| The Open Cham­pi­onship Pre­view

Hav­ing made its Open Cham­pi­onship de­but in 1954, and as it pre­pares this month for its 10th stag­ing of the world’s old­est ‘Ma­jor,’ Royal Birk­dale on the West Coast of Eng­land has the rep­u­ta­tion for serv­ing up in­trigu­ing and in­ter­est­ing as op­posed to epic

HK Golfer - - Contents - By Mike Wil­son

Who­ever lifts the Claret Jug come Sun­day 23rd July will know he has been in a heavy­weight ti­tle fight against the course, the ele­ments and the finest line-up of golfers the world can presently pro­vide.

In terms of his­tory, Royal Birk­dale is right up there: its first man­i­fes­ta­tion was a nine-hole lay­out, which opened 128 years ago. The course in its present form, 18 holes and 6,817-yards, Par-72 opened in Septem­ber 1894 and has since hosted all the great events in golf, in­clud­ing the 1965 and 1969 Ry­der Cup and this, a 10th Open Cham­pi­onship.

Ac­corded the ‘Royal’ pre­fix in 1951 by King Ge­orge VI, three years later, the Lan­cashire course was host­ing none other than the Open Cham­pi­onship, its iconic art deco club­house wel­com­ing some of the finest play­ers in the world.

The leg­endary Aus­tralian Peter Thom­son won the in­au­gu­ral event at Birk­dale, the first of three Claret Jugs in-a-row, a fourth fol­low­ing in 1958 at nearby Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Thom­son re­turned to Birk­dale to take the ti­tle again in 1965, two of his five, ‘Ma­jors’, won over the same sea­side course.

Royal Birk­dale was back in Open ac­tion in 1961 when Arnold Palmer, a.k.a. ‘The King,’ the man cred­ited with sav­ing what had be­come an ail­ing event, crossed the At­lantic to lift the Claret Jug at just the se­cond time of ask­ing, hav­ing fin­ished run­ner-up on de­but at St. An­drews and go­ing on to suc­cess­fully de­fend at Royal Troon the fol­low­ing year.

Royal Birk­dale en­joyed the hon­our of host­ing the 100th stag­ing Open Cham­pi­onship, in 1961 when ‘Su­per Mex,’ Lee Trevino took the course apart in fa­vor­able con­di­tions be­fore go­ing on to con­tinue the

theme of launch­ing a suc­cess­ful de­fence at Muir­field in 1962.

The ‘Blonde Bomb­shell,’ Amer­i­can Johnny Miller, who has be­come one of the tele­vised golf’s most re­spected pun­dits won the Open at Birk­dale in 1976, but there was no suc­cess­ful de­fence, Tom Wat­son edg­ing out Jack Nick­laus the fol­low­ing year at Turn­berry in the epic ‘Duel in the Sun.’

Wat­son him­self was to suc­cess­fully de­fend his 1982 vic­tory at Royal Troon with vic­tory at Royal Birk­dale the fol­low­ing year, while Thom­son’s com­pa­triot Ian Baker-Finch was to lift the Claret Jug at the Lan­cashire Links in 1991.

Amer­i­can Mark O’Meara won the 1998 Open Cham­pi­onship at Birk­dale, the only one of the nine cham­pi­onships held there to date to re­quire a play-off, be­fore, a decade later, Ir­ish­man Pádraig Har­ring­ton came to Royal Birk­dale to de­fend the ti­tle he had won the pre­vi­ous year in a dra­matic play­off against Ser­gio Gar­cía at Carnoustie.

If Har­ring­ton’s vic­tory was mem­o­rable, the ge­nial Ir­ish­man whose ami­a­bil­ity dis­guises a fierce will-to-win, say­ing after­wards with Claret Jug in hand, “I had a great year as the Open cham­pion, so much so I did not want to give it back.” Then the shot that clinched it for him was truly mo­men­tous, a low cut­ting five-wood to within three-feet on the 575yard, Par-5, 17th, putt holed, ea­gle three, the job was done.

Play­ing with an in­jured wrist, with Ry­der Cup team­mate Ian Poul­ter on the charge, and his play­ing part­ner, the leg­endary Greg Nor­man was also in se­ri­ous con­tention. Har­ring­ton was un­der pres­sure with a capri­cious wind blow­ing on the tough­est hole on the golf course. If there has been a bet­ter sin­gle shot in the his­tory of ‘Ma­jor’ golf, I’ve to see it.

But, can Har­ring­ton turn back the clock and win a third Open Cham­pi­onship, and a se­cond at Birk­dale this year?

