For my money, McIlroy is the rightful favourite this week. Perhaps the market is slightly less excitable about Rory than it was a couple of months ago, now that he hasn’t immediately dominated the PGA Tour. If so, the layers will be made to pay sooner or later. Forget last week’s missed cut at Sawgrass, which is no place for a teenage novice. Baltray wouldn’t be either normally, except that McIlroy is anything but a links novice. He’s been playing these courses since childhood, and looked instantly world-class on them once turning professional. He’s going to win this event several times in the year ahead, along with a few Opens, and looks ready to start now.
Besides reference to recent form and stats, one sensible means of assessing the chances of the rest is to study their record on links courses. Mostly, this means the Open and Dunhill Links, but also various links used for the Dutch Open and Oitavos Dunes, home to the recent Estoril Open.
I’ve never been fully able to make up my mind about Lee Westwood’s links credentials. He has a superb record in the Dunhill, but markedly less so in the Open. At his best, Lee is one of the best ballstrikers around, and in that mood would take some beating here. Despite some occasional promise, there’s little in his 2009 portfolio to suggest he is at his best though.
Analysis of those links records suggests we can instantly write off several middle-ranking characters who would normally have to enter calculations. South African pair Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuisen for instance, or Francesco Molinari. Oliver Wilson has yet to prove himself on a links course either, nor have in-form pair Thomas Aiken and Rafael Cabrera-Bello. Surprisingly, Scotsman Ali Forsyth has a terrible links record.
Alternatively, McDowell looks a rock-solid candidate. He finished 11th at Baltray in 2004 when still quite inexperienced, and as a recent top-20 in the Masters proved, he’s come a long way since then. Besides that Augusta effort, we haven’t seen McDowell perform quite at last summer’s peak yet this year, but I suspect this prestigious event and return to a links course might bring out the best in him.