnson isn't one to dismiss at three-figure prices but having made the case for opposing the US challengers, I'll keep to just the above duo who simply appear overpriced in a tournament where confident predictions are very hard to make.

Matthew Southgate is a links-loving Carnoustie member who won the St Andrews Trophy as an amateur and has been 12th and sixth in the last two editions of the Open Championship. He simply must be respected along with the likes of Hao-tong Li and Chris Wood, a pair of former Open contenders, and even Harrington makes the shortlist despite playing very poorly at Gullane.

Alex Bjork fits some of the required trends but halved in price when he made a Saturday move last week while Marc Leishman was the other serious contender who made most appeal - he's placed at three of the last four Open Championships, enough in itself to take him seriously, and is an Australian for whom these conditions could be ideal.

But I'll save the last of the loose change for Shaun Norris, the journeyman South African who would, by any measure, represent a huge upset should he somehow emerge on top come Sunday night.

Norris made the cut on his Open debut last year, his sole major start to date, and showed just what he can do with a third-round 65 when playing alone as the first man out on the course, a figure which was of course eclipsed by compatriot Grace later in the day.

He returns to Scotland having finished third two weeks ago and while that was in modest company in Japan, it does set him up well for a second crack at the Open, where demanding conditions should play to his ball-striking strengths, especially as he so often strings big weeks together.

Norris's first win came by six strokes in 13-under, his second in nine-under, his third in 12-under and his latest in 13-under, where he won by four. In a nutshell, but for a 24-under romp in Myanmar he's been at his best when scoring is difficult as it will be this week.

South Africans have such a strong record in this championship and having led the all-around last time and also placed three starts previously, Norris strikes me as the sort of player who could have members of the media reaching for their guides at some point during the week.

It is hugely speculative at 500/1 (10 places, 750/1 available with smaller firms), but the Open calls for such an approach at times and I couldn't see anything to be overly positive about among the amateurs this time.

At various other Open venues it's not uncommon for one or more to contend, but those who've made this field don't particularly stand out and even McIlroy was 12 shots adrift of the leaders when he was the only amateur to make the cut here 11 years ago. None managed it in 1999 and I can see that again being the case.

To conclude, then, I have to lean towards proven links performers, those with experience and sharp short-games, for what should be a true championship test. That doesn't mean a high-ball-hitting youngster won't brazenly upset the traditionalists, but backing any one of them to do so under these conditions makes limited appeal at the prices.

Posted at 1200 BST on 16/07/18.

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