The U.S. Open is known as the toughest test in golf, but don’t tell that to any of the 156 golfers who played Royal Birkdale during the 2008 Open Championship.
Winds were whipping at 20+ MPH all week with gusts exceeding 40 MPH at times, leading to a winning score of +3 by Paddy Harrigton, beating the runner-up, Ian Poulter, by FOUR strokes. You could have cracked the top 10 that year with a four-day tally of 12-over. That wasn’t even the highest score by a winner at Royal Birkdale, as Peter Thompson won the 1965 edition by taking 285 swipes (two more than Paddy), although it was playing as a par 73 back then. Thompson was part of a trend that saw Americans or Aussies win the first eight Open Championships held by Royal Birkdale.
Should we expect another bloodbath this week at Royal Birkdale? Mother Nature will decide. Par is just a number but in the three editions Birkdale has hosted as a par 70, the winning scores have been -8, EVEN, and +3 so weather truly can be worth 2-to-3 shots per round, around here.
The course itself is a par 70 links layout that plays to just 7,156 yards. The par 5s are both on the homeward nine, with the longest of par 5s measuring just 567, certainly manageable by everyone in the field. That takes away a small edge for bombers since there are only two par 5s and both of them do not require length to score.
The fairways at Royal Birkdale are known for being flat but also very tight. When you think links golf, you probably imagine generous fairways but that’s not the case here. The flat fairways reduce the element of unlucky bounces just a bit, but once you get offline, the rough is very penal and can swallow up your golf ball quickly. If a 20-handicapper played the course, they are probably going to be on their second sleeve of balls before they even reach the turn. Back in 2008, Ernie Els called this a second-shot course because of all the doglegs that force golfers to drive into the same landing areas.
Sergio Garcia would also say, “on these kind of courses you don’t have to just get there and just bang it. You have to hit different shots off the tee.” The consensus from all the golfers seem to be that Royal Birkdale is a course where you need to be a good driver of the golf ball. Justin Rose compared it to a U.S. Open-like test in terms of driving. For stats, that means I want to target strokes gained off-the-tee but avoid golfers that spray it all over the ballpark. For me, I like to use Distance from the Edge of Fairway to determine who keeps the ball in play. After that, I also think elite short game should be really helpful this week, unless the wind forecast looks dead calm, then I would shift more toward elite approach play.
Check out the Royal Birkdale Fantasy Golfanac for more quotes and tounament insights.
Looking for correlated courses, a simple tournament history would probably provide the best results. Other than that, I picked out a few courses/events that have shown a correlation to success at The Open with an emphasis on tough driving alleys: Firestone CC, TPC Southwind, Riviera CC, the U.S. Open, and the PGA Championship.
WEATHER DRAW: I’m not going to go as far as suggesting one wave over the other right now, but I want to remind gamers that there are no split tees at The Open Championship. That means the final group on Thursday and Friday will tee off more than 9 hours after the first group kicks off the day. This is definitely an event that is notorious for one side (or even one cluster) of the draw getting a clear advantage over the first two rounds. Keep an eye on the forecast and strongly consider stacking tee-time waves if you are playing multiple lineups on DraftKings or FanDuel.
Looking at the past 10 years, there is one starting tee-time wave that has yielded the most winners (4), podiums (10), Top 5s (17), Top 10s (28), and top 25s (48)… That is golfers that have started between 9:00 AM and 10:00 AM on Thursday. This is going to vary year-to-year based on weather (last year it was the 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM time slot that yielded the most success). Definitely something to keep an eye on.
Players to Watch
Rickie Fowler… It appears he’s forgotten his razor so we have a full Dick Fowler, P.I. situation on our hands (moustached man). Fowler has everything you want this week. He’s got stellar season-long form, he’s striping fairways at a high clip but can still pound it out there when he needs to. He’s entered the final round inside the top 10 on six occasions this season and he doesn’t mind a little wind or rain. Could this finally be his time to shine in a major? I’m thinking the odds are in his favor.
