BRITISH OPEN

After a gap of ten years, the Open Championship at last returns to Royal Birkdale, arguably its greatest venue. Some recent Opens, most notably St Andrews and Hoylake, have been slightly disappointing because the courses failed to show their teeth, but I’ll be very surprised if that’s the case at these famous Lancashire links.

By all accounts, it should play as tough as ever. After a wet summer, the rough is up in Southport, so even those lucky enough to avoid the bunkers and dunes will be heavily penalised for inaccuracy. Straight driving will be further emphasised because a decent fairway lie is essential to control approach shots to small, tricky greens surrounded by yet more rough.

As with all links courses though, weather is the main defence. When the wind rolls in off the Irish Sea, Birkdale becomes one of the toughest golf courses in the world. Just how tough can be seen in the scoring from the Saturday of the last Birkdale Open. On that particularly windy day in 1998, only two players bettered 72, with over a quarter of the field shooting 80+, including several of the biggest names.

Despite such difficulties, what really makes Birkdale a great course is that, unlike US Open venues or Carnoustie ’99, low scores are very possible. For instance, Ian Baker- Finch shot -10 over the weekend to win in 1991. Hopefully, we’re set for a classic Open with dramatic leaderboard fluctuations over the weekend. An eventuality made all the likelier for Tiger Woods’ absence. Tiger finished 3rd in 1998, beaten just one shot despite obviously apparent links inexperience. If he were fit, I would have fancied him strongly. But rather than pine for the great man, we should celebrate the fact that we now have the most wide-open Major in living memory.

Sergio Garcia starts as the biggest-priced favourite since Tiger himself won his first Masters at around the same 10/1 odds. Having made the top-10 in six of the last seven years, and enjoyed the perfect warm-up when second in the European Open, its impossible to dispute his claim. With the exception of Ernie Els, Garcia has by far the best Open record of the main contenders and this course will play to his strengths.

If there is a question to answer, it regards temperament. Garcia has played in the final 2-ball two years running and, frankly, embarrassed himself. With that in mind, plus other final-round disasters, I can’t recommend a bet at 10/1. He may win, will almost certainly contend, and is worth considering for speciality bets, but there must be better value.

This year marks the end of an era for me. I’ve backed Ernie Els in every Open since 1995, and been regularly rewarded with place money and one memorable win at Muirfield. He starts second favourite again but, sadly, I just can’t recommend him with confidence this time. He retains so much class, enough to make the top-10 at Loch Lomond despite struggling, and played surprisingly well at the US Open. But Ernie’s long game hasn’t looked in peak order for some time, and Birkdale will magnify any mistakes.

The last two renewals here, 1991 and 1998, both produced fairly unpredictable results. The two winners, Mark O’Meara and Ian Baker Finch, were both plausible mid-ranked players at 33/1 and 66/1, while the places were largely made up of rank outsiders. Tiger and Fred Couples were the only two leading contenders to make the frame in either year.

An equally interested trend concerns the winners’ nationality. Of the eight previous Open winners at Birkdale, five were American, three Australian, and none European. In fact the last European to make the top-3 was Seve Ballesteros in 1976. In fairness that statistic does need placing into context, as there have only been three in the intervening 32 years, during which European golf has steadily improved.

Besides Garcia and Lee Westwood, I can’t see too many Europeans threatening to break that trend. Defending champion Padraig Harrington is struggling to be fit after injuring his wrist over the weekend, and Justin Rose must rate the worst-ever Open value at a paltry 25/1. Rose owes that position to the fact that he finished 4th here as an 17 year-old amateur in 1998, a fact we will doubtless be reminded of with irritating regularity. On this season’s form, he should be at least twice those odds.

At least Rose has some form in the Open. None of Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson have ever been a factor in this Major, and Colin Montgomerie only once on a very different course. Loch Lomond winner Graeme McDowell, who grew up playing links at Portrush, looks a lively contender but needs to defy the poor record of Scottish Open champions trying to double up. Miguel-Angel Jiminez can’t be written off in current form, but is plenty short enough at 33/1.

Another leading candidate I’m out to oppose is World No. 2 Phil Mickelson, who put in another below-par overseas performance at Loch Lomond. As I repeat every year, Mickelson is simply not a good enough links player, with just one good effort to his name at Troon three years ago. I expect Birkdale to strangle his attacking instincts, and won’t be shocked if repeats his catastrophic 85-79 weekend from 1998.

Having made the Open top-10 four times, JIM FURYK certainly can play links golf, and I doubt there’s a course better suited to his talents than Birkdale. Back in 1998, nobody played better tee to green golf than Furyk over the weekend, who finished 4th despite holing nothing of significance on Sunday. His relentless long-game accuracy and canny short game looks the perfect combination for this course and, after a disappointing spell, I was re-assured by his latest 3rd place.

Birkdale also looks ideal for Furyk’s compatriot JUSTIN LEONARD, the 1997 Open champion. After a long spell in the doledrums, the Texan has bounced back to something approaching his best with two PGA Tour wins and numerous high finishes over the last nine months. Still only 36, this great wind player should be at his golfing peak, and is well capable of winning a second major. After all he‘s shown great aptitude for playing tough courses, twice losing in other Major play-offs including the ‘99 Open at Carnoustie, and winning the ‘5th Major’ at Sawgrass.

