The Open 2014

Well, the English sporting summer has been a bit of a disaster so far. The football team have, some claim, surpassed expectations by managing to gain a point against the powerhouse that is Costa Rica at the World Cup. Nevertheless, surely the England Rugby Union team could salvage some pride? Three defeats to New Zealand later and the nation was still waiting. What about the cricket team? On home soil against a Sri Lanka and Indian alien to the English swinging conditions, clearly an easy home victory was on the cards. One defeat and two draws is not what the doctor ordered. Even our favourite tennis playing grumpy Scotsman couldn’t lift the nation’s mood. But Chris Froome, of course he’ll win the Tour de France? Unfortunately non. So, rather perversely, it falls to that infamous game of the people, golf of course, to restore the nation’s pride.

The world’s in form golfer, Justin Rose, with two victories in his last two appearances, is possibly the bookies’ favourite for the Claret Jug. The South African-born Englishman has moved up to number three in the World Rankings, and with his U.S Open victory at Merion last year, he knows what it takes to win a major title. If you believe that kind of thing, history is on his side because Phil Mickelson won the 2013 Scottish Open and then the next week, the Open Championship (despite some idiot blogger predicting otherwise), and the nature of Rose’s victory on the links of Castle Stuart suggests he has the requisite game to counter all the challenges of Hoylake. However it is highly unprecedented to win three tournaments in a row so I have Rose down for a top ten finish, just not outright victory.

The American challenge, and a man I have constantly decreed will win a major, is Mr Consistent, Matt Kuchar. The lanky Yank has nine top-10 finishes already this season, including a fifth place finish at the Masters. His best placed finish at The Open is 9th so he is not necessarily the most comfortable around seaside links but in golf there is no substitute for confidence and Kuchar is absolutely brimming with it. I expect him to trouble the leaderboard without ever topping it.

One man who could finally break his major duck is my second favourite golfer (behind Angel Cabrera of course), Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard has been in slightly erratic form recently, missing the cut at the Masters and finishing a lowly 35th at the U.S Open, whilst recording top-3 placings at the Player’s Championship, the Shell Houston Open and the Travelers Championship. If Garcia turns up in the right frame of mind and with a vaguely decent putter he could wreak havoc round the Hoylake course. Fingers crossed that he does.

Matrimonial fidelity’s Tiger Woods has come out with the boldest of statements that, despite back surgery, his only aim is to win at Royal Liverpool this week. I find that a rather fanciful notion. It’s frankly crazy that the media are even considering for victory a man who has not even recorded a top-10 finish this season, and last won a major way back in 2008. Six years have passed since that U.S Open triumph and despite protestations from the man himself, Tiger has lost his aura. There are better, more consistent players out there on the tour and for me Woods is a man of yesteryear.

So what of the defending champion? Phil Mickelson stunned everyone last year by hitting a 66 round Muirfield to clinch The Open Championship. Many observers thought that he didn’t have the game to win on the toughest links courses. But with experience comes knowledge, and ‘Lefty’ has every shot in the book and played to the conditions perfectly. This current season has been a lean one for the likeable Californian but he hit form last week at the Scottish Open with an 11th placed finish and seems to have taken a shine to seaside golf. If anyone has the game to tame Hoylake then Mickelson can. Like Garcia though, he needs an accurate putter and, more importantly and accurate driver. As likely to win the thing as to hit ten over par.

The best of the rest? My dark horse for the tournament is the evergreen, cigar-smoking, Rioja-quaffing Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jiminez. In an era of gym-bunnies and protein-shakes, the 50 year-old is refreshingly old-school. His warm-up routine has become the stuff of legend (always done with cigar in mouth), and despite his rather paunchy physique, Jiminez is in tidy form this term, having broken his own record for the oldest European Tour winner at the Spanish Open. He managed fourth at The Masters and although not wholly comfortable on the links, he is consistently there or thereabouts at The Open. His would be a victory for the maverick over professionalism.

