Ranking the top 50 in the British Open
TURNBERRY, Scotland -- Ask three players to divulge the secret to success on this four-time Open Championship venue, and you're bound to hear three different answers.
"It definitely suits somebody who's going to drive the ball very well," said Padraig Harrington, the two-time defending champion.
"You have to hit your irons well," said three-time winner Tiger Woods.
"You just need to stay out of [the bunkers] the whole week," said Ian Poulter, last year's runner-up.
Well, that clears up absolutely nothing. So, players will need to hit the ball far and straight off the tee, then hit plenty of greens in regulation? I assume that making some putts may be of some benefit, too, huh?
The fact is, on a course that hasn't hosted the Open since 1994 and has been lengthened 247 yards since then (to 7,204 on the scorecard), the great unknown continues to prevail in the days leading up to the opening round. With that in mind, I've used recent results, previous Open experiences and, as always, plenty of hunches in predicting the top 50 players at this week's tournament.
|1. Sergio Garcia||I've been saying for years that El Nino will win a major before he turns 30 years old. Well, he's 29½ and has only two more chances. Despite some much-ballyhooed early-season struggles, he has shown better form of late, including a quiet T-10 at the U.S. Open.
Some contend that the man who two years ago at this tournament tempted fate by blaming the golf gods for his playoff loss to Padraig Harrington will endure the karma of a Claret Jug-less career, but I'm not buying it. Garcia is a ball striker supreme, playing a course that demands such play. And yes, his oft-maligned putting stroke will be good enough to win it, too.
|2. Jim Furyk||Riddle me this: In his past 45 tournament starts, Furyk owns exactly zero PGA Tour victories. It's not as if he hasn't enjoyed some success, though. Since winning the Canadian Open nearly two full years ago, he has finished in the top 10 on 16 occasions, with five results of third or better.
This season, Furyk ranks in the top-20 in both driving accuracy and putting average; his ability to keep it between the thick stuff and roll in some putts will keep him in contention throughout the weekend.
|3. Hunter Mahan||Only three players have pulled top-10 finishes in each of this year's first two major championships. Two are fairly predictable -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. The third is Mahan, who is quickly moving into the upper echelon of elite performers.
Two weeks ago, he tied a course record by firing an unconscionable final-round 62 at Congressional to grab a solo second-place result at the AT&T National. Asked about the Open afterward, he said, "I love playing over there. It's just so much fun. It's such a different style of golf." Expect him to improve on his T-6 finish at Carnoustie from two years ago.
|4. Darren Clarke||Back in 2005, only Tiger Woods kept Colin Montgomerie from winning at St. Andrews. Last year, Greg Norman led entering the back nine on Sunday. My sentimental selection for this week is Clarke, who owns three finishes of seventh or better at the Open but none since 2001.
Clarke was in contention at last week's Scottish Open before being undone by a final-round 77. He hasn't enjoyed a particularly fruitful campaign in 2009, with no result better than 14th in a dozen starts. But much like those aforementioned players -- or Rocco Mediate at last year's U.S. Open -- Clarke can contend on any given week.
|5. Geoff Ogilvy||Back in the early 14th century, Scotland's Robert the Bruce served as one of the country's greatest kings and most famous warriors. Turns out, he was raised right near Turnberry. Why does this matter? Well, maybe it doesn't, but it's worth noting that Ogilvy is a descendant of Robert the Bruce.
To retain family status around these parts, the Aussie will need to regain his early-season form, as he won both the Mercedes-Benz Championship and WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. In his past six starts, however, Ogilvy hasn't finished better than a share of 10th place. Even so, the former U.S. Open champ always has fancied his chances on a links-style course.
|6. Tiger Woods||There are two stats you need to know. The first is that on major championship venues where Woods has never previously played any competitive rounds, he owns a 4-for-23 career record. And no, he had never seen Turnberry before this week.
