It’s the culmination of men’s major season this week and the feeling of excitement couldn’t be higher after Rory McIlroy’s sensational victory in the Scottish Open yesterday.
Trailing home favourite, Robert MacIntyre by a shot – who had earlier set the clubhouse target of -14 with an incredible birdie at the last, hitting his approach from thick rough to 3 ½ ft – McIlroy proceeded to birdie the difficult final two holes in windy conditions, finishing with an almost equally magnificent approach to the final hole to around 10ft. He duly holed the putt and denied the extremely likeable Scot what would’ve been an incredibly popular and career-changing victory at home in heartbreaking fashion.
McIlroy now returns to the scene of his one-and-only Open Championship victory, as we head to Royal Liverpool Golf Club (Hoylake to most) for our final major of the year.
Dating back to 1860, The Open Championship is the oldest golf tournament in the world and to many, the Claret Jug – first awarded to the winner in 1872 – is the most desired trophy in the sport.
Willie Park Sr. won the inaugural edition at Prestwick Golf Club – host of the first twelve editions of The Open – in a field of just eight players. The field sizes grew gradually over the next few decades, with the 1901 edition at Muirfield the first time the event welcomed a field of 100 or more players.
That event was won by Scotland’s James Braid, who is one of four players to have recorded five victories (1901, 1905, 1906, 1908, 1910) in this historic championship. He is joined by England’s J.H. Taylor (1894, 1895, 1900, 1909, 1913), Peter Thomson of Australia (1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1965) and Tom Watson (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983).
Watson was memorably denied what would’ve been a record-equalling sixth title in 2009 by fellow American, Stewart Cink at Turnberry in a playoff. A win that would’ve also made him the oldest major winner in history at 59-year-old.
That defeat for Watson meant that Harry Vardon’s over 100-year record of six wins (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911, 1914) in The Open is still intact and will likely stand for many more years to come.
The list of other star winners in this storied event are endless. The group of three-time winners of The Open is particularly special, boasting the names of: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros and Sir Nick Faldo. While the likes of Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els have been named ‘Champion Golfer of The Year’ on two occasions.
Last year saw Cameron Smith add his name to this illustrious trophy at St Andrews; his winning score of -20 tying the previous lowest winning score in The Open – which was set by Henrik Stenson in his fabulous battle with Phil Mickelson in 2016 at Royal Troon – and enough for him to see off fellow Cameron, Young, by a stroke.
The Aussie returns to defend this week at Hoylake, aiming to become the latest in a long line of players to retain the Claret Jug and the first since Padraig Harrington in 2008.
Hoylake’s Open Championship History
The Open Championship is always played on traditional, coastal links courses – considered to be the most authentic form of golf – and this will be the thirteenth time that Hoylake has hosted this famed event.
Previous Open Championships at Hoylake and their winners:
1897 – Harold Hilton
1902 – Sandy Herd
1907 – Arnaud Massy
1913 – J.H. Taylor
1924 – Walter Hagen
1930 – Bobby Jones
1936 – Alf Padgham
1947 – Fred Daly
1956 – Peter Thomson
1967 – Roberto De Vicenzo
2006 – Tiger Woods
2014 – Rory McIlroy
The Open Championship spent the first 33 years of its existence in the home of golf, in Scotland. After venturing into England for the first time at Royal St George’s Golf Club in 1894, Hoylake became the second English host of The Open in 1897, where local born amateur, Harold Hilton won the title for the second time, beating would be five-time winner James Braid by a stroke.
The tournament would return regularly to Hoylake over the following decades, seeing legendary figures such as Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones adorn their names on the trophy.
However, after Argentinian, Roberto De Vicenzo’s win in 1967, it would be 39 years until Hoylake would once again host the event.
This wait was well worthwhile, as in 2006, Tiger Woods won his third Open Championship; a year after taking his second at St Andrews. Then eight years following that, Royal Liverpool was the stage for the first – and as yet – only Claret Jug for Rory McIlroy, as he recorded a sensational wire-to-wire victory.
Rory returns to the scene of that victory in 2014 with a good slice of positivity after his win in Scotland yesterday, though he – and others who’ve played here before, both in this event and in the various amateur events staged here – will find a slightly different course to last time, but one which should provide very much the same test.
How will it play?
Hoylake was originally designed by George Morris (brother of golfing pioneer, Old Tom Morris) and opened for play in 1869, making it one of the oldest seaside links courses in England.
Harry Colt made further renovations to the course in the 1910’s, with constant tweaking and altering taking place over the subsequent years, often in getting the course ready for the latest batch of pros to tackle it in an Open Championship. This has again been the case heading into this year.
