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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Drugs in Sport

The IAAF recently announced that they are doubling the suspension for a failed drugs test from two years to four years.  It is a welcome move.  But will other sports follow Athletics’ lead?  Recent high profile drugs revelations have lead me and millions of other sport lovers to question the integrity of competitive sport.  The public have been deceived so many times by cheats and cover-ups that patience is wearing thin.  Sports across the board need to get their act together and tackle this cancer head-on and with zero tolerance.

            The reality is that almost every major sport is tainted by drugs to some extent; to think otherwise would be highly naïve (motor-racing is the only sport in my mind that is relatively drug-free).  In disciplines such as Athletics, Boxing and Cycling, drugs have been prevalent for almost a century (the following Wikipedia article makes for depressing reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France) but in other sports it is only becoming more widely understood.  Cricket and Football have historically had relatively drug free existences but with the rewards so great in both sports these days, drugs are a real concern.  Where there is money to be made, the temptation to use drugs, and the people willing to supply them, will always be there.

            The sport with the largest connection to drugs is Cycling.  Since 1969, only seven winners of the great race have never been tainted or connected to drugs in their careers.  That means, on average, one in every six winners of the Tour did so riding clean.  It is a horrifying statistic but it is not all doom and gloom. The last three winners, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans have never failed a drugs test.  Cycling needed to go through the dark time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s to get where it is today.  In a way, the fact that so many cyclists returned positive tests meant that the cheats were getting caught and the wider public started to take notice.  The sport had to clear up its act otherwise it faced fading into anonymity.  However damaging the past scandals may have been and after years of sweeping cases under the carpet, it has helped shaped a healthier and hopefully drugs-free future for cycling.  (For those interested in cycling’s shady past, read Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography The Secret Race)

            The same cannot be said for Athletics.  The two positive drugs tests recently returned by star sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay were a real blow to a sport which has been plagued for years by such scandals.  During the Cold War, communist countries, such as the U.S.S.R and East Germany, systematically doped a large majority of their athletes (especially women) to win major sporting titles.  This was seen as an attempt to legitimise their totalitarian regimes not only to the outside world but also to their own people.  Ironically, Russia has over 40 high profile athletes suspended for positive drug tests today.  The sport was particularly shady in the 80’s and 90’s and not only in the Eastern-bloc.  There has always been doubt cast over Carl Lewis, with strong rumours that a positive drugs test was covered up by the authorities.  Florence Griffith Joyner, still the holder of both the women’s 100m and 200m world records, mysteriously lowered her personal bests in both events by half a second in 1988.  And lest we forget, our very own Linford Christie failed a drugs test in both 1988 and 1999.  More recently, American sprinter Justin Gatlin (who has failed two drugs tests in his career, yet mysteriously is still allowed to compete) and 400m runner Lashawn Merritt (who claimed his performance-enhancing drug was for use in the bedroom) have successfully returned to the sport after their respective suspensions.  This riles me a lot given that clean athletes are being denied their just deserts (earnings and medals) because of a cheat.  A convicted drug-taker should not be allowed to continue to earn a living from sport after making a decision to defame that same sport in such a shameful manner.

            The Balco scandal was probably the most infamous in all Athletics history.  It came to light that its founder, Victor Conte, had been supplying steroids and growth hormone to athletes across numerous sports, the most high profile of which were sprinters Tim Montgomery (at the time the 100m world record holder), Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, baseball legend Barry Bonds, and boxer Shane Mosley.  The worrying thing about the Gay-Powell saga is that they had no excuses.  Tyson Gay effectively admitted that he had taken drugs by stating ‘I don’t have a sabotage story… I basically put my trust in someone and was let down.  I know exactly what went on, but I can’t discuss it right now.’  If athletes don’t know themselves precisely what they are putting into their bodies then they can have no excuse.  Putting your trust in another person is a risk that in this case backfired spectacularly.  I don’t think Tyson Gay is the type of man to wilfully gain an advantage through illegal means, but he has been naïve in his choice of advisors.  Knowing or unknowing, a positive drugs is still cheating and Gay and Powell deserve the sanctions they receive.

