Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson
With two major championships now complete in this 2012 golf season, it's not too early to begin looking towards the 141st Open Championship—aka the British Open—now less than a month away at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, England.
Defending champion Darren Clarke will lead a field of the world's best golfers in pursuit of the coveted Claret Jug.
The last time Royal Lytham and St. Annes hosted the Open Championship was over 10 years ago, in 2001, with David Duval winning his first and only major championship in a three-shot victory over his closest competitor, Sweden's Niclas Fasth.
The late, great Seve Ballesteros also earned the first—and last—of his five majors here in 1979 and 1988 respectively.
This will be the 11th time the club has hosted the event and it's considered by some pros to be the most difficult in the Open Championship rotation, especially the back nine. It's a punishing golf course with over 200 bunkers—20 of them on the epic, 453-yard par-four 17th hole.
World rankings will likely make a difference. Lytham is known for producing winners who are positioned as the best in the world, and I don't expect this year to be any different.
Here are 25 early favorites for golf's next major championship.
It's been six years since Tiger Woods last won a British Open Championship.
Tiger went back-to-back in 2005 and 2006 with wins at St. Andrews and Royal Liverpool. Since then, two no-shows and a missed cut have accompanied a couple of top-25 finishes which bring us to today.
The conversation regarding whether Tiger is "back" or not will continue until he wins another major. And simply contending on a Sunday at one won't matter. I think he really needs to win his 15th this year, if for no other reason than to prove to himself that he can still make it happen.
Tiger still has game. That's obvious. He has won twice so far this year. And he has been adept at hitting fairways and greens on the PGA Tour. He has also drastically improved his putting since the beginning of the year.
What he will need to show at Lytham is not only the ability to keep the ball out of the many bunkers—which will almost always result in a bogey or worse—but to deal with the bad bounces that are almost certainly going to happen.
Who is more mentally tough than Tiger? I can't think of anyone. Which bodes well for his chances here. He could've folded his tent at the U.S. Open last week when he knew his title hopes were over, but he kept grinding until the end—with a smile on his face and a good attitude when all was said and done.
Despite his recent funk, I didn't hesitate to include Rory McIlroy as a favorite at this Open Championship. I gave him the benefit of the doubt because I believe he will eventually break out of the slump that is preventing him from fully displaying his incredible talent lately.
McIlroy has missed the cut in three of his past four tournaments, including last week's U.S. Open, where he was the defending champion. And he admittedly doesn't like playing in the conditions a British Open Championship typically offers.
I caught all sorts of flak for labeling McIlroy as a bit of a whiner last year when others saw it as being simply honest. Whatever you call it, he'll need to deal with whatever the conditions are if he wants to win a British Open because they are sure to change from day to day.
It all adds up to a bunch of question marks for one of golf's brightest young players.
Rain. Cold. Wind. Yes, please. Bring it. That will need to be McIlroy's attitude if he wants to win.
I was so gung-ho about World No. 1 Luke Donald at the U.S. Open last week that I felt almost certain he would at least challenge on the weekend leaderboard.
As it turned out, he missed the cut.
So goes the accuracy of predictions in professional golf because I know I was far from alone with my hunch that it was Donald's time to claim his first major championship. Instead, we're still talking about when that time will be—because it's inevitable, right?
Donald is the best player in the world for a reason. He's consistently good. Donald has held the top spot in the world rankings for almost 50 weeks.
His poor performance at the Olympic Club was merely a blip on his radar, but it came at one of four really inopportune times in the 2012 golf schedule.
A win at rugged Lytham will require the ability to take a punch, because this golf course will hurt you. It's how you respond to that abuse that makes all the difference. I believe Donald will immediately bounce back from a U.S. Open to forget and get himself right in the mix here.
Poor Lee Westwood? That's kind of how I feel.
Of all the golfers looking for his first major championship, Westwood is easily the most accomplished of them. He has 37 professional wins, and after last week's T-10 at the U.S. Open, he now has 14 top-10s in majors, including 10 top-five finishes.
So, what's his problem? Why can't he get the job done?
It's probably easiest to simply say he doesn't have what it takes to win one. But I don't believe that.
People like myself have told him he deserves to win a major, but he'll tell you he deserves to win one when he wins one. Until then, he has done nothing more than earn a pat on the back for a nice effort.
I'll also say he's had a bit of bad luck. But his luck could change with one good bounce at the Open Championship this year. Why would that happen? Why not? He has the game to get himself into contention again.
Westwood is due.
Phil Mickelson's final round run at last year's Open Championship generated an excitement very few players can.
Lefty got himself into contention during a seven-hole stretch on Sunday where he made up five shots on eventual winner Darren Clarke. But a few short missed putts coming home kept him three shots back and prevented a victory for the World Golf Hall of Famer and four-time major champion.
