The British Open returns to Royal Birkdale, where surprisingly few players in this year’s edition have played. The Southport, England links has produced a wide variety of champions over the years, so keep a close eye on luck of the draw and form heading into tournament.
Best British Open finish: 2 (2007)
Last three British Opens: T-2, T-6, T-5
This year: The Masters champion also won the Dubai Desert Classic and finished second in June’s BMW International Open on the European Tour. A T-21 at the U.S. Open came after top-20s in the PGA Tour’s two Texas events. He’s as steady as ever.
Why he could win: Has played two Opens at Birkdale (T-29, T-51) and has a stellar record in this championship, with 10 top-10s in 20 starts. The last three years suggest he’s close to breaking through.
Holding him back: It’s no secret his putting, at least statistically, is pretty dreadful. But Garcia won the toughest major to capture with a poor putter.
Best British Open finish: T-4 (2015)
Last three British Opens: T-36, T-4, T-30
This year: The picture of consistency early in the season with a win and four top-10s on the West Coast swing. So-so run at the Players (MC), Masters (T-11) and U.S. Open (T-35) may be in the rearview mirror following thrilling Travelers Championship playoff victory.
Why he could win: Spieth is passing up the John Deere Classic to arrive early and prepare for Royal Birkdale. As he showed at the Travelers, he can turn things around quickly and has been open about his appreciation for links golf. A brutal luck of the draw and the whirlwind drama with his post-Deere arrival in 2015 may have cost him a shot at a third straight major.
Holding him back: Putting inconsistency remains the lone – and unexpected – issue. Ballstriking improvement may have taken too much attention, but his play approaching the green is so improved (leading the PGA Tour) that he won the Travelers not looking overly confident putting.
Best British Open finish: T-2 (2011)
Last three British Opens: T-12, T-49, T-9
This year: Incredible start included three wins and top-25s in all but two starts. Has flatlined since Masters staircase spill and a missed the cut at the U.S. Open – may have been rusty while tending to birth of second child with fiancé Paulina Gretzky.
Why he could win: Enjoys links golf, and his power theoretically makes Royal Birkdale less imposing. When he’s healthy, Johnson is the best player on the planet, which is why he remains the top betting favorite of oddsmakers.
Holding him back: Will not have played since the U.S. Open. Adapting to links conditions will require his utmost attention.
Best British Open finish: T-4 (1998)
Last three British Opens: T-23, T-6, T-22
This year: A missed U.S. Open cut was a blemish on what has been a steady though winless year. Rose didn’t seem too fazed by his Masters playoff loss to Garcia.
Why he could win: Veteran returns to the scene of his 1998 T-4 as a fresh-faced, 17-year-old amateur. While his T-70 here in 2008 does not inspire, Rose has the sweetest of memories from 1998 to build upon and is long overdue to contend in the British Open again.
Holding him back: Oddly struggled with his driver at Erin Hills, usually one of the strongest weapons in his arsenal – ironing out that club with instructor Sean Foley will make him dangerous. Recent approach play not up to Rose’s high standards, but given his track record, a turnaround seems inevitable.
Best British Open finish: T-53 (only appearance 2016)
This year: Three Tour wins, a 59 (Sony Open) and a record-low-to-par 63 in the U.S. Open have him as a player-of-the-year candidate.
Why he could win: The 24-year-old has the tools to contend anywhere, and while his 63 at Erin Hills did not lead to the winner’s circle, such an epic round has to portend well for major-championship confidence. Solid in all statistical categories.
Holding him back: Lack of links experience and streakiness. When his game goes south, the decline can be dramatic: Golfweek’s David Dusek revealed that Thomas’ strokes gained: approach-the-green play is 1.433 shots worse when he misses a cut, giving up three shots over two rounds versus his season average. Thomas tends to be very hot, or not.
Best British Open finish: 1 (2014)
Last three British Opens: 1, DNP, T-5
This year: A rib injury curtailed plans for an ambitious pre-Masters schedule, and he missed the U.S. Open cut. Final-round 64 at the Travelers started a big lead-up to the British Open, with appearances at Irish Open and the Scottish Open.
