Golf Monthly editor at large Bill Elliott gives his Open Championship preview ahead of the 145th tournament at Royal Troon in Ayrshire
Open Championship preview: all bets are off
There’s no such uncertainty as a sure thing. As quotes go, this is a belter. Who said it? Robert Burns, that’s who, and though there is no evidence that Scotland’s poet of choice thought golf was anything but a nuisance game played by other men, he might well have been previewing an Open Championship at Royal Troon when he came up with this eternally relevant line.
There are a couple of fairly decent reasons why this is not so: (1) the first Open occurred 99 years after his birth in Alloway and (2) he died aged 37, poignantly passing away on the day that his son was born. Troon Golf Club – a dozen miles from Burns’ birthplace – didn’t come into existence until 1878. It was my idea of the perfect course back then, consisting of five, yes five, perfectly formed holes. Even I would find it hard to tire over five holes. Mind you, fourth time round might bring its own challenge.
Anyway, though Burns knew nothing about the old game – his passions, apparently, were poetry, nature, women and drink (be fair, two out of four isn’t bad) – the quotation above suggests that he had a shrewd idea what betting was, and knew that sooner rather than later this prediction lark could bring even a well-informed man down.
I thought of this after a colleague told me the magazine had received a rather disgruntled note from a reader because I’d failed to identify Danny Willett as the obvious winner of The Masters during my annual scene-setter. I felt this was a shade harsh, as even Danny Boy hadn’t identified himself as the probable Augusta champ. But there you are, there’s no pleasing some folk.
And I thought of this again as I set out on this latest attempt to place the forthcoming 145th Open Championship at Troon into a contextual landscape. In other words, I’m knocking out a preview and so at some point I am supposed to point a weary finger in the general direction of who I expect to prevail over Ayrshire’s finest linksland.
Looking over my shoulder I notice that a football side called Leicester have won the Premiership. No one, it seemed, expected this, least of all the honourable company of bookmakers. These guys, believe me, are smart. Red-hot smart. They spend endless days poring over relevant, current statistics, talking to insiders and peering back at historical data to make even the most enthusiastic geek appear well-rounded and socially adept. They also cross their fingers a lot.
So they made Leicester 5,000-1 outsiders for a title this team ultimately embraced with ease. Compared to them, Danny Willett, at 66/1, was clearly a shoo-in for a Green Jacket, and so it proved. I can only apologise for missing the obvious. It’s not the first time and it certainly won’t be the last.
Impossible to call
Which brings me back to Troon and this Open Championship lark. The last Championship in Ayrshire was in 2004 and the rented house that was my billet for that week was owned by a very nice woman who insisted on pitching up every day to check we were doing okay. Or maybe it was to reassure herself that a bunch of journalists hadn’t wrecked the joint.
As there was very little wrecking going on we often fell into conversation, and it was during one of these chats that she told me her daughter had also rented her home out to a very nice American who was playing in The Open. “He’s so nice we’ve each had a tenner on him at 150-1,” she admitted.
At this point I laughed – rather pompously with hindsight – and told her I’d have taken the bet and given her 200-1. She, however, had the last giggle when Todd Hamilton saw off a confused Ernie Els in a play-off and several very happy members of her family made their way to the bookies to pick up £1,500 each.
The big point here is that you never can tell, so while the old wisdom suggesting that just because the race doesn’t always go to the swiftest, it sure as hell is the way to bet may be true enough, it is also wrong often enough for the misguided, the uninformed or the recently released to make a killing while the rest of us wonder why the world shockingly turned upside down once again.
Of course, no sport offers these opportunities for surprise more often or better than golf. Especially Open Championship golf, where the luck of the draw, the force of the wind and the bouncing vagaries of good or bad fortune on links turf may combine to select a winner no one outside his closest circle had considered worthy of a mention while discussing potential champions.
So it is with this Open. I am approaching my 42nd Championship and rarely, if ever, have I felt an Open to be more open than this Open. That’s not just a lot of opens in one sentence, it is a reflection on the current state of golf at the elite level.
While a stirring case may be made that we are presently in the era of a new Big Three (possibly four) made up of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and, some say, Rickie Fowler, it is not an argument that I find totally persuasive. The original tremendous trio of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were truly outstanding.
