Ranking the British Open field
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- When it comes to prognosticating the Open Championship, one question always takes priority over all others: weather or not?
If it remains calm and dry for all four tournament rounds, expect low scores, as those who have a penchant for making birdies in bunches should hold a distinct advantage. If it starts raining sideways and the wind blows, that will obviously adversely affect scoring, perhaps benefiting those who are most patient or accustomed to performing in such conditions.
The only problem, of course, is that predicting the weather 'round these parts is, well, just as difficult to predict as a winner -- and it can changes more frequently than the leaderboard.
That doesn't mean we can't glean some information beforehand.
With the year's third major championship returning to the Old Course for the third time this century, many players will be acutely aware of the subtleties on this historic track. Those who compete here annually at the Dunhill Links Championship, however, might hold an even greater advantage.
"Because of the European Tour playing here every year, you're going to have a huge European presence here this week," said Ernie Els, who finished in a share of second place here 10 years ago and T-34 in '05. "The guys know the course like the back of their hands now. This place used to be a special place to come every couple years for the Open. We play a tournament here every year now, so the guys know the course well. So you're going to have a big group of guys on Sunday with a chance to win, I think."
That narrows it down only slightly, but Els might have been speaking as much from his own experiences as those of other players. In fact, the Big Easy seems like the right place to start when seeking a potential champion this week.
He heads the top-50 list of candidates entering the 150th anniversary of the initial Open Championship.
|1. Ernie Els||1. Same ol' story for the Big Easy: In two majors this year, he's already received his share of heartache and heartbreak, which has become the unfortunate norm for this three-time major champion. He's getting closer, though, and it may be only a matter of time before the 40-year-old pulls it all together on the back nine of a final round to capture that elusive fourth major title.
Don't be surprised if it happens this week, considering an Open record that shows top-30 finishes in 17 of his last 18 starts, including a dozen top-10s, eight top-5s, and a victory in 2002.
|2. Ian Poulter||He had a stirring runner-up performance in this tournament two years ago, he's now won on the PGA Tour, and he's established himself as one of the world's upper-echelon players. The next progression for Poulter is to claim a major championship.
Why could it happen at St. Andrews? With a premium on short-game abilities over ball-striking, his prowess on mid- and short-range putts could be a difference-maker.
|3. Rory McIlroy||Despite that this year's site is playing host to international superstars (Padraig Harrington), recent major champions (Graeme McDowell) and colorful characters (Ian Poulter), no European will draw more attention than the young McIlroy.
As he proved at Quail Hollow earlier this year -- when he made the cut on the number, then shot 66-62 on the weekend to win -- he has all the tools to make a significant impact any given week.
|4. Tiger Woods||Call it the Year of Fore. Oh, sorry. Make that the Year of Four. Actually, both may work for Woods, as his oft-erratic swing has led to a winless season in six starts so far, with his best finishes being a pair of fourth-place results at the previous two majors.
Tiger is attempting to win a third consecutive title here on his favorite course in the world, but based on his recent putting stroke -- which will be accompanied by a new putter this week for the first time since 1999 -- a third-straight fourth-place finish is more likely.
|Win, 2000, 2005|
|5. Justin Rose||Expect the game's hottest player to receive plenty of support at the local betting parlors this week -- and for good reason. Rose has won two of his last three starts (Memorial Tournament and AT&T National), sandwiched around another during which he led after the first three rounds.
Five years ago, he was first alternate at St. Andrews but never made the field, later calling it his "Bogey Open." Now fully qualified, he might bounce back with a big-time birdie.
|6. Zach Johnson||He is perhaps the best lag putter in the game -- and no, that isn't a backhanded compliment. With such large greens at St. Andrews, expect GIR numbers to be up, but leaving plenty of lengthy birdie opportunities.
Well, Johnson's ability to knock more 50-footers to within 2 feet may not win any skills competitions, but such consistency should eliminate many three-putts and keep him in contention.
|7. Martin Kaymer||Ask a casual golf fan to peruse the current Official World Golf Ranking, and there will likely be plenty of head-nodding over the first dozen players or so -- until Kaymer's name comes up.
The 25-year-old from Germany may not be a household name yet, but it's only a matter of time. And though the European Tour doesn't play links courses every week, he, as a full-time member, sees as many as anyone.
|8. Lee Westwood||The optimist says it's only a matter of time until he wins a big one. The pessimist wonders how he's often gotten so close with such a balky putting stroke. Maybe they're both right.