            It is perhaps easy to see how performance-enhancing drugs directly benefit stamina and power-based sports.  However, can such a skilled sport such as football profit from banned substanes?  The very successful Juventus team of the mid-90’s was systematically doped (without the players knowledge apparently) with the blood-boosting hormone EPO (common amongst cyclists at the time as it allowed one to ride at a higher intensity for longer).  Dutch players Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer all tested positive for nandrolone (which promotes artificial muscle growth and red blood-cell stimulation) in 2001.  The most heralded football coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, failed a drugs test for nandrolone in that same year.  New Liverpool signing Kolo Toure tested positive for a slimming aid in 2011 and Rio Ferdinand was suspended for 8 months in 2004 for missing a drugs test, although that was more dopey than doping.  In his compelling autobiography, Tony Cascarino revealed that he was injected with what club doctors called ‘vitamins’ and ‘minerals’ in his spell at Marseille in the early 90’s (Marseille weren’t exactly strangers to controversy after the match-fixing scandal in 1993).  I am slightly worried that football doesn’t currently do blood tests.  Urine samples have to be given by randomly selected players after every game but blood samples are not mandatory.  A blood test is a much more thorough way of detecting illicit substances in an athletes’ body.  Sports like Cycling and Athletics have gone so far as to set up a blood passport system (anti-doping agencies can check samples against each other to spot irregularities).  Football needs to act fast otherwise the situation risks getting out of hand.  A drug such as EPO can increase stamina and intensity by up to 20%, so not only can players play for longer, they can train harder too.  Yes it could result in some embarrassing findings but for the sake of the game, it is imperative.

            Even more worrying for football is the links it has to the Operation Puerto scandal in Spain.  Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes provided numerous athletes, mainly cyclists but also footballers with performance-enhancing drugs (including testosterone pills) and blood doping.  There are rumours that he supplied seasonal plans for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and also assisted Real Sociedad in systemised blood doping.  If this isn’t evidence enough that blood testing is required then I don’t know what is.  What is most ridiculous of all is that the judge presiding over the whole Fuentes case ruled that the blood bags should be destroyed.  This is evidence that could be vital in catching not only dopers of the past but drug cheats of the future.  It seems the Spanish authorities are desperate to cover up this humiliation.  They obviously have something to hide.

            Another sport that was named in Operation Puerto was tennis.  It is rumoured that Fuentes worked with many tennis players, including the Spanish Davis Cup team, bafflingly the most successful nation during the 2000’s in the competition.  Tennis, like football, requires high levels of not only skill but also fitness.  That small advantage that blood-doping can give you makes a sizeable difference at a professional level.  With tennis becoming so athletic it is no wonder stories of doping are abound.  Remember the likes of Boris Becker, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi?  All very fit guys in their own right, but compare their physique to modern day players like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych.  I’m not saying these players are doping, it’s just the physicality of the sport has got that much more intense that you have to be in top shape to even compete with the top players.  Agassi had his own well-documented troubles with recreational drugs but recently top-100 ranked player (not for long) Victor Troicki has been slapped with an 18-month ban for failing to provide a blood sample.  A week after that, world number 15, Maran Cilic, was banned for a positive test.  Richard Gasquet has also been nabbed but this was for cocaine use, which he claimed was via kissing a girl who had just taken some.  Encouragingly, tennis is pressing ahead with plans to introduce blood passports which should help catch potential drug cheats.