Mickelson has yet to win a British Open. But it doesn't mean he doesn't have the game for it. Sure, he can be wildly erratic and oftentimes is, but a next level short game can be the difference-maker at Lytham, and Mickelson just happens to be one of the best ever at it.
Was anyone surprised when Rickie Fowler battled extremely adverse weather conditions at Royal St. George's last year to make a run at the leaders on the weekend at the Open Championship?
I have to admit, I was.
Fowler used rounds of 70-70-68-72 to finish T-5 and offered some proof that he was, in fact, a major challenger. First things first, though. He was just looking for a win.
Fowler has since earned his first PGA Tour victory, so that monkey's off his back. The next logical step for one of the PGA Tour's most promising young players is a major championship.
He's already proven he can handle the weather a British Open typically delivers. And he's proven he can win. Plus, he's one of the 20 best players in the world. It could add up to being in the right place at the right time.
Fowler might still be a bit of a dark-horse contender in this championship. But he's a contender, nonetheless.
Padraig Harrington isn't even among the top 50 players in the world these days, but let's take into consideration his play at the year's first two majors.
He finished T-8 at the Masters back in April and followed that with an impressive T-4 finish at the U.S. Open last week. My logic is that Harrington is getting his game in shape for the majors in 2012, and this Open Championship is the obvious place for him to continue that trend. Unless I'm imagining a trend.
Let's also consider Paddy's track record in this tournament. While incredibly inconsistent at the British Open, he did have back-to-back victories in 2007 and 2008, and he has two other top-five finishes in this major.
Harrington knows what it takes to win an Open Championship, and his game is trending in the right direction these days with recent top 15s in starts at both the Byron Nelson and the St. Jude.
Charl Schwartzel got his name on golf's radar screen with his incredible win at the 2011 Masters Tournament, and his game is setting up nicely for a run at an Open Championship.
Schwartzel has one of the best swings in golf. Nobody will argue that. And his 2012 results—while possibly not meeting the lofty expectations that have been thrust upon him since winning the Masters—are rather favorable with three top-10s and a handful more top-20 finishes.
The world's No. 16 ranked player has posted top-20 results at the British Open the past two years and would seem to have the poise and wherewithal to handle the adversity this tournament brings.
Like Charl Schwartzel before him, reigning Masters winner Bubba Watson is beginning to experience the scrutiny a major champion faces after winning such an event.
Watson has the game to win anywhere and everywhere. The guy's freakishly talented. But I wonder where he will go from here.
I'm not saying he won't work hard. Nor am I implying that he won't win another major. But I wonder if he's going to be as driven as he was before the Masters.
Before last week's U.S. Open, he tweeted—albeit tongue-in-cheek—that he was thinking of withdrawing so he could watch Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, his playing partners during the first two days of the tournament, on TV. Then, he promptly went out and missed the cut with rounds of 78 and 71.
Maybe he was simply still experiencing a "Masters hangover" along with the distractions such a victory brings with it. Or maybe he was just uncomfortable with the Lake course at the Olympic Club. I just figured his Masters win would open the flood gates for future success, especially at the majors. And it still might.
Bubba Watson is capable of greatness for many years to come. It just depends how bad he wants it.
Buried somewhere in the middle of this article is my favorite to win the 2012 Open Championship—Justin Rose.
Naturally, I could pick any one of these talented players—and I have Lee Westwood as a close second—but Rose seems primed for a breakthrough victory in his career. He's a player that is improving with age. And like Westwood, he has wins all over the world—just not as many of them.
Currently the No. 9 ranked player in the world, Rose has six top-10 finishes in major championships during his career so far. Ever since his T-4 performance at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale, Rose has been discussed as a major championship contender.
He's also been playing well in 2012 with five top-10s, including a win at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
Rose finished T-21 at last week's U.S. Open with an impressive opening round of 69. If he hadn't followed that with a 75 on Friday, he likely would've found himself in the Sunday mix.
If he can keep one noticeably poor round out of the equation, Justin Rose can win his first major.
I've been clamoring for a grizzled vet to win a major this year, and I still think it could happen.
Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson. Sergio Garcia. Yes, I've thrown those names around. I've also talked about 42-year-old Ernie Els as a possible contender—again.
The Big Easy already has three major championships to his credit. And one of those was in a playoff at the Open Championship in 2002 at Muirfield. He also has 29 top-10 finishes in majors, including 11 at the British Open, with a second-place finish at Lytham in 1996.
His ninth-place finish at the U.S. Open last week included two sub-70 rounds on a golf course where posting a score under par was anything but the norm.
Els is playing well, and he's in the right frame of mind these days. I like his chances.
In capturing the Players Championship last month, Matt Kuchar was as close as he could get to winning a major—without actually winning a major.