Why he could win: If he can sort out the musical putters fiasco that turned Saturday at the Travelers into demo day, McIlroy remains one of the game’s best players. When healthy, playing consistently and carrying his star power around the U.K., McIlroy easily can regain confidence.
Holding him back: Theoretically should love links golf but tends to prefer courses on the softer, greener side. Still, he’s a former Open champion who has overcome some of his comfort issues on an R&A setup. He went into Erin Hills confident and bemoaning the last-minute mowing of the rough, but the long grass ended up giving him fits.
Best British Open finish: MC (2016)
Last three British Opens: MC, MC, MC
This year: The French Open and HSBC Abu Dhabi winner finished an impressive fourth at Erin Hills to go with second-place finishes at the Shenzhen International and WGC Mexico City. Easily the most improved player on the planet.
Why he could win: Born in Southport down the street from Royal Birkdale, the Englishman either faces enormous pressure or will feel right at home. The Race to Dubai leader heading into the European Tour’s links season will be a popular pick. And why not? He’s moved up more than 170 spots in the world ranking since last year. Fleetwood is having fun in the spotlight, making him dangerous in Southport.
Holding him back: Pressure? Maybe, though the 26-year-old seems to be relishing the success he’s had since going back to his former swing coach and putting a friend on his bag.
Best British Open finish: T-2 (2014)
Last three British Opens: T-2, T-30, T-46
This year: Rarely out of the top 25 and a contender nearly every time he tees up, Fowler has a win at the Honda and top-3 finishes at the Shell Houston, Memorial and Quicken Loans National. A Masters final-round 76 and U.S. Open-closing 72 ended hopes of winning his first major.
Why he could win: He can handle the wind, and arguably has been more consistent than any of the young stars this year. Had two legitimate British Open chances in 2011 and 2014, and has six top-5s in his last 24 majors played. Controls his emotions well and took issue with suggestions he doesn’t get angry enough after final-round setbacks.
Holding him back: Working hard with Butch Harmon on his swing transition, but otherwise is strong in all categories.
Best British Open finish: 1 (2013)
Last three British Opens: T-23, T-22, 2
This year: Passed up the U.S. Open for his daughter’s graduation and split with 25-year caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay. It’s easy to forget he’s coming off two surgeries, but he can look to three top-10s on Tour for signs of hope.
Why he could win: Had a tough runner-up finish to Henrik Stenson last year that included a second-round 63 and a total score that would have won any other Open Championship. His short game remains impeccable, including excellent putting all season. If Birkdale becomes a scrambling and experience contest, advantage Phil. Finished T-19 here in 2008 and just made the cut in 1998.
Holding him back: Ballstriking and course management have left a lot to be desired. Perhaps those elements improve with a new bagman (brother Tim Mickelson for now.) Has to find some consistency with his approach play into Birkdale’s greens if he wants to succeed.
Best British Open finish: 1 (2016)
Last three British Opens: T-39, T-40, 1
This year: A T-7 at the Valspar was followed by five missed cuts in six PGA Tour starts, only interrupted by a T-16 at the Players. Better form of late was highlighted by a T-3 in the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship and a T-10 at the BMW International in Munich.
Why he could win: The defending champion will return the Claret Jug at the scene of a T-3 in 2008. Stenson also finished second in 2013 and T-3 in 2010, so this easily could be his favorite major. Perhaps setting foot on a Royal Birkdale links he enjoys will help the Swede find the overall focus, ballstriking and peace he enjoyed while posting a final-round 63 to beat Mickelson by three and finish 14 clear of third-place finisher J.B. Holmes.
Holding him back: Putting and overall short game still not exceptional, but dropoff in all ballstriking stats stands out more. Recent progression suggests things are turning around enough to not rule him out at Birkdale.
(Note: This story appeared in the July 2017 issue of Golfweek.)