            Cricket is a sport that one wouldn’t usually connect with performance-enhancing drugs.  It has had its problems in the past with recreational drugs.  Ian Botham, Keith Piper, Ed Giddins, Dermot Reeve, Phil Tufnell, Graham Wagg and tragically, Tom Maynard have all been found to have taken recreational substances at some point in their careers.  But taking drugs to improve say one’s strength to hit the ball further wouldn’t necessarily be an advantage in cricket.  Timing is much more important than brute strength, though I dare say it couldn’t do any harm.  However, players have been known to take drugs to aid injury recovery.  The injury-prone Pakistani fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif both failed tests for nandrolone in 2006 and were handed bans which were later overturned on appeal.  Asif claimed his was due to a faulty nutritional supplement.  He later failed a test in the IPL for steroids in 2008 and also was detained at Dubai airport that same year for possessing illegal substances – all apparently linked to injury recovery.  Sri Lankan batsman Upul Tharanga was handed a three-month ban in 2011 for a banned steroid which he claimed it was an herbal remedy for a shoulder injury.  The legendary rotund Australian text messager Shane Warne infamously missed the 2003 World Cup for taking a banned diuretic (allegedly one of his mother’s slimming pills – a believable argument).  With the increasing riches on offer to players, cricket needs to be more vigilant in its approach to drug-testing.  The rewards are so great and the sanctions relatively minor that one or two players are going to be tempted to take short-cuts.  The IPL is especially vulnerable in this respect.  Indeed, young Indian fast bowler Pradeep Sangwan returned a positive drugs test for steroids in this year’s IPL.

            Golf is another sport which has links to drugs and injury recovery.  Fijian Vijay Singh admitted using deer-antler spray, a banned growth-hormone on the World Anit-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list, but was acquitted after it was revealed that it wasn’t taken in sufficient enough quantities to enhance performance.  Tiger Woods was linked to controversial doctor Tony Galea during his recovery from knee-ligament surgery in 2008-9.  Galea had links to the Balco scandal and Victor Conte having been involved in both Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.  Galea’s method involved taking blood from Woods, placing it in a centrifuge to increase red platelets (don’t ask), and injecting it back into the affected ligament, thus speeding up the healing process.  To me, this is no different from blood doping that cyclists used – surely artificially increasing the body’s red platelets is the same as artificially increasing the body’s red blood cells and oxygen capability.  The rules have tightened since 2010 on the procedure but I believe it still remains legal.  Now I’m not suggesting that Woods is a drugs cheat, but having links to a man who is known to be involved with Conte and human-growth hormone is a bit fishy.

            The ultimate skill sport, snooker is not exempt from drugs.  Bill Werbenuik took beta blockers in the 1980’s to slow his heart rate when at the table and Neal Foulds also admitted to having taken a similar substance.  It is doubtful whether this would have a positive effect on performance but if a player suffers from nerves, it could be beneficial.  Recreational substances have long been associated with snooker: Kirk Stevens was known to have taken cocaine and Ronnie O’Sullivan was disqualified from a tournament in the 90’s for testing positive for cannabis.  Jimmy White and Alex Higgins were also no strangers to drug scandals during their careers.

Rugby League recently found itself at the centre of a drugs scandal in Australia where six clubs have been implicated in doping thought to include AFL too.  There has been little information since the report in February but rumours are surfacing that supplements (mainly muscle growth-hormone) were administered by the clubs, not by the odd rogue player himself, which is more worrying.  AFL player Jobe Watson has admitted that he took a banned anti-obesity drug but only after signing a consent form provided by his club. (http://theconversation.com/essendon-scandal-a-symptom-of-australias-sporting-woes-12085).  This whole affair draws parallels with the Festina affair during the Tour de France in 1998, where drugs were found in the Festina team car, and subsequently numerous teams were under suspicion of providing illegal substances for their riders.  Closer to home, Bradford Bulls star Terry Newton was banned for two years for taking Human Growth Hormone.  Martin Gleeson also received a ban for a failed drugs test in 2011.  One can see the benefits of taking these sorts of drugs in sports like rugby where power and size are central factors.  Recreational drugs are also not uncommon – Australian Rugby League Star Wendell Sailor tested positive for cocaine in 2006, as did new Salford Red Devils forward Gareth Hock in 2009 whilst playing for Wigan Warriors.

Rugby Union is no stranger to drug scandals either.  2009 was a dark year for Bath Rugby Club in particular as their England prop Matt Stevens received a two year ban after failing a drugs test.  He later admitted to having taken cocaine on more than one occasion and confessed that he found it almost a relief that he had been caught.  Later that year, after an end-of-season party, four Bath players were embroiled in a scandal after allegations of cocaine abuse.  (http://www.rugbydump.com/2009/07/1023/the-ins-and-outs-of-the-bath-drugs-scandal).  Their Australian lock, Justin Harrison confessed and was handed an 8 month ban whilst the other three, co-captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins all resigned after refusing to give samples.  However it is very rare that a Rugby Union player is found to have taken performance enhancing drugs which for the sport is a saving grace (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/24626491).