The course was previously lengthened to 7312 yards ahead of the 2014 edition and played as a par 72. This year, it will play as a par 71 for the first time since 1956 – with the previous par 5 10th shortened slightly and turned into a lengthy 500+ yard par 4 – and will play to a longest yet, 7383 yards.
Though the majority of the first 14 holes stay largely the same – aside from green/greenside changes on 4, 7 and 13 – there are some more significant changes towards the end of the 18.
The previous par 3 15th has been done away with and replaced with a new, shorter, 136-yard par 3 that possesses one of the smallest greens on the course. However the routing over these final holes is different, with said new par 3 coming in as hole #17; the par 5 16th and par 4 17th moved one up the order, becoming the 15th and 16th holes.
In addition to this, both of the par 5s over those closing holes have been significantly lengthened, with the 15th playing over 40 yards longer, now at 620 yards and the closing 18th almost 60 yards longer, increasing from 551 yards to 609.
Despite these changes, there is no real expectation that the course will play a whole lot differently. For all the winning score may be a touch higher due to that one less par 5.
One of the key features of links courses is the exposure to wind and Hoylake may be just about as exposed as any. Barring the six holes in the dunes (9-14), which play closest to the shore, the rest of the course is flat and relatively featureless. With more interesting routing than a simple out and in setup, this makes ever-changing wind directions difficult to judge and will be when the course is at its most challenging.
Hoylake’s typically firm and undulating links fairways are pretty narrow in places – particularly on the front 9 – and with many doglegs, there are holes on which to be more thoughtful off-the-tee. They’re protected by strategically placed and penal pot bunkers, along with thick fescue rough; whilst there is plenty of gorse dotted around the course, usually resulting in an instant penalty should you find it.
It is worth noting that whilst there were plenty of images doing the rounds a few weeks ago, showing these fairways to already be browning and looking ultra fiery, there has been swathes of rain in the area in recent weeks and with it forecast to continue for much of this week – although only light in parts – a little fire may be taken out of the course.
This includes the predominantly large and undulating greens. However they’ll still be far from easy, with tightly-mown run-offs around many leading into deep bunkers, as well as the swales and hollows that you’d expect to find greenside on this type of course.
The par 3s look particularly challenging here, with three at over 200 yards and possessing some of the smallest greens on the course. All are well protected, none more so than the new 17th, which though short, has sandy areas front and back, with deep bunkers either side. As one of the smallest greens on the course we may see anything from a hole-in-one to bogey+ throughout the week.
The par 4s aren’t super long and in receptive conditions, players may feel they’re capable of attacking. No doubt the conversion of the 10th from a par 5 will makes these holes a little more demanding but with most around the 450 yard mark, they’re not too threatening.
The lengthening of those two late par 5s (holes 15 and 18) will turn them into three-shotters for many in the field, particularly if the wind doesn’t cooperate. In addition to this is the 520-yard 5th, which though looking like a gimme on paper, possesses one of the tightest fairways around Hoylake; with unplayable gorse to the left and pot bunkers to the right, it’s a tough driving hole and the large sloped green won’t be short on three-putts this week.
As we’ve seen with the two winning scores since Hoylake returned to the Open Championship rota in 2006 – with Tiger Woods’ winning score of -18 in ’06 and Rory McIlroy shooting -17 to win in 2014 – Hoylake relies mostly on the conditions to make this place substantially challenging. With those aforementioned rains and nothing too troublesome in the forecast currently in terms of wind until Sunday, I’d expect reasonably low scoring, over the first three days at least.
- SG: Off-the-Tee
- Driving Distance
- SG: Approach
- SG: Putting
- Par 5 Scoring
I look at Hoylake and it screams strong, long drivers of the ball to me, something which was very much evidenced here in 2014. Where we find a top 3 of Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia; all players who drive the ball well and far.
Such players are best equipped to handle the driving test here, which, with its many narrow, well-protected fairways, coupled with the newfound length the course will play to this year, will see those able to use controlled power gain the upper hand.
I often favour the short game over ball-striking at The Open but I feel a little different about that this week, especially if the course is a little more receptive than ideal. Getting your ball in-play off-the-tee will then enable you to work your magic into these largely generous sized greens that shouldn’t be too challenging to hit if the wind stays away.
This isn’t to say I will ignore the short-game this week, it is a major championship after all, let alone an Open Championship and in 2014, Hoylake possessed some of the toughest scrambling stats anywhere that year. Those with strong scrambling and putting stats will make certain appeal to try and get the best handle on those who putt well from off the green – something of which there will be countless opportunities to do so this week.