The second is that in his next start after each of his first two victories this season, Woods has finished T-6 at a major. That includes wins at events hosted by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In his most recent appearance, Woods won his own AT&T National, although recent titles should have little bearing on his result at an upcoming tourney. He's still the prohibitive favorite each and every time he tees it up, but TW is hardly a lock these days -- especially on unfamiliar territory.
|Wins in 2000, 2005, 2006|
|7. Justin Leonard||"Oh, the weather outside is frightful
If the 1997 British Open champ knows what's good for him, he'll be singing, "Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow" throughout the tournament rounds. There are few players in the field whose games are better equipped to deal with whipping winds than the low-ball-hitting Texan, who knows how to use the ground to his advantage.
The good news for Leonard? This coastline course should see its share of breezes this week.
|8. Ian Poulter||With Harrington still on the course and the tournament still in doubt, Poulter stood over an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Royal Birkdale last year and found the bottom of the cup. Although it gave him "only" a solo second-place result, he's working to build on that success.
"It's a huge confidence boost," Poulter said. "I'm always a confident player, but for sure, to be in that position and to actually get close but not close enough, yes, it's a huge confidence boost, and yes, I do believe I can go one step further. We'll have to see come Sunday night."
|9. Markus Brier||Austria? Well, then. G'day mate! Let's put another shrimp on the barbie!
In local final qualifying for the British Open, this Austrian -- no, not Australian, like so many other players -- blitzed the field at Kilmarnock Barassie, winning by a half-dozen strokes thanks to scores of 64-66. A two-time European Tour champion, Brier finished T-12 two years ago at Carnoustie and enjoys this style of play.
"Links golf is in my body," he said recently. "I loved it from when I was a teenager and visited Turnberry with six or seven other Austrian amateurs."
|10. Boo Weekley||Although he'll never be confused with a range rat, I've watched Weekley on the practice facilities before and during his past two starts at TPC River Highlands and Congressional, respectively.
He has been working on his game as diligently as anyone. Apparently on the mend from a torn labrum suffered at the Players Championship, Weekley is a guy who plays his best golf when solid iron shots are at a premium, as evidenced by his two career victories at Harbour Town.
|11. Brian Gay||This is a ball striker's course, and Gay is that type of player, as evidenced by his two runaway victories already this year.||MC, 2001|
|12. Sean O'Hair||Four years ago, O'Hair won the John Deere Classic, then hastily acquired a passport, traveled to St. Andrews and finished T-15. He's an even better player right now.||T-14, 2006|
|13. Soren Hansen||I'm calling it right now: He's the best Hansen/Hanson in the game today but it's close.||8th, 2002|
|14. Steve Stricker||All of a sudden, this guy can close. After finishing close-but-no-victory-cigar three times during the early part of this season, Stricker has earned victories at Colonial and this past week's John Deere Classic. Afterward, he hopped onto a chartered flight for the Open, where he has finished eighth or better in each of the past two years.
So why isn't he ranked higher? Just ask him.
"It's gonna be a short three days of practice and trying to get accustomed to the time change and the course and the weather and all that kind of stuff," he said.
|15. Ben Curtis||He was a sleeper when he won as a first-timer in 2003, but with a T-7 and T-8 in his past two Open starts, that's no longer the case.||Win, 2003|
|16. Stephen Ames||Expect him to be among the leaders in greens in regulation this week.||5th, 1997|
|17. Padraig Harrington||Two years ago, Paddy won the Irish PGA in a playoff and parlayed that into a playoff win at the Open one week later. Last year, he won by 4 at the Irish PGA and the same margin at the Open.
Well, this past week, he again took the Irish PGA crown, prevailing by 7 strokes. So it only makes sense that he'll win at Turnberry by 7, too, right? Not so much. Harrington has struggled with swing changes of late. He always has considered himself a streaky player, and his current run hasn't been so stellar, with missed cuts in his past five major tour starts.
"Not really showing much form in the last couple of weeks," he said. "Not really knowing what to expect."