            Boxing is a shady sport that has had all manner of problems in the past and drugs are just one of the many issues facing it today.  It has a fairly lackadaisical attitude towards drug testing which it needs to rectify pretty quickly if it is to retain any credibility.  Recent scandals have included Lamont Peterson’s positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2011 which he failed in the lead up to his victory against Amir Khan.  Wrangling over drug testing scuppered plans for a ‘super-fight’ between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2010 after negotiations over blood-testing failed to reach a conclusion.  Boxing doesn’t have a fixed set of anti-doping criteria which immediately sets the alarm bells ringing.  The drug-testing is not determined by a central body but is instead agreed between the two fighters themselves.  Legendary Mexican Juan-Manuel Marquez, before his sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao last year, started to work with a less than reputable ‘conditioning coach’ Angel Hernandez, who has links to BALCO and Victor Conte (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/62195/did-drugs-nearly-kill-pacquiao).  Marquez’s physique was visibly more chiselled than at any point in his career and in his previous three meetings with Pacquiao, he had failed to knock down the Filipino.  Yet he put him on the canvas in round 3 and knocked him out cold in round 6 to record his first victory against his nemesis.  Worryingly, no drug testing of any sort was done pre-fight to either boxer.  In his most recent fight (which he lost to Timothy Bradley) Marquez caused controversy again by reneging on a pre-fight drug-testing deal (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/boxing/2013/10/08/drug-testing-rift-tim-bradley-juan-manuel-marquez-fight-is-on/2948991/).

            With the rewards on offer and the relatively minor sanctions, performance-enhancing drugs are an attractive proposition to sportsmen and women.  The only logical conclusion is to introduce a zero-tolerance policy of life bans for any convicted drugs cheat.  In the case of recreational drugs, a less hard-line approach would suffice given that often there are deep-set emotional reasons for such substance abuse.  There is a worrying trend in certain countries of drug-taking getting out of control.  During and after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Indian athletes returned a disproportionate amount of positive drugs tests; similarly, Russia has over 40 suspended Athletes at the present time.  Chinese, Turkish and Greek authorities all have major problems with doping.  China in particular seems to have a particular problem with Swimming and Weightlifting.  There is a disturbing situation arising in Jamaican athletics where alongside Powell, two other high profile female sprinters, Sherone Simpson and double 200m Olympic Gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown, have returned positive drugs results amid claims that testing has been few and far between (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/athletics/24517780).  The worry is that the testers are always playing catch-up with the takers.  The introduction of blood passports is a big step in the right direction but until all governing bodies across all sports make it a top priority, the situation is not going to improve.

            I love sport.  When I was younger I would marvel at the seemingly super-human abilities of professional athletes on TV and wish I could do what they could.  The concept of someone achieving something by artificial means never enters a child’s head.  I suppose the first time I really took interest in a drugs scandal was Dwain Chambers’ positive test in 2003.  I couldn’t believe that an English sprinter would do such a thing.  I mean it is so un-English.  When Chambers pleaded guilty a little bit of me died inside.  I naively assumed that illegal narcotics were consigned to Athletics only.  Then the world of cycling was turned upside down after Floyd Landis’ positive test after his Tour de France ‘victory’ in 2006.  Again, I assumed it was an isolated case limited to a minor sport.  Yet, when the recent Lance Armstrong scandal reared its ugly head, I slowly started to realise that one should not take every amazing performance, every world-record, every breath-taking sporting moment at face value – and that is really sad.  I now have a slightly cynical view of the sporting world thanks to those athletes who decided to take the short-cut, the easy way, the cheater’s route to success.  I still love sport and I still marvel at sporting prowess but now, at the back of my mind, there is always some doubt.

 

This Wikipedia article makes for rather disheartening reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_doping_cases_in_sport#Q

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.

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.