Bill Elliott looks at the form and prospects of six golfing heavyweights at Hoylake, with hopes for some Open success at long last for Rory McIlroy...

There is something about Royal Liverpool – an ambience, a spirit, a feeling, certainly a decent pint to be had at the bar, but there just is something that lifts the soul and underlines the thought that you have landed somewhere special. This is partly to do with the history of the place, the fact that Bobby Jones won his Grand Slam Open Championship here and lots of other notable stuff but mostly, for me anyway, it is the atmosphere, the friendliness on top of a pedigree that would impress even the most sniffy of pedants.

Best of all, this is a club that looks and feels well-used, a proper playground and a course that seems to bellow “For God’s sake play me, don’t just revere me”. It looked quite wild and quiet when last I visited a couple of months ago; stands were being erected, some were completed but the emptiness echoed like a grand table set for dinner and awaiting guests to arrive. There was on this day enough wind to startle the women exiting a nearby hairdressers, but not enough to destroy totally what remains of my tattered game. One can only hope we have at least one day when a gale thunders in off the sea and properly alarms the posse of men gathered to contest the club’s 12th Open Championship.

Anticipation of an Open is quite possibly half the fun of the thing, just as identifying the 2014 champion from this range is also fun, even if it is recklessly optimistic, and so as we embark on this odyssey of hope over future action it may help if we attempt to identify who or what a prospective Open champion needs to be. You may have your own checklist, but here is mine…

  • An Open champion needs to be an all-round player.
  • He needs to arrive prepared for the unexpected.
  • It helps hugely if he has an experienced and calm caddie.
  • It helps even more if he has not recently separated from a girlfriend or wife (this caveat does not apply to Rory McIlroy), lost a bunch of money in a reckless investment, overdone the gym work, played too many weeks in succession, developed an acute taste for alcohol or, finally, recently undergone a delicate operation on his spine.
  • Most important of all, he needs a big slice of luck.

At which point I would normally type the name Tiger Woods. Actually, you may have noticed, I just have. If Woods makes it to Hoylake then only a fool would dismiss his chances. Will he, however, make it after that back operation? By the time you read this we may have the answer. If he does turn up then we must add him to our list of possible, logically defensible, winners. Not though very high up the list. Fabulous he is but victory would be a huge ask even for a man of his over-developed confidence and competitiveness. Who knows…

Photography: Robert Meggers/Getty Images

Never write Tiger off at the Open. Photography: Robert Meggers/Getty Images

What I do know is that this Open needs him. Even a half-throttle Woods would bring more charisma and interest to Hoylake than at least half the field added together and multiplied by a factor of three, maybe four. What I also know is that he will be busting a gut while nursing his vertebrae to make it to a course where he won his third Open title eight years ago and where he established a lasting rapport with a Merseyside crowd that knows how to treat any genuine sporting hero. You may recall that he played rather well that week…

In good company…

While we wait to see what happens with ‘The Great One’, we may run a rule over the other usual suspects while remembering that this most perverse of games can throw what our American pals call a curve ball in the shape of a bemused Ben Curtis or a disbelieving Todd Hamilton. Funny things happen, but they tend not to at Hoylake.

Starting with Harold Hilton in 1897, the honours board at Hoylake screams one word: class. Hilton was followed by Sandy Herd, Arnaud Massy, JH Taylor, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Alf Padgham, Fred Daly, Peter Thomson, Roberto De Vicenzo and Woods. Of these, only Daly might be described as anything slightly less than a genuine world-class golfer, and even then such a verdict would be open to serious debate.

No, viewed how you like, the Hoylake examination paper is a stern and proper one. As ever, imagination and patience are required during a week when weather and the indiscriminate placing of an irritating divot mark can combine to threaten a player’s sanity. Patience is not always an obvious attribute when considering defending champion Phil Mickelson. Whatever the conditions, however difficult things may turn, the American only knows one way to play. Gung-ho to the point sometimes that he can appear unhinged, he put together one of the truly great final rounds last year at Muirfield. He remains unpredictable, but deliriously talented. I would rarely bet on him, but then I would rarely bet against him either. Perfectly capable of winning again or missing the cut. Never, however, dull.

It is much the same with the Wee Man. Rory McIlroy has had an extraordinary few years, winning Majors, earning millions, making lawyers even richer and conducting a love affair in public that has been on, been off and, last time I looked, was dramatically off again. He is not the only man to have done this final thing and he will not be the last. Stuff happens even if too much of it sometimes seems to be happening to him. He is condemned to spend his life in the full glare of a withering public and media gaze, and he knows that were he to prevail at this Open then the gaze will be even more acute and unsettling.

But this is the life he wanted, and while I am sure he has long moments of doubt about the attraction of it all, he mostly seems to regroup and enter the fray again, more often than not with a smile on his face. Until Wentworth what he hadn’t been doing was winning stuff. He has played some quite brilliant golf, but then failed to turn the screw when in, or close to, pole position. Against all the odds he turned this negative trend on its head when he won the BMW PGA Championship. Impressive stuff.