A third American worth considering is 150/1 outsider SCOTT VERPLANK. Verplank is that very rare of creatures – an American who loves this links test so much that he describes it as the best tournament in the world. For this reason I’ve backed Scott before in the Open, only to be disappointed when the course didn’t play as hard as expected. Thankfully, Birkdale is guaranteed to suit his extremely accurate driving, suggesting that he can better his current Open best of 7th place at Troon in 2004.

Because they often play on similarly tough, fast-running courses at home, I always fancy some of the Australian contingent to go well at the Open. This hasn’t been the case in recent years, but given that Birkdale has been their best venue historically, several of their ever improving squad warrant support. Adam Scott, as always, is their shortest priced contender, a claim that sits uneasily with his awful tournament record. Just one top-20 from eight Opens is further evidence that Scott isn’t up to playing most Majors courses.

At a slightly bigger price I much prefer the claims of former US Open champion GEOFF OGILVY. Ogilvy is the complete opposite of Scott, a lesser factor in the standard weekly events who comes to life whenever there’s a prestigious title at stake. Only Tiger has been more consistent in recent WGC events, and his recent top-10 at Torrey Pines was another solid effort in the Majors. He finished 5th and 16th in the 2005 and 2006 Opens, and should go well again.

Other Australians that entered my calculations were wind specialist Stuart Appleby, consistent Rod Pampling and last year’s 4th Richard Green, though none could surpass the strong claims of ROBERT ALLENBY and NICK O’HERN. Both of these two are regularly near the top of the crucial greens in regulation stats, suggesting they have the perfect credentials for Birkdale.

Allenby has serially underperformed in all the Majors, which makes no sense given his game, experience and proven ‘bottle’. Its a run that must logically change soon, and he did at least make the top-20 at Birkdale ten years ago. Rather than taking 50/1 to win the tournament though, I reckon 20/1 is better value to win the ‘Top Rest of the World’ market.

As for O’Hern, he represents the best betting value of all in my view. He’s 150/1 to win the Claret Jug and 50/1 in the aforementioned Top ROW market. I recommend taking both, as his relentless accuracy should ensure another top finish to add to four recent top-20s in the States, including 3rd place in his last event. Not only does the left-hander have the ideal long game credentials, but hailing from Perth, he is accustomed to the windy conditions seen there every afternoon in the form of the ‘Fremantle Doctor’.

Naturalised Canadian STEPHEN AMES is also worth supporting in both of those markets at decent prices, just pipping another Canadian, Mike Weir, for the last staking plan spot. Almost legendary as a ‘wind specialist’, its high time Ames added a decent Open finish to his 5th place at Troon eleven years ago. He’s been very consistent this year in the States without managing to win, not missing a cut since January and top-5 on two of his last four starts.

Other speciality markets worth inspection are for Top European and Top Englishman. As mentioned above, besides Garcia and Westwood few of the Euro squad are fancied, which makes consistent, in-form SOREN HANSEN a cracking bet at 33/1. Prior to last week’s missed cut, (on a course he’s never challenged), Hansen had been in the form of his life, rarely out of European Tour contention.

A great ball-striker, Hansen should enjoy Birkdale and has shown a liking for links before when finishing 8th at Muirfield five years ago.

As for top Englishman, if Lee Westwood retains his consistent recent form then this prize is his for the taking. He’ll probably contend, but represents poor value considering his moderate Open record that shows he’s only made the top-10 twice and never got into contention. If we can get him beaten then I’d much rather back an outsider than consider the likes of over-rated Rose, Casey and Poulter, or links novices Oliver Wilson and Ross Fisher.

Step forward NICK DOUGHERTY, the reigning Dunhill Links champion, whose odds are considerably inflated after a few weak efforts. Dougherty is from Liverpool, and therefore must carry some sort of ‘home favourite’ tag, which may in itself spark some improvement. The fact remains that, while he is inconsistent, he is a class act on his day and massively over-priced against this questionable company at 20/1.

Good Luck!

ADVISED BETS

OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP

2pts ew JIM FURYK @ 25/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)

1.5pts ew GEOFF OGILVY @ 30/1 (GENERAL, 33/1 TOTE)

1pt ew JUSTIN LEONARD @ 50/1 (GENERAL)

0.5pts ew STEPHEN AMES @ 90/1 (GENERAL, 100/1 SKYBET)

0.5pts ew NICK O’HERN @ 140/1 (BET365, 150/1 SPORTINGODDS)

0.5pts ew SCOTT VERPLANK @ 150/1 (GENERAL)

TOP EUROPEAN

2pts ew SOREN HANSEN @ 33/1 (GENERAL, 35/1 BOYLESPORTS)

TOP REST OF THE WORLD

2.5pts ew ROBERT ALLENBY @ 20/1 (CORAL, BET365)

1.5pts ew STEPHEN AMES @ 33/1 (BET365, BETFRED)

1pt ew NICK O’HERN @ 50/1 (CORAL, BET365, BETFRED)

TOP ENGLISHMAN

2.5pts ew NICK DOUGHERTY @ 20/1 (PADDY POWER PAY 1/5 ODDS 4 PLACES, OTHERWISE ¼ 1,2,3 STAN JAMES, BETDIRECT)

LONG-TERM ALREADY ADVISED

2008 VOLVO ORDER OF MERIT

10pts HENRIK STENSON @ 7/1

4pts PAUL CASEY @ 14/1

USPGA TOUR MONEY LIST

BETTING WITHOUT TIGER WOODS

2pts ew KJ CHOI @ 33/1

1pt ew TREVOR IMMELMAN @ 80/1

2007/2008 STATS: +536pts