The world’s best golfers are at Royal Birkdale this week to contest the 146th Open Championship. Henrik Stenson defends the title he won at Royal Troon last year.

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The golfing world has descended on Royal Birkdale in Southport this week for the 146th Open Championship. Anticipation is building as Henrik Stenson prepares to defend his title against an extremely strong field.

Henrik Stenson comes into the week of his Open title defence with mixed form in 2017. Although he has a few top-10 finishes on the European Tour to his name, he has missed a number of cuts in the US, including at both The Masters and the US Open.

World Number 1 Dustin Johnson heads into The Open something of an unknown quantity – he last made a cut at the Byron Nelson in mid May. He missed out on the weekend in the US Open and will look to bounce back from that here. He has three top-10s to his name in the game’s oldest championship, including a tie for 2nd in 2011, and has the talent to win on any given week if he produces his best game.

Another man looking to find form is 2014 Open champion Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman also missed the cut at the US Open and he comes into this week on the back of missed cuts in both the Irish and Scottish Opens. But the four-time Major winner will receive great support this week and, just like DJ, his best golf is tough to beat. If he can find the spark, he’ll contend.

Who then is on good form? Jordan Spieth will be among the favourites having won the recent Travelers Championship, as will Jon Rahm after his victory in the Irish Open at Portstewart. His convincing performance there showed he has the skills to cope with links golf.

Another Spaniard, Sergio Garcia, will fancy his chances. He has proved himself as a fine links player over the years with 10 top-10 finishes in The Open and, following his victory in this year’s Masters, he should be full of confidence that he can finally get his hands on the Claret Jug.

This will be the 10th time The Open Championship has been held over the links at Royal Birkdale. The first time the tournament was contested here in 1954 Peter Thomson took the title, Arnold Palmer won in 1961 and Thomson claimed the last of his five Open victories at Birkdale in 1965, Lee Trevino denied Tony Jacklin in 1971 and Johnny Miller denied a young Seve with a superb display in 1976, Tom Watson became a five-time Open champion at Birkdale in 1983 and Ian Baker-Finch came out on top in 1991. Mark O’Meara won at Birkdale in 1998 and 10 years later Padraig Harrington was the last man to triumph at Birkdale as he successfully defended the title he had won at Carnoustie the year before.

The course at Royal Birkdale dates from 1889 but it was significantly changed in 1922 after guidance from Fred Hawtree and the five-time Open champion J.H. Taylor.

Royal Birkdale Open history video:

Surrounded by towering dunes, the fairways at Royal Birkdale wind between those impressive sand hills. It’s a course that will test even the most accomplished links player to their limits, particularly when the wind is gusting.

The course features a number of recognisable holes and an outstanding finish. The last two are par-5s for amateurs – the 17th with its long green, the scene of Padraig Harrington’s famous 5-wood shot in 2008, then the 18th  (a par 4 for the tournament) with out of bounds lurking right and a selection of treacherous bunkers to negotiate en-route to the green in front of the striking art-deco clubhouse.

The course looks to be playing well and the players have been commenting on the fairness of the links. “It plays well even in tough conditions,” said Justin Rose. “Most of us playing here this week have only ever played the course in challenging weather – in both 1998 and 2008 conditions were tough. But the course is fair even in those tougher conditions and that’s a sign of how fair it is. You don’t tend to get some of the killer bounces that you do on some of the courses we visit.”

Last year’s Open Championship at Royal Troon witnessed one of the game’s greatest ever final day showdowns, featuring Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson. Between them they recorded 14 birdies and an eagle on the Sunday with Stenson coming out on top after posting a phenomenal 63. Stenson’s 20-under-par total was a tournament record. If we see anything comparable this year, the fans at Birkdale will be in for a real treat.

The weather forecast looks uncertain at this stage but it appears likely that rain will be a factor at some stage. Thursday currently should be clear but Friday, Saturday and Sunday could be damp.

Venue: Royal Birkdale, Lancashire
Date: Jul 20-23
Course stats: par 70, 7,156 yards
Purse: $10,250,000  Winner: $1,800,000
Defending Champion: Henrik Stenson (-20)

TV Coverage:
Thursday 20 – Sky Sports 4 from 6.30am
Friday 21 – Sky Sports 4 from 6.30am
Saturday 22 – Sky Sports 4 from 8am
Sunday 23 – Sky Sports 4 from 8am

Player watch:
Justin Rose – The Englishman burst into the public eye with a superb fourth place finish at Royal Birkdale as a 17-year-old amateur in 1998. He hasn’t bettered that finish in an Open since then but he is determined this could be the year. “It would be cool to come full circle,” he said.

Tommy Fleetwood – He’s enjoyed a superb season and was a winner in the recent French Open. He was tied 10th in the Irish Open and will receive great local support this week.

Hideki Matsuyama – He was tied second in the US Open and kept up the good play with a decent showing in the Irish Open. He was tied sixth in the 2013 Open.

And then the Spaniards… After Spanish wins in the Irish and Scottish Open, could there be a Spanish hat-trick.

Sergio Garcia – The Masters champion has come oh so close in The Open and has all the necessary skills to lift the Claret Jug.

Jon Rahm – He put on a masterclass to win the Irish Open and he looks full of confidence. He could well win again this week.

Rafa Cabrera-Bello – Last week’s winner at Dundonald, Cabrera-Bello has a great tee to green game and will look to continue the superb play he showed in a closing 64 in Ayrshire on Sunday.

Key hole: 17th. The par-5 is 567 yards but, as it generally plays downwind, it tends to be reachable in two. It was here that Padraig Harrington secured victory in 2008 with a brilliant five wood shot that ended just feet from the cup. In 2008 this hole ranked as the easiest on the course. The long, narrow green has been altered slightly since then and some of the harsher slopes have been softened.

Skills required: Patience. Links golf is all about strategy and accepting the breaks. Sometimes the ball will bounce or run for you and other times it won’t the best players on the links have the strength of mind to accept the vagaries and get on with it. Experience helps greatly with this and that would help explain why eight of the last 10 Open champions have been aged 35 or over.