Els very much took the eye at Loch Lomond, leading the greens in regulation stats and finishing one shot outside the top-10. Granted, that isn’t enough to dispel the widespread assumption that Ernie’s game is in decline, but his Open record is simply too good to ignore what are by far his biggest odds since making his debut seventeen years ago. Lets not forget, Ernie has six top-3s and eleven top-10s in this major, including a win at Muirfield in 2002. That record, along with other feats on these legendary Scottish courses, makes Ernie the best links player of his generation, including Tiger.
Even last year, when similarly out of form, Ernie fought back from a bad draw and impossible position to finish 7th. He too has been repeatedly practising at Turnberry over the last few weeks and will be ideally prepared. All he needs is a few putts to start dropping, and even if they don’t, his ball-striking, scrambling skills and general links prowess will probably ensure another high finish.
Furyk is one of the few American golfers to have repeatedly thrived in recent Opens, and the extra emphasis on driving accuracy must elevate him to the shortlist. Jim has made the top-5 four times in this major, including two of the last three years, so clearly isn’t disadvantaged by the switch from US target golf courses to British links. His recent form is exemplary, despite the lack of a title, with 7th behind Woods a fortnight ago his sixth top-11 in eight starts.
So what of the rest? Naturally, Padraig Harrington will be the centre of attention as he bid for his third successive Open title. Optimists will point to Harrington’s victory in last week’s Irish PGA Championship, but winning that very low-grade affair is not enough to dispel the doubts created by some miserable recent form. Pod’s previous five starts had all resulted in missed cuts, and he’s been struggling with his long game all season. Unless there is dramatic improvement in terms of accuracy, he’s going to be finding a lot of troublesome spots at Turnberry, and could again struggle to make the cut.
High-class English pair Lee Westwood and Paul Casey hold prominent positions in the betting, but neither has comprehensively proved their suitability for this major. Similarly, Geoff Ogilvy has the class and the big-occasion temperament but has missed every previous Open cut beside the aforementioned ‘easy’ renewals at St Andrews and Hoylake. Until last year’s fast-finishing, never in contention 3rd place, Henrik Stenson was another who had never thrived on a tough links course.
Ross Fisher has shown that he can play links golf, and is particularly good in windy conditions, but I would still prefer to back this in-form player on a course more suited to his attacking game. At his very best, Retief Goosen would have to rate a strong candidate, but two very disappointing final round performances in his last two events have put me off the twice former US Open champion.
Besides Woods, arguably the best form going into the championship is held by weekend winners Martin Kaymer and Steve Stricker, plus Hunter Mahan. Make no mistake, Kaymer is here to stay amongst the game’s elite, but he is confidently opposed in his bid for a third consecutive win because he has shown absolutely no promise to date on tough, major venues. Stricker is relentlessly consistent and has made the last two Open top-10s. However, I do wonder whether playing a US target golf course was really the ideal preparation.