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Each of those golfers figures in any sane all-time top ten – Nicklaus, of course, leading the way by at least one country mile. Will any one of today’s tyros end up anywhere near the original Big Three? I’m not yet convinced. Today’s game produces a seemingly never-ending line of talented and ambitious youngsters schooled in golf’s mysteries, many of them beginning this education shortly after transitioning from nappies. An unfortunate few do so while transitioning.
This means that although today’s stars are sublimely blessed with technique as well as teams of people made up of coaches, managers, caddies, psychologists and, occasionally, sushi chefs, they are also cursed by slo-mo television analysis and commercial pressures on top of the advancing army of wannabes aiming at their backs.
There is now a growing suspicion in the more thoughtful arenas of the game that these factors – on top of a helter-skelter world that increasingly regards a New York minute as too long a pause – mean that modern careers will more likely mirror other and more physical sports, and that the lucky ones will enjoy, at most, ten years of turbo-charged success before the next lot shove them aside.
It is a suggestion that I find increasingly attractive. It makes sense, especially when you factor in the desire for faster forms of the game – a desire currently occupying the minds of those who run the main tours – and the apparently insatiable need for the next big star to emerge.
You may be sure that this sort of thought has occurred to the present special ones, and thus the pressure increases for them to constantly improve and to even more constantly underline this improvement by winning significant titles. It may be a mink-lined treadmill that Spieth, McIlroy and Day currently occupy, but believe me, it remains a treadmill. As such, it does not encourage longevity in a game that until now has often merrily rewarded gnarled experience.
Danny Willett, to be fair, seems to recognise most, if not all, of this, pointing out recently that “people will look at you in a new way now (as Masters Champion) expecting you to be brilliant every time you peg it up.” He is right, of course. Whereas he could quietly miss a cut here and there before Augusta, now there will be analysis of failure as much as, if not more than, celebration of success.
Can he withstand this sort of thing? The signs, happily, are positive. For a start, he seems uncommonly grounded as befits the son of a vicar and a maths teacher. Presumably he knows how to pray, and he certainly should know how to count. He has a new son to occupy his off-duty moments and a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour that will further boost his financial future.
This exemption is also a reminder to the European Tour’s chief exec Keith Pelley that he needs to crack on with his plan to make his circuit comparable to the American tour’s prize money by 2018. Good luck with that, Keith.
Willett, of course, will be high up those betting odds for this Open. I have admired his play for a couple of years now but fretted – unnecessarily, as it turned out – that his fidgety ways might obstruct his chances of any Major success. Those doubts are now gone and the new trick needed is for him to relax and not expect too much from himself from here on in. If he manages this state of focus and low-key mindset then he just might prove himself to be a consistent contender in the biggest weeks. I hope so, if only because he seems a decent bloke.
The nuances of Royal Troon
Certainly what Troon requires is a steady approach, a sort of calm attack plan. The Old course often seems to suffer when compared to more historic or visually appealing Open venues, but, for me, it is one of the better tests of a man’s mettle and technique. Boasting the shortest Open hole – the famed 8th, Postage Stamp – which can require only half a wedge or much more depending on the weather, as well as the longest – the 600-yard-plus 6th (below) – Troon is a proper examination of skill, nerve and imagination.
More often than not any decent score has to be constructed over the front nine, because when the wind is against for the return, the last four or five holes can ruin any scorecard as tired minds wander and balls skittle towards the prickly gorse and thick broom. Almost more than any other Open venue these final holes offer much risk and, usually, very little reward.
While the usual contenders will sort themselves out over the opening rounds, I have little doubt there will be one or two unexpected names cruising towards the top of the leaderboard. As to who these men will be, I haven’t a clue.
Whatever, The Open, as ever, will offer up subplots to balance the who-is-leading narrative that drives the whole thing forward. Meanwhile, for visitors, there is apparently much to do in Ayrshire apart from watch men smack balls around a fiercely manicured field by the Firth of Clyde.
A glance at the VisitScotland website suggests much of this other Ayrshire is focused on cows. Well, each to their own, I suppose. I was relieved to also note that prominent among the website’s ‘Ten Things To Do In Ayrshire And Arran’ was, naturally, a visit to the Robert Burns Museum, as well as a suggested meander over to something called The Dick Institute. Rather disappointingly, this latter destination turned out to be part-library and part-art gallery. At least the cows did not appear to figure much in its varied attractions.
And finally, the winner will be… the golfer I find at odds of 150/1 and on whom I intend placing a tenner. Well, I would, wouldn’t I? Wish me luck.