The 146th Open Championship tees off at Royal Birkdale on 20 July with reigning Race to Dubai champion Henrik Stenson looking to retain the Claret Jug. Here’s everything you need to know about golf’s third Major of the year...
Back to Birkdale
This will be the 10th time that Royal Birkdale has hosted the Open Championship – and the first since 2008. The historic course, which lies on the outskirts of the English seaside town of Southport, has seen some of the game’s greatest players lift the famed Claret Jug after taming its windswept links, including Peter Thomson (1954 and 1965), Arnold Palmer (1961), Lee Trevino (1971) and Tom Watson (1983). Nine years ago, it was Ireland’s Padraig Harrington who left Merseyside clutching golf’s most famous trophy, following a torrid closing six holes that saw him sink two birdies and an eagle to successfully defend the Open title he had won 12 months earlier at Carnoustie.
Can Stenson go back-to-back?
Reigning Race to Dubai champion Henrik Stenson will be looking to become the first player since Harrington to win back-to-back Claret Jugs, but the Swede heads to north-west England in indifferent form. He hasn’t won a tournament since beating Phil Mickelson in an epic duel at Royal Troon last year to clinch the Open title, and has missed the cut at both of this season’s Majors so far. A runners-up finish at February’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic remains his best performance of 2017, and the 41-year-old will need a swift return to winning ways if he is to successfully defend his Race to Dubai crown come November’s DP World Tour Championship. Having tied for third the last time the Open was held at Birkdale, however, perhaps this could be the week that kick-starts his season.
McIlroy in search of form
Three-time Race to Dubai champion Rory McIlroy has endured a stop-start season so far, with a persistent rib injury interrupting much of his campaign. The 28-year-old returned from his latest setback at last month’s US Open, where he subsequently missed the cut, and the Northern Irishman also failed to make it to the weekend at the recent Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, which was again hosted by his charitable foundation. The four-time Major champion insists that he is close to regaining his best form, but his recent struggles have now seen him slip to no. 4 in the world rankings. Heading to Birkdale, it will be almost three years since McIlroy last won a Major title, at 2014’s PGA Championship, a year that also saw him hoist the Claret Jug at nearby Royal Liverpool. He will no doubt be hoping that a trip back to England’s north- west will signal a return to the Major-winners’ circle.
Home game for Fleetwood
Current Race to Dubai leader Tommy Fleetwood should feel right at home on the links of Royal Birkdale, having grown up in Southport, just a few well-struck shots from the historic course. In his youth, the in-form Englishman – who has already won twice this season – would even creep on to the course to play a few holes with his friends, and will now be looking to return there to become a Major champion for the first time. The 26-year-old came close to clinching one of golf’s grand slam events at last month’s US Open, sharing the 36-hole lead before eventually finishing fourth, and will hope to continue the impressive form that has seen him rise to 14th in the world rankings, having plummeted as low as 188th just 10 months ago. A Major victory in front of his hometown crowd would certainly cap an incredible year for Fleetwood, who would also become the first Englishman to lift the Claret Jug at Birkdale – and the first English winner of the Open Championship in a quarter of a century.
A wide-open Open
It’s not just Fleetwood, McIlroy and Stenson who could complete a headline-grabbing victory at Royal Birkdale, with several other blockbuster storylines in the offing. Could world no. 1 Dustin Johnson bounce back from a missed Masters and a missed cut at the US Open to clinch his second Major? Could 2017 Omega Dubai Desert Classic winner and new Masters champion Sergio Garcia back up his Green Jacket with a Claret Jug? Could Justin Rose return to the scene of his 1998 heroics, which saw him tie for fourth as a 17-year-old, to finally lift golf’s oldest trophy? Could Brooks Koepka follow up his stunning US Open victory? Could Spanish hotshot Jon Rahm complete his rapid ascent into golf’s elite with a Major title? Could Phil Mickelson go one better than last year? Could Lee Westwood finally win a Major at the 78th time of trying? Could Jordan Spieth complete the third leg of a career grand slam? Or could one of golf’s young stars like Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas or Patrick Reed claim a maiden Major victory? As ever with the Open Championship, anything could happen.