Who will win the 2017 British Open? The top options at Royal Birkdale

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Who will win the 2017 British Open? The top options at Royal Birkdale

PGA Tour

Who will win the 2017 British Open? The top options at Royal Birkdale

Choose a winner at the 146th British Open at Royal Birkdale? Good luck. Why, it might be easier to give you next weekend’s winning PowerBall numbers, or tell you how John Grisham’s next novel ends.

Here in the midst of the 2016-17 PGA Tour season, there lives a familiar theme/refrain: Will somebody step forward? Soon? Please?

Here’s a look at a handful of top players and their recent form, which isn’t easy to peg. Most have spent the sleepy weeks between the summer Opens on a boat near some exotic island. But we’ll give it our best shot:

  • Dustin Johnson: He spent a few months as golf’s untouchable Goliath, but he hasn’t been the same since tumbling down those stairs in his stocking feet in Augusta. Pre-Masters, Johnson was a beast, winning three consecutive starts. Post-Masters, Johnson has teed it up five times and contended once, at Wells Fargo in his very first tournament after his back injury. The last two tournaments he’s played, he has departed on Friday. This is his ninth Open. He tied for second in 2011, behind Darren Clarke at Royal St. George’s, but since then his Open play has been rather pedestrian. He was right there through 36 holes at St. Andrews two years ago, but when the winds died and weekend conditions got easier, he suddenly went missing.
  • Hideki Matsuyama: Is he ready? A talented player, yes, and he’s coming off his best major showing, tying for second as Brooks Koepka pulled away at Erin Hills. He’s been T-11 or better in four of his last six major starts (including T-11 in this year’s Masters), and if there’s a major a player can win without putting all that great, this is the one. Not in incredible form, but he should be on anyone’s short list.
  • Jordan Spieth: He’s a two-time winner this season, and he’s still 10 days shy of that 24th birthday. Let’s face facts: As long as he continues to get measured against his sizzling 2015 form (five wins, two majors, two other close major calls, 11 total top-3 finishes), he is in for some tough comparisons. He arrives to Royal Birkdale coming off a victory at the Travelers, and any win with today’s global field depths cannot be undervalued. But as good as his ballstriking numbers have been this season, he didn’t exactly strike a resemblance to Hogan down the stretch at Travelers, did he? Of course, he pulled out the triumph – his 10th on Tour – with a Houdini-like dunk from a bunker in a playoff, and that’s what winners do. They find a way to win. You don’t have to bomb it to win at Birkdale (where Ian Baker-Finch, Mark O’Meara and Padraig Harrington are your last three victors), and Spieth’s measured, grind-it-out nature should suit the place fine. Consider him your Open favorite. Or is that favourite?
  • Rory McIlroy: August is around the corner, and McIlroy has played nine tournaments. Nine. (And we consider Steve Stricker a part-timer?) He’s had a lot going on off the course (nagging rib injury, a wedding), but on it, he’s been like an old car motor that just won’t turn over in the winter. He seems eager to get playing and get his season on some sort of roll, but it’s hard to summon a complete game when you simply haven’t played. Rusty at Erin Hills and missed the cut in Ireland and Scotland. On the bright side, there’s this: he’s certainly fresh.
  • Jason Day and Henrik Stenson: We’ll put these two together, as they simply haven’t done much in following up two very strong 2016 campaigns. Day dealt with his mother’s health scare in the spring and that made it difficult to focus on his golf. He had a chance to win at the Nelson (second), but other than that … blah. A dozen starts, just two top 10s. Not the golf one would expect to see from a player who captured eight tournaments in the last two years. This marks his seventh Open start. He was T-4 at St. Andrews in 2015 (a crushing result that sparked him to win his first major a month later, the PGA at Whistling Straits), but other than that, nothing better than T-22. Stenson? He and Mickelson put on a duel for the ages last summer at Troon. Mickelson was brilliant, Stenson even better. But after some good play late in 2016, it’s almost as if the 41-year-old has hit some wall. On a brighter note, his best play this season has come in Europe. Between that and having to bring back the Claret Jug, maybe he’ll get inspired.
  • Sergio Garcia: In his 74th major championship start, the man won a green jacket at Augusta, and somehow in the process shifted gears from a golf villain into the people’s champion. Good for him. It was time. His driving prowess and overall ballstriking should make him a first-pager in every major he plays; it really fits the Open, where great ballstrikers can separate themselves when the conditions get rugged. He never showed himself to be much of a fighter, until Augusta, that is, where he refused to lose. At his favorite major of all, can he collect another, duplicating the late-career double that Mark O’Meara pulled off (Augusta-Birkdale) in 1998? By the way, here are Garcia’s last three Open finishes: T-2 (Hoylake), T-6 (St. Andrews), T-5 (Troon).

Also on our Royal Birkdale short list: Rickie Fowler (for his ballstriking), Jon Rahm (fearless, and has won on both sides of the pond in 2017), Matt Kuchar (enjoys the spirit and atmosphere of the Open) and Branden Grace (solid overall game, and an underrated player). Any of these four also would continue golf’s latest trend of first-time major winners stepping forward. With Brooks Koepka (another solid choice, given that he has some links experience) breaking through at Erin Hills in the U.S. Open, the meter of first-timers is at seven and counting.

Could that list get pushed to eight? In a summer when golf’s top post appears to be very much up for grabs, and no one player is tearing it up, it’s certainly a strong possibility.

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