Finally, with two par 5s coming over the closing four holes, these holes will prove extra decisive in deciding the fate of the event. It’s another area where that top 3 from 2014 – particularly McIlroy and Fowler – excelled in that year.
Open Championship Form Trends
- Strong lead-in form has been vital for most of the last ten Open Championship winners. Nine of those winners had recorded a top 10 in their three starts prior to winning the Claret Jug; seven had recorded a top 3; whilst four had a win.
- That four recent wins stat was part of a stronger profile for winners that year as a whole, as eight of the last ten winners had won an event that year before heading to The Open.
- A previous top 10 in The Open had looked very important, with eight of the last ten winners doing so. The last two years have bucked this trend slightly, as Cameron Smith only had a best of 20th before winning last year, whilst Collin Morikawa was playing in his first Open in 2021.
- However, excellent major form is imperative to winning the Open Championship. Of those last ten winners, all had recorded a top 3 in a major previously. Nine of them had finished as high as 2nd and six were already major champions. Experience is key.
- Finally, each of the last ten winners had won a PGA Tour-sanctioned event before.
Of all the majors it seems to require the most proven, quality experience to win.
Correlating Events (Courses)
There really is no substitute for links experience and as shown in the above trends, the chances of previous Open Championship performers requires the utmost respect.
However, that’s just one event a year and we will need to find some links form elsewhere. There’s no better place to look for this than last week’s event, the Scottish Open at The Renaissance Club. That modern links venue grows in stature every year and with the increasing quality of the field strengths, we’re seeing the best players in the world get some excellent prep in for the big one. We also have the additional benefit this year of seeing Rory McIlroy win there last week, franking the form particularly with this week’s venue, as the last person to win here in 2014.
Past Scottish Open venues can provide other clues and previous renewals of the Irish Open on links courses – most recently at Lahinch Golf Club in 2019, Ballyliffin Golf Club in 2018, Portstewart Golf Club in 2017 and Royal County Down in 2015 – are all worth consideration.
Further true links tests can be found at Hillside Golf Club over recent years, which is situated just up the road from here; hosting the 2019 British Masters and 2022 Cazoo Classic. Though set up to play much easier than an Open Championship, the annually-staged Alfred Dunhill Links Championship is of obvious interest.
The top players in the world ply their trade in the U.S, many of which will have had very limited experience of links golf. Therefore it’s important to find events in the U.S which may compare.
As mentioned last week in my Scottish Open preview, the Honda Classic at PGA National is comfortably my favourite comp course on that side of the pond for tests like this week. That open and exposed course is at the mercy of the wind and poses a similarly tough scrambling test to that which we’ll find this week. High-class links performers, such as previous Open winners: Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington have each won their; 2019 Open Champion, Shane Lowry has a strong record and links specialist, Tommy Fleetwood has also gone very well on more than one occasion.
2012 and 2021 PGA Championship host, Kiawah Island is very linksy in feel and has seen Open Championship winners, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson win those events. Liberty National, which hosted the 2009 & 2013 Barclays, as well as the 2019 & 2021 Northern Trust is another linksy, exposed setup.
Further events played at coastal venues, such as Pebble Beach, along with the Sony Open and Bermuda Championship are worth a look. It’s also no coincidence that many Texans or winners in Texas have enjoyed good form on the links, with exposure to wind a common factor in playing golf in that state. The Texas Open at TPC San Antonio and Houston Open at previous and current venues immediately come to mind.
Jump back over to the DP World Tour and due to the open, exposed courses that are at the mercy of wind, form in the Middle East has often translated to Open Championship contenders. The Qatar Masters at Doha Golf Club stands out in particular, as a course where we’ve seen past Open winners such as Ernie Els and Paul Lawrie win. Yas Links, which has hosted the Abu Dhabi Championship the last two years also appeals, whilst back in Europe, the KLM/Dutch Open at Bernardus Golf has a notably linksy feel.
Rain is forecast to fall every day prior to the start of the event at Hoylake, with the potential for more rainfall throughout the event. It is set to be accompanied by a constant but only mild breeze over the opening couple of days of around 11mph, however could gust at over 20mph.
This is scheduled to die down a little on Saturday but will kick up again on Sunday, with a constant breeze of 15mph and potentially troublesome gusts of up to 33mph currently forecast.
It’s worth considering that weather can be a little unpredictable, especially three days before the event even starts and the forecast, particularly in terms of the wind, should be taken with a pinch of salt. It could turn into something more severe or equally, more benign.
It’s no surprise that in a major championship, 49 of the top 50 players in the world will be in Merseyside this week. These are headed by world #1 Scottie Scheffler, whilst last week’s winner of the thrilling Scottish Open, Rory McIlroy is back up to #2 in the world; Will Zalatoris is the only player from inside that top 50 not in attendance, as he continues his recovery from surgery.