Whatever the case, Westwood has proved himself as not only one of the world's best players, but one of the strongest major competitors, as well, with top-3 finishes in each of the four big ones over the past three years. Yes, he's injured, suffering from a ruptured plantaris muscle in his calf, but remember the old axiom: Beware the injured golfer.
|9. Adam Scott||Consider this your dark-horse special. No, the Aussie isn't an unknown commodity, but his previous record at major championships has been downright despicable for a player of his pedigree. In three dozen previous starts, he owns just four top-10 finishes and no serious title contentions.
Scott is playing more consistent golf of late, though, and may finally be ready to take that next step toward the superstardom that has been expected for so long.
|10. Geoff Ogilvy||Perhaps it's only fitting that Ogilvy is back-to-back with his buddy Scott on this list, as the two shared a handful of practice rounds on the Old Course before this week. For all of his talents, it's a wonder Ogilvy doesn't contend more often. When he does, however, he usually doesn't fade, and on a course where driving accuracy won't matter much, this could be another one of those times.||T-5, 2005|
|11. Justin Leonard||If the wind blows -- or maybe when the wind blows -- the former champ will hold a decided advantage due to his low ball flight.||Win, 1997|
|12. Camilo Villegas||Has proved he can make birdies in bunches over here, with rounds of 65 and 66 in each of the last two Opens.||T-13, 2009|
|13. Thomas Aiken||Surprise! Or maybe not. After all, he finished T-8 last year at Turnberry and owns a putting stroke that has earned him a reputation as the Steve Stricker of the Euro circuit.||T-8, 2009|
|14. Ross Fisher||After taking the outright lead early in last year's final round, he posted a quadruple-bogey on the fourth hole en route to a T-13 finish. Expect him to mature from that experience.||T-13, 2009|
|15. Phil Mickelson||Why the game's most creative player has been mostly a letdown on courses that require the most creativity remains a mystery -- one that most likely won't be solved this week.||3, 2004|
|16. Edoardo Molinari||One half of the Molinari Bros. golfing duo, the former U.S. Amateur champ is coming off a Scottish Open victory that vaulted him into the top-20 on the world ranking.||T-60, 2005|
|17. Tom Lehman||He placed high on the pretournament U.S. Open rankings, and while that didn't come to fruition, Lehman's inclusion on the leaderboard would continue a current trend, as senior tour-eligible players (Greg Norman in 2008, Tom Watson in '09) have made serious title runs in each of the past two years.||Win, 1996|
|18. Luke Donald||Don't look now, but the plucky Brit has climbed all the way to No. 7 in the current world ranking.||T-5, 2009|
|19. Ryan Moore||One of the last men into the field, his homemade swing developed in Tacoma, Wash., should hold up well in windy conditions.||T-42|
|20. Paul Casey||It's only a matter of time before he breaks through and wins a big one, but his game might be better suited for Augusta National than St. Andrews.||T-7, 2008|
|21. Steve Stricker||How does a birdie-filled victory at the John Deere Classic prepare a guy for the Open Championship? Well, it certainly couldn't hurt.||T-7, 2008|
|22. Mike Weir||While it's true that wet conditions benefit players who hit the ball long and high, the little lefty has proved himself as one of the game's ultimate mudders, in case such a situation persists this week.||T-8, 2007|
|23. Miguel Angel Jimenez||He's no longer a week-in, week-out force, but as he showed at the recent Open de France, on any given week, the Mechanic can find the winner's circle.||T-3, 2001|
|24. Padraig Harrington||Could become the first player since Tom Watson in 1980, '82 and '83 to win three of four Open titles.||Win, 2007, 2008|
|25. David Duval||The former champion has been down on his luck lately, but the talk is that his bad shots are low hooks -- which won't hurt him much here.||Win, 2001|
|26. Stewart Cink||It would be a bit much to ask for a repeat performance of last year, but the defending champion does call St. Andrews his "favorite course in the world."||Win, 2009|
|27. Jim Furyk||After missing the Open cut in five straight years, he's cashed in four straight, including three finishes of 12th or better.||4th, three times|
|28. Darren Clarke||Faltered in the final round of the Scottish Open on Sunday, but still did enough -- barely -- to earn his way into this week's field.||T-2, 1997|
