Ben Coley expects precision approach play to be the key to conquering Royal Portrush in this week's Open Championship. Don't miss his in-depth betting preview.
Five years ago, Peter Dawson of the R&A confirmed golf's worst-kept secret: that Royal Portrush would be added to the list of Open Championship courses; that Northern Ireland would welcome the world's best golfers for a future renewal of the oldest major of them all.
One month later, Rory McIlroy dominated at Hoylake to win his third major, and a month after that made it four in the PGA Championship. He was alone at the top of the sport and, along with Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, it was McIlroy's success which helped make the complicated rather simple and end more than six decades of Opens held exclusively in Scotland and England.
If there's one man whose patience may be thinner than those who've worked through each of the last five years to make sure this goes to plan, it may well be McIlroy.
Without a major since beating Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and the fading light at Valhalla in 2014, he has since been joined by Brooks Koepka on four and of the two, it's the latter whose trajectory dictates that he is the man to aim at under normal circumstances.
These, though, are not normal circumstances, and it's McIlroy who heads the market as the prodigal son returns home.
It would be a story to rival those extraordinary sporting moments of last weekend were he to do it, and that he may well. Two wins in 2019, improvements on and around the greens, a familiarity with the course where he shot a brilliant 61 aged just 16 and shoulders wide enough to carry the hopes of a proud nation, McIlroy is the right favourite.
He's a brilliant links player these days, with three top-five finishes since winning at Hoylake, and a Scottish Open warm-up should have him spot on for Thursday's opening tee-time. That it's in the morning can only be a good thing: he may have spontaneously combusted had the wait been extended through to the afternoon.
Like many, McIlroy will have my support and he certainly has my faith, but a more pragmatic approach is required when assessing the outright market and once again it's Patrick Cantlay who gets the headline vote.
Though it may perhaps have benefited Cantlay to have taken in a links preparation like that of McIlroy's, he has at least played competitively since a slow start cost him a crack at the US Open - unlike Tiger Woods, Justin Rose and Xander Schauffele.
Cantlay's top-15 finish at the Travelers Championship only served to underline his status as the most reliable operator in world golf, but it was the way he shut the door in the Memorial Tournament three weeks earlier which suggested that he's ready to graduate to the very elite.
Already this year, he's hit the front on Sunday at the Masters, kept up the chase of Koepka to finish third in the PGA and then scraped together 21st at the US Open, a performance which if described as disappointing must then serve to underline what's now expected of the world number 10.
Four good rounds at Carnoustie last year saw him finish 12th on his long-awaited Open debut - an effort which came following an identical prep run in Connecticut - and at around the 30/1 mark he looks underestimated having been a good deal shorter at Pebble Beach last month.
Cantlay currently tops the bogey avoidance charts on the PGA Tour, a nice pointer after Francesco Molinari went bogey-free over the weekend to land this title a year ago, but truth be told he stands out everywhere you look.
At 10th in strokes-gained off-the-tee, 12th in approach shots, 13th around the green and 25th in putting, this is the most complete game in the sport we're talking about and that is absolutely ideal for this major in particular, one where every club and just about every shot will be called upon.
Of all the many factors which help to unearth a Champion Golfer of the Year, a recent win is among the most reliably prescient - Molinari, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson, McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Darren Clarke and Louis Oosthuizen all had one within eight starts of their Open heroics.
Cantlay has that, he's experienced contending in majors now, and with his ability to close the door underlined once and for all in the Memorial Tournament he looks an excellent each-way bet with the generous terms on offer.
Teeing off behind Woods' group on Thursday and Friday might be the one negative for the headline selection, as fans exit the greens in pursuit of the sport's biggest draw, but with one of Europe's leading hopes alongside him perhaps that won't quite be the case.
Jon Rahm has solid credentials here as a two-time Irish Open winner, the first of those successes coming locally, and nobody arrives in better form given that his results read 3-2-1 from Pebble Beach onward.
A major winner in waiting if ever there was one, Rahm was very close to being included in the staking plan, but I can't shake the concern around his Open record which reads 59-44-MC and just offers the slightest hint that a grind like this isn't quite what he wants.
Rain in the weeks prior to the tournament and a forecast which calls for fairly moderate breezes could make this easier than had been expected, but reports from Portrush emphasise how tricky the greens are and how easy it is to lose a ball in thick, weedy rough.
With that in mind I want to stick to players with a proven Open pedigree and while neither tick that box for a recent win, it's hard to deny that both Henrik Stenson and Tommy Fleetwood arrive in excellent shape and know how to do what is required here.
Stenson now leads the PGA Tour in strokes-gained approach this year and having switched caddies more than once and struggled at the start of the campaign, things are coming together at exactly the right time.
He was flawless for 71 of the 72 holes in Scotland last week, a double-bogey at the 17th hole on Saturday the only blemish on his scorecard, and having unsurprisingly led the field in greens hit there he's an outstanding candidate for what would be a second Claret Jug.
Stenson has done his Portrush scouting already, making a trip there after the US Open having skipped the BMW International Open in Germany, an event which is usually on his schedule.
That means he can take a relaxed approach to the practice days, which is precisely what he did before that career-defining defeat of Phil Mickelson in a duel for the ages at Royal Troon in 2016.
With three other top-three finishes in the Open and 10 cuts made in succession now, the Swede has so much in his favour with age certainly no barrier to success in this one. If the putter does its job he should go well and in truth I had expected his price to collapse a good deal more than it has.
As for Fleetwood, it's undeniably hard to argue that he's great value to win the tournament given his strike-rate, but the place part looks rock solid and he can follow the lead of friend and playing partner Molinari to be right in the mix on Sunday.