Cameron Smith will be hoping to defend his title this week and is one of fifteen former champions in attendance. This includes the likes of two-time winner Ernie Els and 2011 champion Darren Clarke, but unfortunately does not include three-time winner and our 2006 champion here, Tiger Woods.
Past champions and world ranking positions are just two ways of getting into this championship, with a qualification process first introduced in 1907 – and shaped considerably over the next 116 years – making this an Open in the truest sense of the word.
This includes the Open Qualifying Series, which saw top finishers in events right across the world, from the US and England to Japan and Hong Kong claim spots this week. The most recent of which was last week in Scotland, which saw Byeong Hun-An, Nicolai Hojgaard and David Lingmerth earn spots.
Additionally there were 19 spots in Final Qualifying, at which the best story came from local favourite, Matthew Jordan. Who grew up in the area and is a member here at Hoylake.
The top of the market is incredibly strong and as expected, following his heroics last week, Rory McIlroy is our favourite, at 7/1. He’s followed by Scottie Scheffler at 8/1 and Jon Rahm at 12s, who skipped last week’s taster in Scotland.
All three look very likely contenders this week, Rory is in a great place and won the last Open here in 2014, whilst Scheffler’s 3rd last week was his seventh straight top 5 finish and again if the putter fires, the rest will have to watch out for the Texas native. Though Rahm’s recent form looks a little subpar he has a great links record and should be well-suited to Hoylake.
However, favourites have had a hard time here in the last five years and there’s a man who I’ve long fancied for this week’s test just behind this leading trio in the betting, Norway’s Viktor Hovland. Who looks ready to follow in the footsteps of Cameron Smith by winning his first major in the oldest one of all this week.
2.5 pts Viktor Hovland each way (1/5 – 8 places)
The likeable Norwegian ticks box after box this week. He has a strong Open Championship record and has steadily been trending in the majors over the last couple of years. Combine this with his elite ball-striking and the fact he comes into this just four starts after the biggest win of his career at the Memorial Tournament, and his profile looks ideal.
Hovland has not missed a cut since last year’s Scottish Open and aside from his win at Memorial he has recorded nine top 20s this year, turning four of them into top 10s; including at two of this year’s three majors so far, when 2nd in the PGA Championship and 7th at Augusta.
His top-class ball-striking engineers these results. He’s been most impressive with the driver, ranking 7th, able to combine accuracy with power and compliments that with a ranking of 19th in approach. Further positives for this week’s test can be found in his scrambling ability, for which he ranks 30th and he’s also been solid on the greens this year, particularly over recent weeks, ranking 22nd over the last twenty rounds played.
Hovland put all of this to use at last year’s Open Championship, where he entered the final round in contention and eventually finished 4th. When added to the 12th on his debut Open appearance in in 2021 at Royal St George, his record in this tournament has an attractive look to it.
This is also the case with his general major form, as his 2nd in the PGA and 7th at Augusta this year represent his best finishes yet in both of those events.
This feels like Hovland’s time and I see little not to like over his chances of a first major success at Hoylake this week.
2 pts Patrick Cantlay each way (1/5 – 8 places)
Patrick Cantlay has long felt like a future major winner and though with good efforts in each of the three he’s played so far in 2023, I’m expecting him to use his excellent ball-striking ability to step up on those performances this week and strongly contend for a first major.
Cantlay’s major finishes this year of 9th in the PGA Championship and 14th in both the US Open and Masters are representative of his season as a whole. Where’s he missed just two cuts – at the Phoenix Open and last week’s Scottish Open – and recorded five top 5 finishes. Most recent of which came when 4th at the Travelers Championship three starts ago.
I’m willing to forgive him his missed cut in Scotland last week. He hit the ball really strongly in round one, ranking 4th off-the-tee and 7th in greens-in-regulation but shot +2 predominantly due to being one of the worst putters in the field over those first 18 holes. Something he rectified in round two which led to a much better 3-under round to miss the cut by one.
The excellent driving performance in the first round there was no surprise for a player who ranks as the 4th-best driver on tour this season, much like Hovland, able to combine power with accuracy. This makes up a portion of a superb statistical profile for this week’s challenge for Cantlay, as he also ranks 24th in approach, 27th on the greens and top 50 in scrambling, whilst is the leading player on tour in par 5 scoring.
Cantlay’s Open record is strong, where he’s made three of his four cuts and recorded his best finish to date last year, when 8th at St Andrews. He also possesses some good major finishes in the PGA Championship, finishing 3rd in 2019 and has a top 10 at Augusta to his name.
