Brooks Koepka built for majors, all eyes on Rory McIlroy: Evaluating the five British Open favourites
Ahead of the first tee shot at Royal Portrush on Thursday, John McAuley takes a look at how the five leading contenders are shaping up
The 148th British Open tees off at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland this Thursday, marking the first time golf’s oldest major has been played outside mainland Britain since it was last held at the same venue, in 1951.
We look at the favourites to land the season’s fourth and final major, and with it, the famous Claret Jug.
Grew up little more than one hour away and holds the course record - albeit it was 14 years ago and on an albeit different-looking layout. But he also already has a Claret Jug in the trophy cabinet. Little wonder, then, the Northern Irishman ranks as the outright favourite.
McIlroy has won twice already this season, including the illustrious Players Championship in March, while he has one runner-up finish and 11 top-10s overall in 14 starts. His recent Open record is rather handy, too: since winning in 2014, McIlroy has three top-fives from three appearances, and was tied-second last year. However, the fear this week is that McIlroy will easily have to handle more pressure than anyone else competing.
Should there really be anybody else in the reckoning? The world No 1 has become a major master since breaking through at the 2017 US Open: in the past nine he has participated in, Koepka has won four times – absolutely startling form.
What is more, the American finished runner-up at the Masters this year, and at last month’s US Open ... when he was going for the three-peat. And the man on his bag? That’d be Northern Irishman Ricky Elliott, who just happens to be from Portrush and grew up playing the course (he once shot 65 there). The only thing that could work against Koepka is that it will play very narrow, which doesn’t always suit. Still, Brooks is built for majors.
Not been at his brilliant best this season – it is an incredibly high bar – but still has triumphed at the WGC-Mexico Championship and posted two runners-up at the year’s first two majors. Which just proves that DJ can be a big-game player. The American’s one major title to date, the 2016 US Open, seems almost criminal for a guy who most closely rivals McIlroy in terms of golfing talent.
Johnson comes into the week ranked world No 2, but does not traditionally fare well at the Open. Other than the tied-second way back in 2011, he has just about scraped a top 10, in 2012 and 2016. Missed the cut last year. His ability to handle the major-Sunday spotlight sometimes in question, too.
Seems the Spaniard has transitioned into an honorary Irishman. Rahm won the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, then earlier this month followed it with a second tournament victory. At the latter, he shot 64-62 during the weekend, overturning a 5-shot, 54-hole lead and eventually prevailing by two.
The 2017 triumph came at Portstewart, right next to Portrush, so Rahm clearly loves the area. OK, so he’s the only player among the top 5 favourites yet to win a major, and he can be pretty fiery at times. But Rahm had two top-fours last year, and this season finished tied-9th at the Masters and third at the US Open. Did, though, miss the cut last time out at the Open.
Other than McIlroy, no one will attract attention like golf’s transcendent star. The practice days this week have proved as much. That Woods hasn’t played competitively since last month’s US Open, where he finished outside the top 20, only adds to the intrigue. That said, he did give golf its storyline of the year by winning the Masters in April – his first major in 11 years and 15th overall. And he has won two of his past eight official stroke-play starts.
Also, the Open has long been considered an ageing Woods’ best chance of major glory (he has three Claret Jugs and nearly added another last year). However, the American has played only 10 competitive rounds since Augusta, and the colder climate could trouble his sensitive back.
Updated: July 17, 2019 07:36 AM