Of the other contenders, current Players Champion and U.S Open Champion Martin Kaymer looks very good on paper. The German doesn’t have a stellar record on the links courses of Britain, but he is at the top of his game right now so he could certainly be troubling the leaderboard. Other Europeans who could be in the mix include the big-hitting World Number two, Henrik Stenson, who has four top 10 finishes in his last four events, and current European Order of Merit leader, Thomas Bjorn.

Elsewhere, Danish tennis-star heartbreaker Rory McIloy is usually one to be mentioned at the majors but apart from a third place finish at a placid St Andrew’s in 2010, links does not suit his style of play, which is surprising for a man who knocked it round Royal Portrush in 61 strokes as a 16 year-old. His high, right to left ball flight is perfect for inland courses on the PGA but not for windy links of the Open Championship. McIlroy has been known to make some negative comments in the past about the links, and with that attitude, the Northern Irishman’s name doesn’t deserve to be on the famous Claret Jug anytime soon.

What I can say with certainty is that The Open is a great way to spend your day watching mindless fools wandering round a field, attempting to hit a ball into a cup in the fewest shots possible. And what a brilliant concept it is. Thank god my licence fee is funding something worthwhile for a change. Marvel in the fact one can watch the world’s finest golfers for twelve hours a day at the touch of a button. And you won’t feel jealous that you’re not there because it’s being held in Liverpool. Everyone’s a winner.

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The Open Championship

The 142nd British Open Championships begins on Thursday at Muirfield on the east coast of Scotland and for the first time in a decent while, there is no obvious favourite.  The unique demands of Links golf means that any one of the entrants into golf’s oldest major championships has a chance of lifting the Claret Jug.  Conditions are such a huge factor in determining the outcome of The Open, more than at any other major.  The Links golfer has to adjust his ball-flight to counter the effects of the wind, be deadly accurate and also be prepared to use the contours of the course to his advantage.  Accuracy, especially off the tee will be absolutely imperative given that the rough at Muirfield this year is penal.

‘Lefty’ Phil Mickelson has thrown his hat into the ring with his victory at the weekend at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart.  It was an impressive victory for a man who is to driving accuracy what Tiger Woods is to monogamy.  The Californian also has an enviable short game which can get him out of even the deepest spots of trouble and he will need it if he is to be victorious this week.  It would be a fool to discount him, but I am said fool and I just don’t think he has the requisite patience to conquer Muirfield’s testing nuances.

Britain’s newest major champion, Justin Rose will be hoping to add to his tally this week.  He has all the stats this season to suggest he can definitely be a contender:  13th in Driving accuracy on the PGA tour, 1st in sand saves with over 70% and 15th in Greens in Regulation.  He will have to equal those stats at least to have a chance of lifting the Claret Jug on Sunday.  I also don’t think he quite has the minerals to win round Muirfield – his putting isn’t consistent enough and since he burst onto the scene as a precocious teenager in 1998 at Royal Birkdale with a T4th placed finish as an amateur, he has failed to finish in the top-10.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Worksop’s Lee Westwood will have a very good week.  He has had a quiet 2013 thus far:  5 top-10 finishes; no victories but he is always there or thereabouts at the big tournaments and hardly ever has a shocker of a round.  His consistency especially off the tee will come in handy – he simply needs to have a hot two days with his putter, easier said than done of course but that’s all it will take for Westwood.  He has every shot in his armoury – he now needs to believe he can do it on the greens too and if he does, this might be the tournament for him.

What of the other contenders?  World number one Tiger Woods has been in pretty horrible form since winning the Players Championship in May.  You can never discount him, but I am going to, so obviously you can.  Similarly with Rory McIlroy; his form has been seriously mediocre in the past few months.  The Northern Irishman by his own admission does not overly enjoy playing on Links courses (which I find surprising for a man who has hit a 59 round Portrush) and I can see that attitude rearing its ugly features this week.  At the moment McIlroy’s swing is still too inconsistent.  Every round he hits at least two terrible shots that, at Muirfield, will be very expensive.  Masters winner Adam Scott is another who has had a lean time of it since his amazing victory in April.  The Australian came so close at Royal Lytham last year, only to be pipped by Ernie Els after some rather injudicious shots.  He comes into this tournament with no pressure but also no form so I can’t see him featuring on the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon.