The Irish PGA? Sure, it's nice to win, but it's little more than a club pro championship.
|Win, 2007, 2008|
|18. Todd Hamilton||Struggled mightily after winning the Open in 2004 but has regained form this year.||Win, 2004|
|19. Henrik Stenson||The Players Championship winner has proved he can contend -- and win -- against elite fields.||3rd, 2008|
|20. Robert Rock||If the weather worsens, watch out for Rock, who played well in awful conditions at the Irish Open.||16th, 2006|
|21. Rory McIlroy||After Woods and Garcia, the kid nicknamed Boy Wonder has been enlisted by bookmakers as the third favorite to win this week. Even though the 20-year-old from Holywood, Northern Ireland, owns a massive amount of talent, that's more than a little optimistic.
McIlroy finished T-42 in his only previous Open start two years ago, earning low-amateur honors, but that should hardly be reason to believe he can contend seriously this time around. That said, it might not be so long before he lifts a Claret Jug over his head while posing for photographs.
|22. Brandt Snedeker||After a rib injury slowed him down for the first six months of this season, Snedeker owns a pair of top-5s in his past two starts.||MC, 2008|
|23. Damien McGrane||He's not on the European Tour leaderboard every week; it just seems like it.||MC, 2008|
|24. Lee Westwood||If there's one thing I've learned throughout the years, it's that if everyone likes a certain player as his "sleeper" pick -- especially a guy who isn't really a sleeper anyway -- you should jump off the bandwagon as quickly as possible. It happened with Geoff Ogilvy at the Masters (who finished T-15) and Paul Casey at the U.S. Open (who missed the cut).
Now it's Westwood who is the popular pick to click among non-top-five players. Not a bad idea considering he has finished T-8 and runner-up in his past two starts, but let's not forget that Westy has finished in the top 10 only twice in 14 career Open appearances.
|25. Paul Casey||The world's No. 3-ranked player has struggled with his game of late, including a missed cut at Bethpage.||T-7, 2008|
|26. Tim Clark||He'll be able to keep the ball in play, but a lack of length may hurt Clark on this stretched-out course.||T-23, 2005|
|27. Camilo Villegas||Anyone who can shoot a second-round 65 in stringent conditions at Royal Birkdale is a force to be reckoned with.||T-39, 2008|
|28. Martin Kaymer||Although most three-peat discussions revolve around Padraig Harrington's attempt to claim a third straight Claret Jug, this 24-year-old is seeking a triumvirate of his own. With back-to-back victories at the Open de France and Scottish Open the past two weeks, Kaymer is trying to pull a third straight win.
No one is hotter entering the week, obviously, but the current 11th-ranked player in the world has to run out of gas at some point, right? We'll see how far this current momentum can take him.
|29. Zach Johnson||Coming off a strong performance at the John Deere and loves keeping shots under the wind, and his sublime wedge game should come in handy.||T-20, 2007|
|30. Mike Weir||At some point, faltering during weekend rounds becomes more than just a trend.||T-8, 2007|
|31. Richard Green||The lanky lefty has turned his game up a few notches recently.||4th, 2007|
|32. Ernie Els||Still armed with the game's sweetest swing, but until the Big Easy can easily knock in most of his 8-to-10-footers, he'll continue to search for a fourth major win.||Win, 2002|
|33. David Duval||His co-runner-up finish at last month's U.S. Open has been heralded as "the return of David Duval," but it was less than a year ago when he had previously surfaced on a major championship leaderboard, albeit not for the entire tournament.
How quickly we forget that at last year's British Open, fresh off missing the cut in 10 of his first 11 starts of the season, the 2001 champion opened 73-69 at Royal Birkdale -- good enough to play in the second-to-last pairing of Round 3. Although he could only muddle his way around in blustery conditions with a 13-over 83 that day and finished T-39 when it was all said and done, this notion that the guy known as "Double-D" is just now starting his comeback is just plain erroneous.
|34. Robert Allenby||The king of cuts actually MC'd at last week's Scottish Open.||7th, 2008|
|35. Justin Rose||Throughout his career, he has had a tendency to start hot in majors only to be undone by a few bad holes.||T-4, 1998|
|36. Graeme McDowell||Came into his own with two wins and eight top-10s on the European Tour last season.||11th, 2005|
|37. Ross Fisher||Like Sean O'Hair at the U.S. Open, Fisher is on call with a very pregnant wife.||T-39, 2008|
|38. Adam Scott||Is he a contender? Just a pretender? Honestly, I have no idea anymore. The game's most confounding player this side of Ernie Els has MC'd in seven of his past nine starts on U.S. soil but finished T-4 at the Scottish Open on the strength of three rounds of 67 or better.
