This week the British Open returns to Royal St. George's in South England for the 15th time. To get you ready, we've once again assembled a panel of veteran golf writers and golf gambling experts to handicap the week ahead. Joining this edition: Rotowire’s Len Hochberg and Greg Vara, Morning Read editorial director Jeff Ritter, and contributors Mike Purkey and Gary Van Sickle. On to the questions:
The 2021 British Open is here, and one of the early stories involves the challenges around travel and safety, as players and members of their inner circles will be required to stay out of restaurants and bunk in sanctioned hotels or privately catered homes. Some players have publicly griped about it. Will these off-course challenges affect the on-course competition? And if so, how?
Gary Van Sickle, Morning Read: I don't think so, unless one famous player decides the restrictions are a bunch of nonsense, dines out in a public restaurant with a non-secured buddy and the R&A takes drastic action, like disqualification. Yanking a contender mid-tourney for dining out is not much different than the Jon Rahm melodrama from the Memorial Tournament. I don't know if that would happen or could happen, but yes, that would affect the Open's outcome.
Greg Vara, Rotowire: It’ll only affect the players who don’t play well. I joke, but there’s some truth in there, as those who don’t play well this week have a built-in excuse at the ready. This feels like much ado about nothing. Is this a business trip or a vacation? I realize these guys are human, but come on, it’s not like they’re being forced to sleep in tents on the grounds of Royal St. George’s and eat MRE’s all week. All the inconveniences will fade away for anyone who gets off to a good start.
Jeff Ritter, Morning Read: I don't think it'll have a tangible impact on the action, but it's possible a few players fail to get in sync off the course, which affects their on-course performance. Which players? It's hard to know, but broadly it'll likely be Americans who struggle to change their routines and feel added stress from the travel challenges.
Mike Purkey, Morning Read: At the end of the day, the pros are in England to play in a major championship, not to visit the country’s restaurants. They are all too familiar with COVID restrictions because they had to abide by the PGA Tour’s requirements when the Tour reopened last summer. One more week of restrictions certainly won’t hurt them.
Len Hochberg, Rotowire: They absolutely will affect SOME of the golfers. These guys get to control just about every iota of their lives except their tee times; they all have a preferred routine. That will change this week. It's easy to see a guy like DJ or Brooks not caring. It's also easy to see a guy like Bryson being bothered. (By the way, have the tennis players at Wimbledon been griping? That's a rhetorical question.)
Royal St. George’s isn’t typically ranked among the great courses in the British rota, and it has an eclectic mix of past champions from its previous 14 Opens, including all-time greats Walter Hagen and Henry Cotton, and out-of-nowhere winners like Ben Curtis and Bill Rogers. Darren Clarke won the last St. George’s Open at age 42. What type of player can you see doing well at this course, and what player profile could struggle?
Purkey: Royal St. George’s is not on the regular Open rota; this will be the English club’s 15th British Open. It’s quirky, with some blind shots. Past winners are known for their straight driving and that will be a necessity this year. Bombers beware, stray from the fairways and you’re buying a load of trouble.
Hochberg: The big factor this week is that's it's true links golf. It can be a great equalizer, unfamiliar to so many Americans and even internationals. We've seen in the past that length is important at Royal St. George's. But so are short-game skills and imagination — the golfers will be hitting shots they never hit in the States and very rarely hit anywhere. A guy with great touch on and around the greens will do better than pure long hitters.
Vara: When Curtis won in 2003, I remember thinking how quirky the course was. A golfer would hit what looked like a great shot, only to have it land on an oddly placed mound and bounce 40 yards offline. The opposite was true as well, poor shots, which had no business ending up in a good spot, ended up two feet from the hole. The type that will do well this week is one that can handle bad breaks and move forward. Anyone that is questionable between the ears need not apply, as it’s going to be maddening at times.
Van Sickle: The weather and the conditions will determine who will contend. I'd say RSG has gotten a slightly bum rap. Ben Curtis was a birdie machine when he was on, which wasn't all that often. Bill Rogers had a short peak but at his best, he was No. 1-in-the-world material as a ballstriker. Clarke was the biggest surprise of the three, given his career before RSG. I forget which marquee player said RSG was the only links course that played better when it was wet than when it was soft. Due to the wacky humps and bumps in the fairways, perfectly good tee shots can end up in jail and poor shots can find the fairway, so skill is lessened. That's a fair criticism and it makes RSG a fun course for tourists but maybe not the best way to find golf's Champion Golfer of the Year. The winner will be a tactician who has control over his driver to avoid deep fairway bunkers and is a solid ball-striker with the irons. This Open will be less of a putting contest than the average PGA Tour stop.
Ritter: In 2011, Clarke fended off Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to win by three. Thomas Bjorn, Rickie Fowler and (sigh) Anthony Kim also factored that Sunday afternoon. Add it up, and you see how power players can factor, but big tee shots aren't a decisive, end-all, be-all edge. I like a savvy, course-manager type with a creative short game and steely nerves to handle the pressure and ride the wave of good and bad breaks. As luck would have it, I have someone in mind, and that answer is coming shortly.
Give us one sleeper, odds 60-1 or longer, that you think will be a factor on Sunday afternoon?