Sergio Garcia… Much like Fowler, he’s elite when it comes to playing in the elements. It’s no wonder he’s pieced together 10 top 10s in 20 Open Championship appearances. The only potential knocks against him would be his Masters win (is he fat and happy?) or his upcoming wedding (how involved/stressed is Sergio about the big day?). Those same factors could also work in his favor, saying he’s finally knocked the major monkey off his back and he’s in a good place in his personal life. Always thought The Open was best suited for Garcia to pick up his first major title. Obviously not possible anymore, but why not add a second major?
Francesco Molinari… Has played in 9 Open Championships and entered the finale inside the top 25 in four of those starts. He didn’t qualify in 2008 (last time Birkdale hosted) but should be a superb fit on paper. The tight(er) fairways shouldn’t bother him as he shoots arrows off the tee. If it gets extremely windy and he has to rely on his short game more, then I may bump him down my list, but in calmer conditions I think Moli can be a tee-to-green nightmare this week.
Andy Sullivan… When playing DFS in big events like this, the Euro golfers will always go lower owned than they should. Sullivan should fall into that category since he’s not a sexy play on paper and he’s not a household name. However, he enters with top 20s in four of his last five starts and has finishes on T30 and T12 in his two Open appearances.
Alex Noren … Keeping with the Euro flavor, this Swede has won six times since the start of 2015. Finished T19 at Royal Birkdale back in 2008. If he gets a sniff of the lead, he won’t back down.
Tyrrell Hatton… He was the hot item heading into Augusta National but he’s cooled considerably since then. Still has the mojo to win a major and finished T5 at Troon last year (finally breaking out of an 0-for-4 start to his Open Championship career).
Bernd Wiesberger… Has disappointed with nothing better than a T64 in four tries at The Open but like Hatton, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him finally pop in his fifth try. Arrives with top 30s in eight of his last nine worldwide starts.
Jordan Spieth… Getting away from all the Euro talent, we can’t forget about the Golden Boy, Spieth. If Royal Birkdale is a course that doesn’t allow for grip-it-and-rip-it golf then course management certainly gets a boost. That is where Spieth excels. Even when his off-the-tee game is sloppy, he generally knows the right areas to miss it and makes loads of par-saving putts to keep momentum rolling. Spieth also happens to be in the golden tee-time wave, going off at 9:47 AM on Thursday.
Hideki Matsuyama… His best finish at The Open came in his 2013 debut at Muirfield. That may be the best comp course to Royal Birkdale which bodes well for Hideki’s chances. He hasn’t played all that great on coastal course but everything lines up for a good week.
Tommy Fleetwood… Have him ranked in the 30-to-35 range based on raw stats alone. However, he does have the local factor which is not lost on anyone that has been researching or watching golf for the last six months. Having the weight of an entire town can help but it can also put a lot of pressure on his shoulders. High upside play this week? Absolutely. Overvalued in the betting market and DFS market? Absolutely. Would be #26 in my rankings if they expanded.
Steve Stricker… Finished T8 here back in 2008 and still playing solid golf in 2017. Made the cut on the number last week before torching TPC Deere Run over the weekend to backdoor a T5. If weather turns this into a grindfest, you got to think he finds his way into the mix, but in calm conditions he may have to settle for a T30-type finish. Would be #27 in my rankings.
My Top 25 for the 2017 Open Championship
1. Rickie Fowler
2. Jordan Spieth
3. Sergio Garcia
4. Matt Kuchar
5. Hideki Matsuyama
6. Henrik Stenson
7. Justin Rose
8. Alex Noren
9. Jon Rahm
10. Rory McIlroy
11. Francesco Molinari
12. Tyrrell Hatton
13. Dustin Johnson
14. Bernd Wiesberger
15. Andy Sullivan
16. Martin Kaymer
17. Branden Grace
18. Louis Oosthuizen
19. Jason Day
20. Brant Snedeker
21. Adam Scott
22. Thomas Pieters
23. Justin Thomas
24. Brooks Koepka
25. Marc Leishman