So, is he back? Or still a work in progress? Again, no idea. I still believe that Scott has top-five talent, and we'll see it come to fruition in the next few years. But I have a hard time believing he's ready to break through here at Turnberry.
|39. Luke Donald||Once considered England's greatest chance to win the Open, he has struggled mightily, with only three made cuts in eight career starts and no results better than T-35.||T-35, 2006|
|40. Anthony Kim||Ask him to call his first major victory, and AK says, "The next one. Always." Not this week. Maybe the next one after this one.||T-7, 2008|
|41. Martin Laird||Cool story: The Scotland native and PGA Tour sophomore played his first pro event in this country a week ago.||1st appearance|
|42. Kenny Perry||One year ago, Perry elected to forgo the Open in favor of competing in an opposite-field event in Milwaukee. Although his rationale was genuine -- he wanted to earn more points toward reaching the Ryder Cup team -- he was roundly lambasted for the decision.
This time, he has made the trip and once again is playing some impressive golf, with two victories already this season. Although he hasn't played in this event in three years, his record from 2003 to '06 was formidable: T-8, T-16, T-11, MC. If driving really is a key to success here, expect KP's smooth swing to treat him well.
|43. Nick Dougherty||Looked great in winning the BMW International Open three weeks ago.||T-42, 2007|
|44. Rafa Echenique||Playing solid golf as of late, including a final-hole double-eagle that almost netted him a victory in Munich.||1st appearance|
|45. Retief Goosen||Played well at last week's Scottish Open until a five-hole stretch that included a four-putt, three three-putts and a chunked chip. Yikes.||T-5, 2005|
|46. Lucas Glover||No man has claimed both the U.S. Open and British Open titles in the same season since Woods in 2000, but Glover is seeking to equal that feat. Not quite as monumental, though still impressive, is the fact that he hasn't taken a week off since winning at Bethpage.
"I've been playing well," he said Tuesday. "I had a slow couple of days at the Deere, but I played well the two weeks directly after the Open. And if I'm playing well, yeah, I think I can do well. But from now on, it's just getting back into contention, because that's hard enough. I feel good about how I handled myself at Bethpage, so if I get there I feel like I'll know what to do."
|47. Bryce Molder||Proved to be a streaky player, Molder is riding high, having earned a spot in the field via a special six-week money list leading into this event.||1st appearance|
|48. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano||Improving young player is coming off a tie for second place at the Scottish Open.||48th, 2006|
|49. Angel Cabrera||This course setup doesn't appear to suit his game. Then again, neither did Oakmont.||T-4, 1999|
|50. Colin Montgomerie||He will compete in his 20th consecutive Open Championship this week, but Monty's game is a far cry from the form he showed in finishing runner-up to Woods four years ago at St. Andrews.
At age 46 and using much of his off-the-course time for his role as Ryder Cup captain, he is hardly a contender these days, having failed to finish in the top 10 in his past 26 Euro Tour starts dating back to more than a year ago. That doesn't mean he can't wow the home folks one more time.
"Now the expectation is not the same, so I can go in somehow under the radar," he said. "I feel at home there. It's a confidence thing, and I think that I'm just getting back into a vein of confidence, if you like, and some form. Yeah, fingers crossed, we look forward to this. I'm really looking forward to this."
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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138th OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Stewart Cink might seem the villain after foiling Tom Watson's run at a sixth Claret Jug at the British Open. In time, though, the six-time PGA Tour winner will receive his due. Bob Harig
When: Thursday-Sunday, July 16-19
Where: Turnberry's Ailsa Course, Scotland
Yardage/Par: 7,204 yards; par 70
2009 champion: Stewart Cink