Van Sickle: Call it a hunch but Rickie Fowler (80-1) is slowly creeping back into form. You need someone who hits it straight, putts well, has already won a major and has a win in the last year? There's Stewart Cink, 150-1.
Vara: He’s 60-1 currently and likely to move lower, but Sergio Garcia looks to be a contender this week. He played well here in 2011 (T9) and he’s posted top-20s in his two most recent starts on the PGA Tour. The challenge for Garcia will be the mental side, as he’s come very close to capturing the Claret Jug on several occasions only to fall short. If he were to get within range again, he’d have to somehow forget his past failures. Perhaps a come-from-behind victory would be the best path to his second major title.
Purkey: Lee Westwood (60-1) is an Englishman and perhaps the best player in the world without a major title. Yes, he’s 48 years old, but Darren Clarke won the last Open at St. George’s in 2011 at age 42. And it was Clarke’s first major. Serendipity?
Len Hochberg: Rickie Fowler. The fact that he's only 60-1 (on golfodds.com) might be surprising to some. You can argue that the only way he even got into the field was by finishing tied for sixth two years ago. But he was sixth two years ago and has traditionally played the British well — 10 starts, nine made cuts, five top-25s, three top-10s. And he's been better recently — top-10 at the PGA, 11th at the Memorial — than at any point in the past year-plus.
Ritter: Joaquin Niemann is currently 60-1, and has quietly had a nice year. He's already won on Tour, and he recently lost a sudden-death playoff at the Rocket Mortgage. He's still only 22 years old, and his time is coming. It could be this week. My next choice would be Fowler at 80-1 — agree with Van Sickle and Hochberg that Rickie is quietly finding his form, and the British has been a good major for him.
Which of the favorites, with odds 30-1 or lower, are you fading this week and why?
Hochberg: Collin Morikawa is 30-1. A little hard to believe, but a golfer who is in the top five in the world rankings has yet to play in an Open Championship. As good as Morikawa is in so many ways, links golf is hard to figure out without experience. He'll be hitting shots from unfamiliar positions and angles. And he'll have to make a bunch of putts, which is always dicey for him.
Vara: Jon Rahm. I picked him to win the U.S. Open, so it’s not as if this is personal, but this is a tough spot for him. He’s coming off his first major win and while I don’t expect him to fall flat on his face, it would be understandable if he’s still in celebration mode. Also, I mentioned the type of temperament needed to win on this course and while I think Rahm has improved in that area, I don’t think he’s mastered the art of letting bad breaks slide off his back.
Purkey: Bryson DeChambeau (20-1) will have a hard time contending in this Open by utilizing his strategy of hitting drivers as hard as he can. Remember what happened on the final nine of the U.S. Open.
Ritter: I'm also off Bryson this week. St. George's doesn't profile as a track that can simply be bludgeoned, and I think there's just too much going on with him right now, caddie split, etc. I see other favorites in that range who look more appealing.
Van Sickle: I still don't think Rory McIlroy has his game or his head together. Also, it's hard to picture a high-ball hitter such as Bryson DeChambeau ever handling windy Open conditions.
There can only be one: who wins the 2021 British Open and why?
Vara: Louis Oosthuizen. His Open Championship record is a little scattered, but he does have one win and a runner-up at this event. He’s proven capable of closing out a major and he doesn’t crumble often while in contention, so this looks like the perfect spot. I also like his demeanor for this course, he doesn’t seem to get too high or too low, which will be important on a course like this where everyone is bound to catch a bad break or two.
Ritter: This Open will be won by a tactician who can quickly forget bad breaks and capitalize when the humps and bumps allow for it. Golf's greatest grinder happens to be in top form and ready to cap an exciting, comeback season. Jordan Spieth wins career major No. 4.
Van Sickle: Jon Rahm has established himself as the planet's best golfer and he's among the few top players actually playing his best golf right now. It's a drag going with the chalk, but sometimes you can't ignore the obvious. Rahm is the man to beat.
Hochberg: I'll be honest, I am really struggling with this one. Links golf brings more guys into play, more wild cards, more variables. So I'm going with a constant: This is probably Brooks Koepka's weakest major but weak is a relative term. He tied for fourth last time at Royal Portrush. He was also top-5 recently at the PGA and U.S. Open. He's been top-10 in more than HALF his career majors. I think he'll be able to block out the outside influences better than just about anyone else in the field. No matter the course, no matter the circumstances, Koepka is in the conversation more than anyone else.
Purkey: If Phil Mickelson can win a major at age 50, Westwood can win at St. George’s. It’s simply in the stars.
More Morning Read Coverage of 2021 British Open:
- Unfazed Bryson DeChambeau Turns Page on Caddie Saga
- Bettors' Roundtable: Favorites, Sleepers, Best Bets from Pool of Experts
- No Course Embraces Quirks Quite Like Royal St. George's'
- Shane Lowry Can Make Rare History This Week
- The Perfect Venue to Cap 2021 Major Season? It's Royal St. George's
- Americans Need to Man Up an Deal With British Open Travel Protocols
- Elements of Style: What Pros Will Wear This Week at British Open
- Gary Player Says St. George's is Easiest of Open Venues