The popular Englishman hasn't missed a cut in over a year now and his meticulous preparation at Portrush should set him up for a big week - especially now that the focus has shifted elsewhere a little.
I thought he did really well to crack the top 30 on his home course at Birkdale in 2017, where he arrived on the back of a US Open top-five, and it was again an excellent effort to share 12th at Carnoustie having come so close to major glory at Shinnecock a month earlier.
This time around he's been playing as well as ever without quite the same fireworks, and that's just fine with me as he looks to peak when it matters following 13th place at the Travelers and 23rd in the Irish Open.
"Majors are always going to be there and always the ones that everybody wants to win, but putting the urgency or putting too much pressure on yourself is not going to do yourself any favours," he said on Monday.
"Just keep doing things as well as you possibly can and hopefully one, two, three majors, hopefully at least one comes along."
Portrush looks an excellent opportunity for this supreme ball-striker, who won't mind being encouraged to hit the odd iron off the tee on a course which requires clear thinking and a willingness to play defensively at times.
Back at the very top of the market, Dustin Johnson is as tempting as any having bagged some practice holes alongside Portrush native Graeme McDowell.
Johnson has long looked a potential Open champion, he's won twice in 2019, and it isn't hard to look beyond a missed cut in the new, low-scoring Rocket Mortgage Classic and focus on second in both the Masters and the PGA.
He'd be much preferred to Woods, who looked rusty when he missed the cut in the PGA having been off since Augusta and may be making a similarly costly mistake here. It was never going to be a hectic year for the now 15-time major champion and he boasts an enviable Open record, but I'd like to have seen him play a little more than he has.
Schauffele has been holidaying in Paris with family and Rose is another who has been on the sidelines, so with Molinari having lost the Midas touch on the 12th hole at Augusta, Bryson DeChambeau's major record leaving something to be desired and Justin Thomas having a little to prove under these conditions, it's not all that difficult to look beyond most of the big names.
Matt Kuchar is rock solid as is links specialist Adam Scott, but the remaining member of the world's top 20 who makes most appeal is Webb Simpson and truth be told he's last off the shortlist.
Simpson has a rock-solid Open record, his major form this year reads 5-29-16, and it's possible that this test proves far more suitable for a player whose game would be as complete as Cantlay's if only he packed a little more punch from the tee.
He's hugely respected, but Shane Lowry instead goes in as the penultimate selection having prepared beautifully for this.
Lowry started the season with his first win since 2015, he's since competed at a very high level in the US including when contending for the Canadian Open behind McIlroy, and his warm-up at Lahinch two weeks ago was ideal.
The 2009 Irish Open winner said there that he'd fixed a little putting issue and is clearly thriving heading into the final major of the season, three years on from a near-miss behind DJ at the US Open.
"I’m in a great place at the minute," he said at the Irish Open. "There’s nothing more I can say really. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a better place than I am now.
"It’s exciting times for me and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks."
Lowry won the North of Ireland amateur here at Portrush in 2008 before famously capturing his national open as an amateur a year later, and his early Open form (37-32-9) showed that he can be a contender for the Claret Jug.
It's not been so good recently, but that's part of a wider malaise which was rooted out gradually over the course of 2018, with his first start of 2019 completing the move back towards the top of the sport.
That's similar to what happened to Fleetwood a year earlier, before he went on to threaten at the US Open, and Lowry can do the same here with other positives including his magic hands, improved iron play and some eye-catching form on other Harry Colt layouts including Wentworth.
It would be unusual for me not to include a couple at three-figure prices for any event, but Portrush is expected to prove the sort of pure, demanding test which produces elite leaderboards just like Carnoustie and Birkdale have over the last couple of years.
However, Jazz Janewattananond is closing in on the world's top 50 and the young Thai has to be worth chancing at 300/1 having been playing an extraordinarily consistent and high level throughout this year - including when second through 54 holes of the PGA Championship.
Jazz (I'm not typing it again) has been inside the top 15 entering the final round some 16 times already in 2019 and that's from just 18 events played, with the other two ending in missed cuts.
That's phenomenal by any measure and while it would be easy to dismiss a number of these tournaments given their low-key status in Asia, he had Paul Casey, Matt Fitzpatrick and Sergio Garcia behind when winning in Singapore.
Another win in Korea continued his ascent, with a winning score of six-under underlining the fact that he can grind, and the leading Asian Tour money earner in 2019 is thriving throughout the bag as he closes in on a Presidents Cup place.
That experience contending in the PGA is massive - he'd have been in the top five but for playing the final seven holes in seven-over as conditions toughened markedly - and with Pete Cowen's help it looks to me like he's going to keep on climbing the rankings for a while yet.
The success Cowen has enjoyed with Koepka, Gary Woodland and various others can only be a good thing and this youngster clear has enough about him to get in the mix.
Finally, a word on Christiaan Bezhuidenhout. He'll feature in my specials preview and almost made it onto this page, having impressed everyone when fending off Rahm to win at Valderrama recently.
Bezhuidenhout's remarkable story already has a chapter in it about Portrush - it was at this course in the 2014 Amateur Championship that he was banned for beta blockers, which he took to cope with severe anxiety issues - and five years on it would be quite something were he to contend.
At the start of the decade, a young South African won in Spain and then blitzed the field to win the Claret Jug. Bezuidenhout is perhaps not in the same class as Louis Oosthuizen, but he's sharp around the greens, accurate off the tee, and good enough to surprise a few.
Posted at 2200 BST on 15/07/19.