10. PETER LONARD
WORLD RANK: 30th
WORLDWIDE WINS: 10
Lonard knocks down just about every shot, whether the wind is blowing or not, because that's his game (page 33). He has a short, compact swing that's suited to difficult conditions, and he won three times in Australia last winter on windswept courses. Peter has gone back to a standard-length putter, which surprises me because he's not a great putter. The slower greens at the British, though, will help.
AYE OPENER: He's not going to win at Augusta, but this is the major he can take--if his prayers for wind are answered.
9. TODD HAMILTON
WORLD RANK: 44th
WORLDWIDE WINS: 16
The consummate scrambler. I hope the hybrid club he used in last year's win at Royal Troon works its magic again. Todd's problem is that he works the ball hard left to right off the tee, and all the trouble at the Old Course is on the right. With the course's added length Todd may have to hit driver more often, and in the wind you really need a straighter ball flight than his to keep the ball in play. If he loses shots to the right, it's adios, St. Andrews. That said, besides Troon, he's won a bunch of times in Japan in windy weather, and he won the 2004 Honda Classic in the wind. He developed his game in Texas and has always been a good low-ball hitter. The windier it gets, the more other players miss greens and the more it turns into a chipping contest--Todd's strength.
AYE OPENER: I probably wouldn't place a bet on Todd, but he's the defending champion and, man, he has grit.
8. JUSTIN LEONARD
WORLD RANK: 18th
WORLDWIDE WINS: 10
He's another Texas low-baller, he's won twice this year, and he's the son of Ben Hogan.... All right, I made up that last part, but Justin can absolutely keep a ball out of the wind. He has a shot that's darn near a roller, although he may not be as adept as he'd like to be at working it right and left. He won a fairly windy British Open in '97 at Troon and lost in the playoff (along with Jean Van de Velde) at Carnoustie in '99. British golf is a lot like Texas golf--windy and spare but with the thermostat set a lot lower. Now that he's back to playing Justin Leonard golf, how can you not pick him at the British? When he's playing well, he can handle any course in the British rota.
AYE OPENER: The British Open is full of surprise winners, such as Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton, but a Leonard reprise would be no surprise at all.
7. FRED COUPLES
WORLD RANK: 24th
WORLDWIDE WINS: 20
I'm not kidding. Freddy is still one of the premier ball strikers on Tour. He hits it on the middle of the face every time, which is why he has always been a great wind player. He's been playing well lately and looked as if he were going to win the Memorial. The big question about the British, a tournament he loves, is whether his back will suffer from the long flight over. Plus, if it's 48° and raining sideways, Fred will probably be on a couch in his room at the Old Course Hotel flipping through the four TV channels you can get in Great Britain. I always thought he'd win a British. He's been close--eight top 10s--but no claret jug.
AYE OPENER: Maybe it's only me, but I think Fred has one more major in him. And his winning would play well in St. Andrews. There's not a more popular player in the game.
July 11, 2005
6. MICHAEL CAMPBELL
WORLD RANK: 22nd
WORLDWIDE WINS: 10
Out of respect, I have to give the U.S. Open champion a nod. He drove the ball so well at Pinehurst. I noticed that his misses with the driver were usually to the left--that's no problem at the Old Course. It's a given that anyone from Australia or New Zealand is a good wind player, and British Open golf is similar to what we played at Pinehurst. Michael's short game is very good, and he's a solid iron player. He was the 54-hole leader in the '95 Open at St. Andrews before melting down, but he's a better, more experienced, more confident player now.
AYE OPENER: His only excuse for not contending will be if he's too worn out from celebrating his U.S. Open win.
5. JIM FURYK
WORLD RANK: 8th
WORLDWIDE WINS: 11
Two things I can't believe about Jim Furyk: one, that it took him so long to win after coming back from wrist surgery in 2004; two, that he's missed the cut in the last four British Opens. One of his great strengths is his ability to maneuver the ball in the wind. He'll hold a shot up against the wind or use the wind to his advantage, and he's an extremely accurate driver. His worst score in high wind or heavy rain is going to be better than a lot of other guys' scores. He doesn't swing that hard, so his shots don't get away from him in windy conditions. He's on a roll and is hungry for another win in a major. Like Tiger Woods he's a grinder who is never going to give up no matter what the weather.