Rory McIlroy needs to take his best form to the Open. Photography: Warren Little/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy needs to take his best form to the Open. Photography: Warren Little/Getty Images

Can he do the same at Hoylake? Well, he is still the man born to be king but, even armed with two Majors to date, he remains an unpredictable pretender to the throne. Strange thing is that The Open should suit him. He has deep knowledge of links golf and this coupled with myriad skills should make him a big contender every time he plays.

Seems to me that, to date anyway, he has rarely pitched up at an Open in the right, positive frame of mind. It also seems to me that this Open may well be the one where he really does strut his stuff. By mid-July he should be over the emotional baggage and, hopefully, in the mood to think ‘Right, time to go again, time to properly impose myself as I believe I can’. Certainly, I believe he can. But will he?

Putting it straight…

Or will Adam Scott pull himself and his ugly putter together again. The amiable, intelligent Australian – rarely a sentence anyone can write sensibly – is clearly the real deal. He is also a famous player who manages to sidestep much of the nonsense, and a man who didn’t talk about getting married, he just quietly got married. Older and therefore more mature than McIlroy, Scott has a stellar reason to win at Hoylake.

In 18 months’ time he will have to throw away the crutch he calls a long putter and it is at least open to question how successful he can continue to be armed with a more conventional club. He knows better than any of us that he now has half a dozen Majors left before he finds out whether the old vulnerability on the greens that drove him towards a long putter can be overcome as he plays out his career. Put simply, the smart money would suggest that he has two opportunities left to win the oldest Championship, Royal Liverpool and St Andrews next year. If nothing else, this jarring knowledge should help him focus.

For different reasons this is also a crucial Open for Henrik Stenson. In January each year I talk to myself about who might well win The Open, and this time round I kept coming back to the Swede. A Major is the only accolade missing for him, but it is a big omission. And here is the rub: while Stenson has successfully come back from not one, but two scarring plunges down the rankings, he must know that if he has inexplicably fallen away twice he can do it for a third time. Hoylake, too, is a crucial battleground for Stenson and he may well rise gloriously to the challenge.

Yet while all the above and more may well turn out to be the champion golfer of this year, I believe there is one young player who can sensationally take all the riches available on Merseyside this summer. Jordan Spieth is quite clearly a phenomenon. It seems like yesterday that Rory was the wonderkid, but right now that particular accolade must go to a Texan who will not turn 21 until the week after The Open.

Photography: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Jordan Speith will be excited to return to the Open. Photography: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Last year was his first experience of the oldest jousting field and, guess what, he loved it, loved the links, loved the crowds, loved the occasion. He teased at times on the leaderboard before eventually finishing in a tie for 44th, but this player is a quick learner. As he left Scotland last year he said he could not wait to return to play an Open.

Well, time flies and everything Spieth has done since last July has endorsed the early suspicion that here is a very special player indeed. What I’d like to see happen is for Spieth and McIlroy to come down the 18th locked together in a battle for the most relevant prize in golf. It is, of course, vividly possible that Spieth might well then prevail, although I’d be even happier were McIlroy to win.

John Lennon once wrote, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” – so allow me to dream here. Lennon, by the way, used to cut across Royal Liverpool to see his-then girlfriend, later his wife, Cynthia, who was a Hoylake girl. Mind you, Lennon also told us, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. Or, indeed, dreaming.

THE SAFE BETS…

Justin Rose 25/1

Since bursting onto the Open scene in 1998, the Englishman has racked up two further top-15 finishes in the championship, and is currently having a fine season in the US, with six top 20s and over $1.6million pocketed. Having won his first Major last season, the US Open, the 33-year-old knows how to handle the pressure of the big occasion.

Sergio Garcia 28/1

With seven top-10s, including runner-up to Padraig Harrington in 2007 and tied 5th when the event was last staged at Hoylake in 2006, the Spaniard often produces his finest form on links courses, thanks to his superb shot-making ability. Recent results point to an encouraging return to form, including third place at the Players Championship.

Jim Furyk 100/1

At these odds, the veteran American is surely worth a few quid each way. Furyk has five top-10s to his name in the Open, including 4th at Royal Liverpool in 2006. Continues to churn out some impressive golf, and has already amassed more than $2.8million on the PGA Tour this year, including runner-up spots at the Wells Fargo and Players Championship in May.

Rickie Fowler 80/1

Impressed at the 2011 Open at Royal St George’s as he mastered wet and windy conditions with some superb shot making and putting on his way to a top-five finish. He also made the top 15 in 2010 at St Andrews, despite a first round 79. This season, the 25-year-old is in fine form, and has already banked in excess of $1.5m on the PGA Tour.