It is customary for me at every major tournament to tip Matt Kuchar to win but I am not going to this time (cue Open victory).  Although my heart doesn’t think he will, I want the matador Sergio Garcia to finally break his major duck.  He is the heir to Seve Ballesteros’ throne, a maverick who takes on shots no other player would even consider.  It has often been to the detriment of his results (e.g the 17th hole at this year’s Player’s Championship) but Sergio only knows one way to play – all-out attack.  When he gets it right it is a thing of beauty – Garcia with an iron in hand is like his compatriot Picasso wielding his paintbrush.  His opening 66 at the Masters is as close to perfection as you are ever likely to see on the golf course.  Unfortunately he is about as consistent as an incontinent after 10 pints and a vindaloo.  He has been adversely affected by the mindless comments he made about Tiger Woods at the BMW PGA in May but over on (sort of) home soil he will get more support from the galleries than across the pond.  If he is still knocking about at the weekend, anything can happen.

What about the defending champion?  Ernie Els has come to Muirfield a little under the radar which is exactly how he likes it.  He is in pretty good form too.  A victory at the BMW International Open was preceded by two top-10’s at the U.S Open and the BMW PGA at Wentworth.  He won his first Open Championship at Muirfield 11 years ago so he knows what it takes to win round this challenging course.  He also has the most aesthetically pleasing golf swing in the world.  If that isn’t enough to convince you to head down to the bookies straight away then I don’t what is.

So there you have it.  What is for certain is some lucky fellow will be holding the famous Claret Jug aloft on the 18th green on Sunday evening with a cheque for £950,000 in his back pocket.  What is also almost certain is that it will be none of the players I have mentioned in this article.  I have an uncanny knack of giving the kiss of death to any of my tips so here’s my advice: have a flutter on any of the players I haven’t tipped.  They’ll probably win.

U.S Open Preview

On Thursday the U.S Open will get underway at the Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania.  This charming gem of a course is the shortest U.S Open set-up for nearly a decade.  It has a wonderful mix of tricky short holes and testing long ones.  Of the four par threes, one is a miniscule 115 yards, the other three measure over 230 yards.  There are two par fours at over 500 yards, yet four that are under 400, and, in a refreshing twist, only two par fives (one over 600 yards).  This course is not just breeze for the longer hitters; far from it.  In fact it requires all the shots in the book (and possibly some that aren’t) to conquer its various challenges.  Here are some of the players who will be looking to lift the famous old trophy on Sunday evening.

 

Matt Kuchar (United States)

World Ranking: 4

Best U.S Open finish: T6th (2010)

 

Yes, I know I tipped him at the Masters and he didn’t really feature strongly but he has been on fire this season.  He hasn’t missed a cut all year and won on his most recent outing, The Memorial Tournament on the 2nd of June.  The week before that he was 2nd at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at the Colonial Country Club with all four rounds under 70.  The man is Mr Consistent and with his almost faultless short game (12th in the putting stats and 6th on sand saves) he is a real danger man this week.  One worry would be his driving which has not been exactly pinpoint (57% of fairways hit puts him 134th on the PGA tour) and with the fairways exceedingly narrow at the Merion Golf Club and the rough penal, he will need his long stick to be on top form to keep the ball in the short stuff.  Nevertheless, my tip to win.