AYE OPENER: The Scots would love a winner like Furyk. Compared with the locals who play the game cross-handed, Jimbo's swing looks pretty good.
4. ERNIE ELS
WORLD RANK: 3rd
WORLDWIDE WINS: 56
I can't believe Ernie has won more U.S. Opens (two) than British Opens (one). He's the ideal British Open player--big, strong and immovable in the wind. He's long off the tee, hits soft iron shots and has a great short game. He's close to having run the table at the British, if you think about it--three seconds and a third, plus a fifth and a sixth. He could have won four or five by now. Scotland's wild weather won't faze Ernie. He survived a gale to win at Muirfield in 2002. There's nothing wrong with his game of late--it was only a month or so ago that he got his third European tour victory--yet I wonder if his globe-trotting (page 44) has taken a toll.
AYE OPENER: The game's greatest players have won at St. Andrews. Ernie's name belongs on that list.
3. SERGIO GARCíA
WORLD RANK: 6th
WORLDWIDE WINS: 15
Anybody who succeeds on the European tour is a good foul-weather player since bad weather is pretty much all they have on Mud Island, which is what some players call Great Britain. Sergio can hit low shots as well as anyone. He can hit it under the Swilcan Bridge if he has to. He's finished top 10 in three of the last four British Opens and really showed me something by tying for third at the U.S. Open. I didn't think he could handle Pinehurst's greens. He's almost as long as Tiger, so Sergio, too, can overpower the Old Course. One more factor: He's very popular with the fans in Europe, so if he gets in contention, he'll get a lot of support.
AYE OPENER: Slower greens will put less of a premium on putting, his only flaw. How do you say beware in Spanish?
2. PHIL MICKELSON
WORLD RANK: 4th
WORLDWIDE WINS: 27
Phil used to be a pure high-ball hitter who, frankly, couldn't play in the wind. His British Open record speaks for itself. Until last year, when he missed the Hamilton-Els playoff by a shot, he had only one top 20 in 12 tries. But since Phil revamped his game, he's been a changed man. He hits knockdown shots and controls his ball flight. Lefty's problem has been missing shots to the left. Guess what? You can play out of leftfield at St. Andrews. I hope Phil doesn't spend endless hours trying to "science out" the course. I think it's a waste of time. He should show up on Tuesday night, play a practice round on Wednesday and tee it up on Thursday feeling fresh.
AYE OPENER: British Opens are all about imagination--Phil's specialty. The Old Course is the perfect spot for him to become the Best Player to Have Won Only Two Majors.
And the winner is ...
1. TIGER WOODS
WORLD RANK: 1st
WORLDWIDE WINS: 51
I'm going way out on a limb to make a shocking pick: Tiger Woods will win the British Open. It's obvious that Tiger is on an upswing and is widening the gap between himself and the rest of us. It's like what John Cook said going into the U.S. Open: "If Tiger is playing well, there is no Fab Four or Big Five, simply a Big One." I wasn't sure Hank Haney and that flatter-style swing were right for Tiger, but Tiger's play has convinced me. I don't see him rehearsing the preswing moves as much, and he looked awfully at ease down the stretch at Pinehurst. The month between the Opens should only make him better. Don't be fooled by the blizzard at Muirfield that ruined his Grand Slam run in 2002, Tiger is a great foul-weather player. He's the best player in the world in any weather because he has more shots--by far--than anybody else. He can flight it low, he can flight it high. He's very creative in the wind. I think he actually likes playing in bad conditions because they challenge him, something the Old Course didn't do in 2000, when he dominated the course with his length and never hit a single bunker. They've lengthened the course a little, but Tiger has lengthened his tee shots a lot. Plus, Tiger has won every time Jack Nicklaus has made a farewell appearance: at the Masters this year, at the 2000 U.S. Open and at the 2000 PGA. This is Jack's last British Open. It's St. Andrews. It's history. The champion golfer of the year has to be someone big. Like Tiger.
AYE OPENER: It looks as if Michael Campbell will go down as the Slam stopper of 2005. Tiger is going to win the PGA too.