|29. J.B. Holmes||One local cabbie says he thinks Holmes may win this week. Don't laugh. Local cabbies know such things.||69, 2009|
|30. Graeme McDowell||Only six players have won both Open titles in the same year: Bobby Jones (1926, '30), Gene Sarazen (1932), Ben Hogan (1953), Lee Trevino (1971), Tom Watson (1982) and Tiger Woods (2000). Quite a list.||T-11, 2005|
|31. Tom Watson||Pick against him at your own peril. At the age of 60, Old Tom keeps rolling along, supplementing last year's playoff loss with rallies up the leaderboard at Augusta National and Pebble Beach already this year.||Win, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983|
|32. Victor Dubuisson||In his final days as an amateur, the flamboyant Frenchman might prove there's another young gun worth watching on the international stage.||First appearance|
|33. Henrik Stenson||Hasn't played his best golf this year, but is just about due to make a serious run at remaining on the European Ryder Cup team.||T-3, 2008|
|34. Rhys Davies||No player has been more consistent on the Euro Tour this season, as the Wales native owns a win and three runner-up results.||MC, 2009|
|35. Colin Montgomerie||Is it realistic to think he will contend this week? Maybe not, but if there's ever a place where such magic could happen, this is it.||2, 2005|
|36. Chris Wood||The only player to finish in the top 5 in each of the last two editions of the Open? It's not Woods or Westwood, but Wood, who is the European Tour's reigning Rookie of the Year.||T-3, 2009|
|37. Vijay Singh||Following months of poor play, the Big Fijian has enjoyed a recent resurgence. It might not be enough to contend, but it should be enough to give him some momentum.||T-2, 2003|
|38. Ryo Ishikawa||Sure, he's still a teenager, but the Bashful Prince showed he's mature beyond his years once again at last month's U.S. Open, where he remained in contention on the weekend.||MC, 2009|
|39. Martin Laird||Playing a home game this week. Really. This Scotsman is staying at his parents' house, which is about 15 miles from the course.||MC, 2009|
|40. Jason Day||Not only is he playing well, but the Aussie also might receive a little karma after receiving legendary countryman Greg Norman's spot in the field after the Shark withdrew.||First appearance|
|41. Ben Crane||If this tournament turns into a putting contest, keep a close eye on this guy, who quietly happens to be one of the game's top rock-rollers.||T-11, 2006|
|42. Charl Schwartzel||One of the game's most underrated players, he's often incorrectly omitted on the list of best 20-somethings in the game today.||T-22, 2006|
|43. Sergio Garcia||First Rafael Nadal wins Wimbledon. Then Spain's soccer team wins the World Cup. Could El Nino make it a world-class treble for his country?||2, 2007|
|44. Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano||See above.||T-47, 2009|
|45. Mark Calcavecchia||Upon turning 50 last month, he promptly quit the PGA Tour and started playing the 50-and-over circuit, but Calc can still hang with the flatbellies once in a while.||Win, 1989|
|46. Scott Verplank||Slow and steady often wins the race at these types of events, and few are steadier than Verplank, who reached a playoff at the Travelers Championship three weeks ago.||T-7, 2004|
|47. Mathew Goggin||He played in last year's final pairing but didn't receive much recognition. Why? His playing partner stole the headlines. Some guy named Watson.||T-5, 2009|
|48. Zane Scotland||The local folks will go crazy if this Challenge Tour regular reaches the leaderboard until they realize he's actually from England.||MC, 1999|
|49. Ricky Barnes||Tends to play his best golf in the toughest situations, as evidenced by a few recent major championships.||MC, 2003|
|50. Sir Nick Faldo||That's right. In these parts, you can't mention Faldo's name without the proper title before it. No, he doesn't play full-time anymore, but he didn't in 2005, either, when he finished T-11 at this course.||Win, 1987, 1990, 1992|
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn.com.
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2010 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Many thought Louis Oosthuizen couldn't handle the pressure. The South African proved everyone wrong as he routed the field to win the 139th Open Championship at St. Andrews. Gene Wojciechowski
2010 champion: Louis Oosthuizen
Course: St. Andrews, Old Course
Where: St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland
Yardage, par: 6,721, par-72