Prob­a­bly not, as he is show­ing few signs of form, but re­turn­ing to the scene of an epic

But, can Har­ring­ton turn back the clock and win a third Open Cham­pi­onship, and a se­cond at Birk­dale this year?

vic­tory can of­ten spur a player on to great things - at 165th on the OWGR, 45-years-ofage, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

His com­pa­tri­ots, no­tably Rory McIl­roy and Shane Lowry look bet­ter equipped than the man with three ‘Ma­jor’ ti­tles al­ready to his name, al­though McIl­roy now needs an­other Open Cham­pi­onship more than the Open needs him to win it, es­pe­cially fol­low­ing his ca­pit­u­la­tion at the U.S. Open least month.

Don’t ex­pect one of those PGA Tour high­ball-flight, ‘tar­get golf’ play­ers to pre­vail at Birk­dale this month, es­pe­cially if the wind blows, which it al­most al­ways does.

The 2017 cham­pion will be a man who can keep his golf ball - and his emo­tions - un­der con­trol and play per­cent­age golf un­der pres­sure for four long days, over a golf course which is ex­actly what it says, ‘A de­mand­ing, strate­gic cham­pi­onship links course where what you see is what you get, thick rough, nar­row fair­ways, 100plus deep bunkers best avoided at all costs, test­ing each and ev­ery club in the bag, and, es­pe­cially, the put­ter.’

Do ex­pect a Euro­pean vic­tory at this, the 146th Open Cham­pi­onship. Swede Hen­rik Sten­son look­ing to re­peat the backto-back tra­di­tions of Royal Birk­dale, his in­form com­pa­triot Alex Norén look­ing equally im­pres­sive, as is Bel­gian young­ster Thomas Pi­eters, were he to win would be­come the first Bel­gian ever to hold the Claret Jug.

World num­ber-one Dustin John­son cer­tainly has the power to overwhelm the Birk­dale links. But few will for­get him carv­ing a straight­for­ward ap­proach to the green out-of-bounds on the back nine of the fi­nal day at Royal St. Ge­orge’s in 2011, or his slug­gish re­cent sur­ren­der to Erin Hills in the U.S. Open, a course tai­lor-made to his game.

Ser­gio Gar­cía, a man now un­bur­dened by the ep­i­thet of, ‘The best golfer never to win a ‘Ma­jor.’ A player with ten top-10 fin­ishes in the Cham­pi­onship knows now he can con­vert con­tend­ing into win­ning. His young com­pa­triot, Jon Rahm, in the form of his life prob­a­bly too in­ex­pe­ri­enced to fol­low in the foot­steps of the man he is of­ten com­pared to, the late, great Seve Balles­teros.

If there were to be a ‘Home’ win­ner from the UK, there would be none more pop­u­lar than Lee West­wood, the man who has in­her­ited Gar­cía’s most un­wanted moniker five top-10s, in­clud­ing run­ner-up in 2010, in 22 suc­ces­sive at­tempts at clinch­ing a Claret Jug few would be­grudge him.

But to un­mask the man who could win the 146th Open Cham­pi­onship, I sug­gest turn­ing the clock back 19 years - yes, 19 years - and the 1998 Open Cham­pi­onship at Royal Birk­dale.

Justin Rose, then a cal­low 17-year-old ama­teur, burst to world­wide promi­nence at 1998 Open Cham­pi­onship at Royal Birk­dale. He holed a dra­matic shot from the rough from about 50 yards for birdie on the 18th hole, to fin­ish in a tie for fourth - still his high­est fin­ish - and win the Sil­ver Medal as lead­ing ama­teur by a coun­try mile.

The fol­low­ing day he turned pro­fes­sional, miss­ing his first 21 suc­ces­sive cuts, be­fore res­ur­rect­ing his ca­reer with 19 pro­fes­sional wins, in­clud­ing the 2013 U.S. Open; the reign­ing Olympic cham­pion is just the sort of player to pot­ter and plug away around Birk­dale, in­con­spic­u­ous un­til the back nine on Sun­day, keeping out of trou­ble. And he knows how and when to ap­ply the rapier-like killer blow.

As for the Asian hopes, once again, they rest first-and-fore­most with young Ja­panese star Hideki Mat­suyama. Royal Birk­dale will be his fifth Open Cham­pi­onship, fin­ish­ing in a tie for sixth on de­but in 2016, but don’t ex­pect the Claret Jug to be head­ing on a trip to Asia this year.

Justin Rose, then a cal­low 17-year-old ama­teur, burst to world­wide promi­nence at 1998 Open Cham­pi­onship at Royal Birk­dale.

‘A de­mand­ing, strate­gic cham­pi­onship links course where what you see is what you get, thick rough, nar­row fair­ways, 100-plus deep bunkers best avoided at all costs, test­ing each and ev­ery club in the bag, and, es­pe­cially, the put­ter.’ – Royal Birk­dale

Justin Rose, the reign­ing Olympic cham­pion, is just the sort of player to pot­ter and plug away around Birk­dale

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