15th Club Previews The 148th Open Championship
Sunday will mark 99 days since Tiger Woods claimed the season’s first major championship at Augusta National. Incredibly, the men’s major season – and decade, for that matter – will be over on Sunday afternoon. A ten-year stretch that began with Phil Mickelson winning the 2010 Masters wraps up at the home of arguably the decade’s top performer, Rory McIlroy.
Royal Portrush hosted one Open previously, 68 years ago. It has hosted the Irish Open once, with Jamie Donaldson claiming victory here in 2012. But where traditional Open venues are fodder for memories of championships past, this year’s unique landscape is a near-empty canvas for the world’s best.
IT BEGINS AND ENDS WITH BROOKS
The superlative supernova has finished either first or second in each of the season’s first three majors – the first player to do that since Woods in 2005. He can become the first in the modern era to finish top-two in all four of a season’s majors this week in Northern Ireland.
One of the less-publicized traits Koepka has exhibited during this stellar run is his ability to avoid the big number. Since the beginning of 2017, Koepka has made double bogey or worse on just 1.5% of the holes he has played. Of the players with at least 10 rounds in majors during that span, Brooks ranks in the 85th percentile in that stat.
Since we left Carnoustie last summer, there have been four major championships contested. Koepka has been beaten by a grand total of two men in those tournaments: Woods at the Masters and Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach. That means of 551 total opposing players, Brooks beat or tied with 549 of them.
COURSE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Unfamiliarity with Royal Portrush is a shared experience for most of the field this week. But while we don’t have much history at this venue to draw from, we can take results from other similar courses on the European Tour and gather some valuable insights.
Not every links course is the same, but some trends pop up when comparing them to other courses on the schedule. For one, scrambling is very important. That dovetails into another fact about links golf: avoiding mistakes is more important than making tons of birdies.
Several marquee players have noted that the field will be penalized more than normal for missing fairways this week – something the 15th Club data also supports. Missing fairways at Augusta National typically has very little negative effect on a player’s score – that won’t be the case this week at the season’s final major.
If this were just any Open year, McIlroy would be among the top stories entering play: he’s already claimed the Players Championship in March and the Canadian Open this summer.
His combined score to par in the last five Opens is 32-under, best of any player – and that’s while missing one of them due to injury. He has 16 rounds in the 60s in The Open over the last ten years, four more than anyone else. He’s also the only player to finish top-ten in The Open four times in the previous five years.
Yet, this isn’t just any Open – it’s the largest sporting event ever held in his home country. McIlroy has had plenty of enormous moments on sport’s biggest stages – will he return to the top of the sport this week?
TRENDS AND PLAYERS TO WATCH
– American players have claimed each of the season’s first three majors – Tiger at the Masters, Brooks at the PGA and Woodland at the U.S. Open. It’s just the second time in the last 20 years that players from the United States swept the first three championships of the season – the other instance in that span came in 2015.
Amazingly, there has not been an American sweep in the majors since 1982. And if we have a different American win The Open than the names listed above, we would see four different U.S. players win a season’s four majors for the first time since 1976. That year, Jerry Pate, Johnny Miller, Dave Stockton and Tom Watson won them.
– One young player from the U.S. who could finish the quartet is Xander Schauffele. Xander made his major championship debut at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Since then, he has finished sixth or better in five of his ten starts in majors.
The only player with more top-six finishes in majors during that span is Koepka. Xander was tied for the 54-hole lead last year at Carnoustie, before a final round 74 left him in a tie for second.
– Fresh off an Irish Open victory, Jon Rahm should be a popular pick this week. Rahm’s climbed a short ladder to the top in his last three starts – T-3 at the U.S. Open, T-2 at the Andalucia Masters, then the Irish win. During that span, he’s a combined 27-under par and has gained 3.19 strokes per round against the field.
Rahm has been boom-or-bust recently in majors – over his last seven starts, he’s either finished in the top-ten (four instances) or missed the cut (three instances). Rahm missed the cut at The Open last year, shooting 78 in the second round.
– An array of prominent names finished tied for second at The Open last year: Justin Rose, McIlroy, Schauffele and Kevin Kisner. The last player to win The Open the year after finishing runner-up was Jack Nicklaus in 1978. Peter Thomson in 1958 and Arnold Palmer in 1961 are the only other two instances of it happening since 1940.
– Much has been made of Tiger Woods’ decision to not play competitively between last month’s U.S. Open and this championship. History says if you’re going to the betting window, it might be wise to avoid Woods or anyone else who has taken a month off – the last player to win The Open without playing any event worldwide from the U.S. Open until then was Miller in 1976.
– Dustin Johnson will try to buck a dubious trend of his at The Open – since 2010, he is a combined 22-under-par in rounds one through three. He’s 20-over in the final round during that span. Johnson shot 76-72 to miss the cut last year at Carnoustie.
– Gary Woodland’s win at Pebble Beach was the 31st consecutive major championship victory by a player ranked in the top-50 in the world. The last major winner from outside the top-50 was Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA. Could we be due for a surprise champion? Over the last 20 years, The Open has had five winners from outside the world top-50, most of the four majors during that span.
– Sergio Garcia has racked up ten top-ten finishes in his Open Championship career but has never won, a snake-bitten history if ever there was one. In the history of The Open, only two players have had more top-ten finishes and never won: Andrew Kirkaldy (14 top-tens), who turned professional 103 years before Sergio was born, and Ben Sayers, who made his Open debut in 1883.
Wednesday, the 15th Club analyst roundtable discusses favorites, course trends to watch and key analytics leading into the season’s final major championship.