There are also question marks regarding the form and fortunes of the 'Big Four' and what chances the golden oldies have at Royal Birkdale.
Rory McIlroy's form among British Open golf talking points this week
Can Rory McIlroy burst back into form?
It hardly constitutes ideal preparation for the year’s third major. Already playing catch-up following an injury-interrupted season, Rory McIlroy comes into Birkdale on the back of successive missed cuts, first at the Irish Open – a tournament in which he hosts – and then at the Scottish Open. His recent run since returning from almost five weeks off post-Masters reads: missed cut, tied-17th, missed cut, missed cut. At the moment, he is some way short of the form that carried him to four major victories, with the last one coming almost three years ago. Problems with the putter have dogged McIlroy, and his short-game in general has not been up to scratch. However, the world No 4 remains one of golf’s finest talents. And as Justin Rose remarked this week: "the one thing about Rory is as soon as you question him, he'll do something special and turn it all around.”
Will the first-time major streak come to an end?
Asked this week if anyone could dominate golf as Tiger Woods once did, Jordan Spieth replied: “I wouldn't get your hopes up”. The game’s relatively newfound parity has been subject of much debate recently, what with the past seven majors won by first-time major winners. On Tuesday, Spieth questioned if the “Big Four” of him, Jason Day, McIlroy and Dustin Johnson still applied. Especially when the major-less Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama lead a pack pushing for top honours. Still, you would expect that streak to come to an end sometime soon. Of those Formerly Known As The Big Four, double-major champion Spieth is best placed to do so this week, while world No 1 Dustin Johnson’s recent relapse can be attributed to welcoming to the family his second child. He should turn it around quickly. Expect other major winners, such as Adam Scott or Phil Mickelson, to have their say, too.
Who can end England’s 25-year Open wait?
It is a long time coming. Not since Nick Faldo’s victory at Muirfield in 1992 – his third Claret Jug in six years - has an Englishman triumphed at the British Open. Considering the talent that has come through in the intervening period, that represents quite the surprise. It feels like that could change at Birkdale, though. At No 12 in the rankings, Justin Rose is the go-to Englishman, especially given fond memories of the course from his tied-fourth, as an amateur, in 1998. So, too, Tommy Fleetwood, who grew up close to Birkdale, used to sneak on to play and is one of the most in-form golfers on the planet (only Johnson and Rahm have accumulated more world-ranking points this year). Then there is a resurgent Paul Casey, talented duo Matt Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton and the experienced Lee Westwood, among others. The only caveat: no Brit has won at Birkdale in nine previous iterations.
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Tee times: Rounds 1 and 2 times and UAE TV schedule
Can another “golden oldie” reign supreme?
In a sport increasingly all about the bombers and the gougers, the British Open has rather brilliantly stood the test of time. Of the past six winners, only Rory McIlroy was in his 20s, while everyone bar 39-year-old Zach Johnson was 40-plus at the time of winning. Last year, Henrik Stenson (40) outlasted Mickelson (46). For some perspective, the average age of the British Open winner during that time is more than 11 years older than that of the US Open champion. What’s more, during the past 25 years, a player aged 38 or more has triumphed at the British Open 32 per cent of the time. In the other three majors combined, that number stands at around 10 per cent. Clearly, links golf places emphasis on experience, guile and patience. Which bodes well this week for the likes of Mickelson (47), Westwood (44) and 2008 Birkdale champion Padraig Harrington (45).
How will the weather play its part?
Oh, the great British weather, eh? Best be on the “right side of the draw”, then. As that phrase implies, at the British Open the timing of your round can play as crucial a part as the timing of your golf swing. If the wind gets up, say, on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, someone such as McIlroy might find it much harder to score than guys on the opposite schedule. Infamously, the Northern Irishman said in 2011 that he was “not a fan of golf tournaments [where] the outcome is predicted so much by the weather”. Some, though, like Fowler, embrace the bluster. The positive point is that Birkdale is considered the fairest links course on the Open rota, a rewarder of great play. But given the first 14 holes are pretty brutal anyway, there remains plenty of opportunity for the blow to sweep away someone’s hopes. Thankfully, the initial forecast is calm enough – for now.