His 4th in last year’s Scottish Open can act as a strong pointer towards a challenge this week, as do strong records on the coast at Pebble Beach, where he’s finished 3rd and 4th; comp form that is enhanced further by a strong record at Liberty National, with finishes of 11th and 12th.
Cantlay’s missed cut last week may mean he flies in here a little under the radar but he’s still hitting the ball excellently and more than willing to forgive an unusually poor putting performance in round one, he looks to have a big chance this week.
2 pts Dustin Johnson each way (1/5 – 8 places)
Dustin Johnson was one of the best tee-to-green players in the field in the US Open last month when finishing 10th. Continuing to play well in his LIV starts since, finishing 9th at Valderrama and 5th in LIV London on his last two starts, he can add another quality finish to a strong Open record.
With little strokes-gained data from LIV, it’s hard to know exactly how DJ has played this season on the whole, so we’re left having to rely on his major starts for answers. He hit the ball well but struggled with the short game when 48th in the Masters and whilst he figured the latter out in the PGA Championship, a poor iron display left him languishing in 55th.
He then put all of his tee-to-green game together in L.A, ranking 5th in total and looking good in each recorded area; ranking 9th off-the-tee, 10th around-the-greens and 18th in approach. This leading to a best major performance of the year in 10th.
DJ’s all-round brilliance has took him to two major championships – the 2020 Masters and 2016 US Open – and whilst an Open win eludes him, his record in the event is strong.
His best finish came in 2011, when he finished 2nd to Darren Clarke. He’s since recorded four more top 10s, with his 6th at St Andrews last year his best finish in the event since 2011.
DJ’s got the class and proven links credentials for this week’s challenge and following that hugely encouraging effort at last month’s US Open, he looks a nice price for further major success this week.
1 pt Bryson DeChambeau each way (1/5 – 8 places)
Bryson DeChambeau hasn’t always been the most obvious Open contender to me but if he is to win one of these, it may be on a wet week where his excellent driving ability will be a particular standout asset to have.
DeChambeau looked a little lost at the start of the year but turned it around at LIV Tulsa and has maintained a good level of form since. He followed that with a 4th at the PGA Championship and recorded another major top 20 in the US Open last month. Whilst on his most recent starts he finished an impressive 2nd at Valderrama – a place that wouldn’t be an ideal fit – and was 9th last-time-out at LIV London.
Much like DJ, we have to rely on his major appearances for clues as to how his performances are being engineered and they make for appealing reading. He hit the ball as well as anyone at Oakhill in the PGA, ranking 1st off-the-tee, 2nd in GIR and 11th in approach; then producing another strong ball-striking performance in L.A, ranking 4th off-the-tee and 12th in GIR.
DeChambeau missed two of his first three cuts in this event, though has improved in the last two renewals, finishing 33rd in 2021 and recorded his best finish yet when 8th last year.
His major credentials are on show from his 2020 US Open win and as arguably the best driver in the field this week, fused with that upturn in form, he has every chance of adding a Claret Jug to his major C.V this week.
1 pt Adrian Meronk each way (1/5 – 8 places)
Poland’s Adrian Meronk has won three times in a little over a year on the DP World Tour and though he missed the cut last week, I’m taking this strong driver to produce his best major performance this week.
Meronk recorded the third of those wins at the start of May in the Italian Open and has been in good form since, recording two further top 5s when 3rd in the BMW International Open and 5th in the potentially correlating KLM Open.
He finished 15th at the Belfry two starts ago and though missing the cut in Scotland, he hit the ball well and found something on the greens to shoot -2 in round two – nothing really causing too much for concern.
The reason for this is that he’s simply one of the best drivers around, ranking top 25 in this field and has been the best driver on the DP World Tour this season.
Though the putter hasn’t quite fired as previous this year, he’s made up for that by producing the best approach play of his career to date, ranking 21st on the DPWT.
This strong ball-striking for Meronk is enough for me to sit up and take notice but when we add in the fact that he’s the second-best par 5 scorer on tour and also top 30 in scrambling, his profile looks even more appealing.
He hasn’t quite fired in this year’s majors so far, though he did make the cut on his first Open Championship start last year and we find further links credentials on offer from his amateur days, as he finished 3rd in the 2016 Amateur Championship at Royal Porthcawl.
His two top 5s in the KLM area a positive in relation to this type of test, as is a top 10 at Yas Links this year; a 14th in the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour this year adds more to his promise for this week and I’m expecting the Pole to show just why he’s become one of the DPWT’s best over the last twelve months here at Hoylake.