 

Tiger Woods (United States)

World Ranking: 1

Best U.S Open finish: 1st (2000, ‘02, ’08)

 

8 starts this season, four victories, need I say more?  He made up for his (relatively) disappointing 4th place at the Masters by winning the Players Championship last month and the manner of his victory was like the Tiger of old; players (namely Sergio Garcia) wilting under the relentless pressure of the great man.  His most recent outing at the Memorial Tournament was an unmitigated disaster (he finished at +8 in 65th place) so all has not been going totally to plan.  He is still without a major since last his last victory in this tournament five years ago and that will be playing on his mind.  This is not necessarily the sort of course that will suit him.  His best chance of victory will be if he takes mostly irons off the tee for position (like he did at The Open at Hoylake in 2006).  If he can get it onto the green in regulation then he is nigh on unstoppable this season on the dancefloor (1st in the putting stats).  He will be hard to stop if he can get on a roll.

 

Adam Scott (Australia)

World Ranking: 3

Best U.S Open finish: T15th (2012)

 

The likeable Australian finally broke his major duck (in the golfing sense) by winning this year’s Masters in spectacular fashion by beating ‘The Duck,’ Angel Cabrera, in a play-off.  This should give Scott the confidence to challenge regularly in the big tournaments.  Two top-20 finishes after his triumph in April is a solid enough return.  I can’t see him winning this week because he doesn’t quite have the requisite short-game, although a top-10 finish is not beyond him.  He may have to win another major fairly sharpish seeing as the anchor putter, which Scott uses, will be outlawed at the beginning of 2016.

 

Sergio Garcia (Spain)

World Ranking: 15

Best U.S Open finish: T3rd (2005)

 

The Spaniard has been up to his usual mercurial tricks this season.  He tore up Augusta on the first day of the Masters before making it look like a minefield not 24 hours later for his second round.  His mental fallibility then reared its ugly head last month at the Players Championship firstly in his public spat with Tiger Woods, secondly by squandering the lead with two holes to play, scoring quadruple bogey and double bogey to leave him languishing down in 8th place.  Garcia’s talent has never been in doubt.  It is his mental strength (or lack of) which has prevented him from winning major championships.  He himself has said he will never win a major because of his mental weakness which is also almost certainly the reason for his inconsistent putting which has blighted his career (although this season he has improved significantly).  He has had more top-10’s than Cliff Richard, yet the number one spot continues to elude him.  Garcia’s results this season have not been as spectacular as his golf but if he can string four rounds together (a big IF), he could be a serious contender.

 

Graeme McDowell (Northern Ireland)

World Ranking: 8

Best U.S Open finish: 1st (2010)

 

The Northern Irishman has been in great form this season, winning twice and grabbing a further three top-10 finishes.  He has previous too in the U.S Open, memorably triumphing at Pebble Beach in 2010 and a 2nd place last year at the Olympic Club.  His recent form has declined slightly – two missed cuts in his last two outings.  Let’s hope he raises his game for the Merion Club because he’s the only British player with a realistic chance of victory.

 

Matteo Manassero (Italy)

World Ranking: 25

Best U.S Open finish: T46th (2012)

 

The Italian is the form player in the European game right now.  His victory at the PGA Championship at Wentworth last month was followed by a 4th place at the Nordea Masters – proving that he is ready for the big time.  He already has 4 career wins to his name but it is easy to forget he is only 20 years of age.  The youthful Manassero is yet to translate his European form across the Atlantic – his highest finish in any tournament across the pond is 23rd so victory may be beyond him this week.  However with the Merion course set up as it is this week he may have a chance of a top-10 finish.  He also comes into the tournament a little under the radar and under little pressure.  Leads the European challenge.

 

So those are some of the contenders.  I can’t see Phil Mickelson in the frame (despite his 2nd place finish at the weekend) because he’s too erratic off the tee and his putting is about as consistent as Oasis’s drummer.  Rory McIlroy is in pretty ropey form too – like Garcia he can’t seem to string four solid rounds together.  Luke Donald has the short game to do well round Merion but he needs to improve on his PGA Tour Green in Regulation position of 149th.  Lee Westwood has the opposite problem – a brilliant long game but an infamously average short game.  However he may be in with a shout because of the rather inclement weather in Pennsylvania this week which has softened up the greens, making scoring infinitely more attractive.  Whatever the weather, the golf should provide enough thrills and spills (or birdies and eagles) to stop you dozing off to sleep on Sunday night.

