We bring you Damien Kayat's comprehensive 2021 Open Championship preview which is taking place at Royal St George's.
2021 European Tour
The 149th Open Championship
Royal St George’s, Sandwich, Kent, England
The Open Championship is my single favourite sporting event. There’s a primal beauty in the rugged landscapes of links golf that speaks to me. It’s so far removed from the pristine, mollycoddled target golf that we traditionally see on the PGA Tour (US Open excluded). I think that’s at the heart of links golf. It temporarily confronts these pampered millionaires with something brutish and remorseless. Perhaps it appeals to some sadistic impulse in me, one that enjoys seeing these players negotiate severe pot bunkers. We got a tiny glimmer of that in the recently completed Scottish Open, though the weather only really started to wreak havoc towards the end of the 4th round. This week’s test will be far more exacting, with Royal St George’s widely considered as one of the most severe tests in links golf. Forgive me for a slight non-sequitur, but this event could provide the perfect tonic for English sporting enthusiasts. They are obviously still reeling from the collective trauma caused by that penalty shoot-out defeat to Italy on Sunday. But I digress.
The Open Championship returns following its 2020 Covid hiatus, marking the 149th edition of this glorious event. Shane Lowry may be loath to part with the Claret Jug after holding it for two years. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (which sounds like some cabal in a Sherlock Holmes novel) will once again be organizing proceedings. I think that the decision to shift this event to the end of the Major calendar was an ingenious one. It really feels like the cumulative moment in the golfing calendar (notwithstanding this year’s Olympic games). Royal St Georges was the venue for the very first open hosted on English soil in 1894. After St Andrews, Royal St Georges has hosted more Open Championships than any other course on the Open rota. It hosted its first Open in 1894 and went on to host the event a further eight times over the next 50 years. There have been a host of magnificent champions at Royal St Georges, ranging from Gary Player to Greg Norman. But the last two champions here were far more offbeat, with the unheralded Ben Curtis and sentimental favourite Darren Clarke capturing the 2003 and 2011 titles respectively.
This course has certainly had its detractors over the years (it became slightly maligned following the end of the second world war). The famously tall sand dunes necessitate many blind fairways shots. Additionally, these greens Fescue/Bentgrass green complexes are far more undulating than your average links fair. Multiple renovations have sought to make this a more appealing layout. Mackenzie and Ebert have overseen two recent renovations, attempting to level out some of the undulations. Still, in 2011 less than 50% of tee shots found the fairways here. This is despite the fact that the fairways are generally quite wide at Royal St George’s. The most treacherous holes are traditionally the 1st, 17th and 18th. Players will just have to make peace with that. Perhaps the key stat this week will be GIR, as all the players will be in trouble off the tee on occasion. Many of the greens are extremely narrow in width. Golfers will need to be surgical with their irons, especially with some of the psychotic run-off areas. The weather prediction seems fairly calm at this point, though sudden squalls are known to baffle the meteorologists from time to time.
Jon Rahm will enter as the clear favourite following his victory at Torrey Pines. Though he doesn’t possess extraordinary Open Championship form, Rahm is a noted links player. He just had a top 10 finish at the Scottish Open despite playing quite poorly. Honestly, I barely saw him make a putt on the weekend. He was consistently under-clubbing or over-clubbing. Yet he was still right in the mix. Rory McIlroy has been in poor form coming into this Open Championship. He also missed the cut at Royal Portrush last time out. But his Open form is quite impressive outside of that, with form figures that read 5-4-2 prior to Portrush. Justin Thomas looked in great form at the Renaissance while Bryson DeChamebeau will be looking to bludgeon his way around Royal St George’s (I wonder how that will pan out for him). Dustin Johnson will be looking to win his 3rd Major Championship despite some poor recent form. And many will chart the progress of Brooks Koepka this week. The major specialist finished 2nd at this year’s US PGA Championship and 4th the US Open. He has a top 5 Open Championship finish and I’m sure we will be a fixture on this year’s leaderboards.
2020: event cancelled
2019: Shane Lowry (-15)
2018: Francesco Molinari (-8)
2017: Jordan Spieth (-12)
2016: Henrik Stenson (-20)
2015: Zach Johnson (-15) *playoff
2014: Rory McIlroy (-17)
To Win Outright:
Jon Rahm 8/1
Rory McIlroy 18/1
Brooks Koepka 18/1
Justin Thomas 18/1
Xander Schauffele 18/1
Collin Morikawa: To Win 35/1 | To Place 15/1
This one is slightly counterintuitive. Morikawa will be playing in his first-ever Open Championship (which isn’t traditionally a recipe for success here). He also struggled over the weekend in Scotland, plummeting to near the bottom of the leaderboard. But Louis Oosthuizen missed the cut at Loch Lomond before going on to win the 2010 Open Championship. Morikawa is already a Major champion, winning the US PGA Championship last year. He has since developed a reputation as a big-game player. He won the WGC Workday Championship earlier this year. And his form prior to the Scottish Open was exceptional, with figures that read T4-2-T14-T8-T7-T18. That included a tie for 4th at the US Open. The reason I like Morikawa this week is his iron play. Honestly, he is one of the best iron players I have ever seen. That should come in handy on these tight approaches.
Stewart Cink: To Win 125/1 | To Place 25/1
Stewart Cink is a past Open Championship winner, claiming the 2009 title at Turnberry. He memorably birdied the final hole while five-time Champion Tom Watson bogeyed it, which sent the tournament to a playoff. That being said, Cink has only registered one top 20 finish since that terrific performance. But Cink has experienced a career renaissance this season. He won his first title since Turnberry at the 2020 Safeway Open. Cink then won the RBC Heritage earlier this year. He has made 20 out of 20 cuts this season and he is probably playing some of the best golf of his career. He will have the temperament to manage the links conditions. It may be a stretch for him to emulate Phil Mickelson’s performance at Kiawah, but I think that Cink is worth some value in the place markets.
The Man to Beat: Brooks Koepka: To Win 18/1 | To Place 39/10
Koepka just makes far more sense than Rahm in this market. Rahm’s odds have really tumbled over the past two weeks. Koepka is simply the man to beat in this theatre of Major Championship golf. Listen to this. He is 84-under par since 2016 in Major Championship golf, over 60 strokes better off than 2nd placed Dustin Johnson. That’s astonishing. It’s also easy to forget that he has been recovering from a pretty serious knee injury. That’s the reason he missed that cut at Augusta. But he is starting to purr. Three of his last four finishes have been top 5’s. That includes two top 4 finishes in the Major Championships. He also has encouraging Open form. He has three top 10 finishes in six Open Championship appearances. He is the one to beat for me.
Nationality of Winner: An American to win at 12/10
The market is somehow backing a European to win this year’s Open Championship at 1/1. I supposed that’s got something to do with Rahm’s brilliance. But I honestly think there are only a handful of European golfers who can possibly lift this title. There are about 15 Americans I could envisage winning this year’s Open. Just look at my picks. I do have a strong American feeling this week. They may have only won one of this year’s Majors Championships (Mickelson won the US PGA Championship at Kiawah). But they have really dominated Major Championship golf for some time now.