Masters 2013: the contenders

Early April can only mean one thing: it’s U.S Masters time.  The most prestigious prize in golf starts on Thursday and it promises to be one of the most fascinating in recent memory.  Can Tiger keep it all together to win his first major for five years?  How will Rory McIllroy fare in his first major since switching suppliers?  Can one of the Europeans mount a challenge for the famous green jacket?  Below are some of the main challengers for golf’s most famous trophy.

Tiger Woods (U.S.A)

World Ranking: 1

Tiger is the bookmakers’ favourite for his fifth green jacket and with three wins already this season on the PGA tour it would take a brave man to bet against him.  Didn’t play last week in Houston so as to be extra prepared for this week and he will need to bring his A game, especially off the tee.  He is apparently a lowly 142nd in Driving accuracy on tour and he can’t afford to be messing around in the tress round Augusta.  If he stays out of the long stuff he will be hard to stop because his short game seems to have returned better than ever.  If he’s leading after round 3, I can’t see him losing it.

Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland)

World Ranking: 2

McIlroy had a timely return to form last week with a 2nd place in the Texas Open.  After such a poor start to the season, little is expected of the man from Holywood around Augusta’s hallowed turf so he goes into the tournament with slightly less pressure on him which could be to his advantage.  The course suits his style of play with lots of right to left tee shots and if he can find his range with his irons, he could go really low.  In the past couple of weeks the mental side of his game has improved drastically; the ghosts of the WGC Cadillac event last month where he withdrew have been firmly laid to rest.  Will definitely want to improve on his relatively modest T15th best at Augusta, and it would be a fool not to back him to do so.

Matt Kuchar (U.S.A)

World Ranking: 10

Kuchar came close to winning last year’s Masters and is definitely in good enough form to be up at the business end this week.  He has won the World match play title already this season and has yet to post an over par four-day total in 2013.  This consistency should hold him in good stead round Augusta but he may not quite have the game in his locker to produce the unpredictable and spectacular shots that are required once or twice per round.  I predict a top-10 finish.

Phil Mickelson (U.S.A)

World Ranking: 9

‘Leftie’ has had a quiet season so far, punctured by two outstanding performances at the TPC Scottsdale where he won and at the WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral where he finished a creditable 3rd.  If he makes it to the weekend anything can happen and if anyone can pull it out of the bag, the likeable Californian can.  He likes Augusta having won here 3 times in the past but he will need his putter to be hot for all four rounds if he is to add to his major tally.  This wedge wizard will feature strongly if he can drain those niggly 5 footers.

Ian Poulter (England)

World Ranking: 12

The gobby Englishman has been in strangely subdued form recently.  Two strong early-season performances at the Tournament of Champions and the World Match play have been followed by three midfield finishes.  His putting is second to none but he will need his long game to be firing on all cylinders.  Poulter doesn’t hit it a huge distance off the tee so his iron play really is key to success this week.  He has finished in the top 10 in three of the last four majors so he knows how to produce the goods when it matters.  My outside bet for the tournament.

Justin Rose (England)

World Ranking: 3

Other than Tiger Woods, the Englishman is the form player in the world right now.  In 6 stroke-play starts this term he has finished in the top 10 in five of those, and 16th in the other.  He has previous down Magnolia Lane with a tied 5th finish last year and a tied 8th in 2007.  Rose also knows how to win across the pond, winning a tournament on the PGA tour every year since 2010.  He will be looking to lengthen that streak with victory on Sunday, and he certainly has to golf game and the form to do so.  Expect to see him up on that leaderboard whilst you tuck into that second bottle of Rioja on Sunday evening.

Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa)

World Ranking: 6

The smiling South African has certainly shown that he isn’t a one-hit wonder.  After unluckily missing out to Bubba Watson in a play-off at Augusta last year, Oosthuizen has his sights set on going one better this time around.  He already has one victory to his name on the European tour this season and last week’s 10th finish in Houston confirmed that he is striking the ball as well as ever.  The 2010 Open Champion has the correct mental attributes to go with his undoubted golfing talent to win and lay last year’s heartbreak to rest.

Well there you have it.  As comprehensive a preview as you’re ever likely to get.  Some lucky fellow will be walking out of Magnolia lane on Sunday night with a brand spanking new natty green jacket to go with their fat cheque.  Who will it be?  Now that I’ve given them the kiss of death, probably none of the above.  All the same, it promises to be hugely exciting four days.

Tiger back on the prowl

So Tiger Woods is once again officially the best golfer in the world after victory by two shots in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club.  Woods has had a stunning start to the season, winning three PGA titles already, and must be the favourite for The Masters next month.  But is this sudden rejuvenation merely a rich vein of form, or is the American settling in for another long tenure at the top of the rankings?

This is the first time Woods has hit sustained form since his much-publicised shenanigans in late 2009.  He had an average 2012 (by his standards), winning three times, but he was never consistently at the top of his game and hardly featured in the four majors.  He has been there or thereabouts in every tournament this season and it looks like we are seeing a new and improved Tiger, maybe even better than the pre-2009 model.  He seems a lot more focused, more relaxed on and off the course and, ironically, his private life could be the reason.

Last week Woods revealed that he has been dating U.S skier Lindsey Vonn for a couple of months.  Now I don’t claim there to be a direct correlation between his upturn in form and his relationship, but as we all know, golf, more than any other sport, is as much a game of the mind as the body (trust me – I can’t do either).  A happy Tiger and an improved Tiger; co-incidence?  I think not.

Across all walks of life, performance is enhanced by being mentally focused, be that alert, relaxed, determined or fired-up.  I doubt there is any difference in Woods’ actual psychological routine when he hits a golf ball than from last season.  He is always striving to shoot the lowest possible score.  You don’t win 14 majors without extraordinary mental strength.  But it is his approach to his thinking that has altered.  Whereas in the past couple of seasons Woods would be tetchy in his press conferences and get angry on the course if he hit a bad shot, this season his mental approach is more positive – for instance looking forward to the next shot instead of dwelling on his mistake.  A round of golf takes 4+ hours.  You cannot concentrate continually for that length of time so in between shots you have to have the ability to switch off.  This time is crucial because it defines the mind-set for the next shot and possibly inadvertently, the entire round.  So if Woods is naturally happier in his life off the course, his subconscious thoughts will therefore become happier, leading to a more positive mental approach and consequently, improved performance.  You can’t force your mind to think positive thoughts against its will (well you probably could but not for 4 hours) so your natural subconscious will determine your mental attitude when you switch-off in between shots or holes.  Dwelling on negative thoughts will indirectly affect your golf because it lessens the likelihood of hitting a good shot.  Woods has conquered this, not by sports psychology but by good old-fashioned romance.  He seems to have finally laid those ghosts of 2009, which haunted him everywhere, to rest.  That infamous toothy smile has returned and so have the regular victories.

Worryingly for his competitors, Woods’ form does not look like abating any time soon.  That familiar surge up the leaderboard on the Saturday afternoon.  The bright red top on the Sunday afternoon in the final pairing.  The inevitable victory.  It has all returned better than ever.  It was a path well-trodden for the best part of a decade and now it looks set to stay.  For how long?  Who knows.  Rory McIllroy may well have a say if he gets his act together but that’s the problem: IF.  With Tiger you feel as if there is no if.  It just is.  Winning is become a habit again and if (sorry) reports are to believed, he is hungrier than ever for more major titles.  The combination of a hungry and happy Tiger is an ominous one.  It is going to take a special performance from someone to stop him taking victory at Augusta next month in this form.  I know who my money is on.