Kuch is primed. He managed two top-10s in majors in 2010—at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship—and he nearly won the Masters a couple months ago, eventually finishing tied for third at Augusta. He has five top-10s in 12 events this year, including his aforementioned win at the Players.
There are two red flags, however. And they both read T-27.
With expectations incredibly high, Kuchar finished a disappointing T-27 at the U.S. Open last week. And his best—and only—finish at the British Open? You guessed it, T-27.
Glean from that what you will, but I'm not leaving one of the top 10 players in the world off my list of favorites.
Jason Dufner is the hottest player on the PGA Tour so far in 2012.
Dufner has been playing well all year, but things really started clicking for him a couple months ago in a playoff victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
Amidst getting married and simply having a week of distractions at the Players Championship in a T-68 ending, Dufner has recently managed a win at the Byron Nelson, a runner-up finish at Colonial and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open.
I don't see any way Dufner doesn't get himself in the mix at Lytham. He hasn't survived a cut in two tries at the Open Championship, but I don't consider that an issue. He has the level demeanor a major championship event requires, and he more than has the game for success anywhere he plays.
Jason Dufner's time is now.
Despite two victories in 2012 thus far, Hunter Mahan is once again flying under the radar at a major championship—this time, the British Open.
Mahan has been rather quiet since his victory at the Shell Houston Open back in April. He finished T-12 at the Masters immediately after that win, but he hasn't done much to get excited about since. And while that makes him easy to overlook, I think it's a mistake to do so.
Disappointingly, Mahan didn't show me much at the U.S. Open last week. He finished T-38 with a couple decent rounds of golf.
But he does have major championship experience and some level of success with four top-10s in majors, including a T-6 finish at the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie.
I'm surprised Graeme McDowell doesn't have a better record in the Open Championship.
The former U.S. Open champion and runner-up in last week's U.S. Open has two top-20s to his credit at the British Open, but he hasn't ever really threatened the way many, including myself, have expected him to during his almost 10-year career so far.
It's anyone's guess which Graeme McDowell will show up at Lytham. He's had his moments this year with two second-place finishes and a couple top-20s, but he's also struggled with a couple missed cuts and some poor finishes.
Steve Stricker is on a short list of players who have not won a major championship but should win a major championship. Translated, Stricker has the game and the intangibles to get the job done, but it just hasn't happened.
Stricker is one of the nicest guys on the PGA Tour. That's why some say he lacks the killer instinct necessary to win a major. Others say his game just isn't built for major championship pressure.
But, Strick has proven he can win golf tournaments. He has 20 professional victories to his credit, including 12 PGA Tour wins. And it's not like he has disappeared during the majors. He has managed nine top-10s in the big events during his career, including a second-place finish at the PGA Championship in 1998.
Sure, that was 14 years ago. But Stricker, even at 45 years old, is still one of the best players in the world—No. 12 to be exact. And he's a patient player, which is a characteristic that should serve him well at Lytham, where it will be a challenge to accept the little defeats that occur within the golf tournament.
Stricker isn't playing the best golf of his career right now. He has had a somewhat limited 2012 schedule—playing in nine events with four top-10 finishes thus far, including a win in Hawaii back in January. But he more than has the ability to get hot and make a run at this Open Championship.
Of all the major championships Martin Kaymer has participated in since 2008, the British Open is the only one where he has never missed a cut.
Of course, he won the 2010 PGA Championship after finishing T-6 in that event the previous year. But he's getting closer to those types of performances in the Open Championship, having finished T-7 and T-12 the past two years respectively.
Kaymer's 18 professional victories have him at No. 13 among the best players on the planet, but it always feels like more is expected from the former World No. 1.
I guess his talent justifies those expectations.
After missing two months with a back injury, I figured Dustin Johnson's return to the PGA Tour would be slowed considerably, thereby eliminating him from serious consideration at the remaining majors.
DJ returned to competitive action at the Memorial a couple weeks ago, finishing a respectable T-19, especially when you consider the long layoff. Then he promptly picked up his first tournament victory of the season at the St. Jude Classic.
Johnson had been playing some pretty decent golf before his setback. After a slow start to his 2012 season, he crafted three consecutive top 10s in February but lost his momentum with the injury.
In winning the St. Jude, he looked as though he had never been hurt in the first place, and all of a sudden, as one of the PGA Tour's brightest young talents, he's back in the discussion to challenge for a major.
Johnson's past two Open Championship performances were impressive—a T-14 at St. Andrews in 2010 and then a T-2 at Royal St. George's last year.
Adam Scott is very slowly but very surely working his way onto that list of best players who haven't won a major championship yet.
The 31-year-old Aussie has seven top-10 finishes in majors with one in the Open Championship—a T-8 result in 2006. So, the proverbial clock is beginning to tick on his best chances to make it happen.
Scott must be doing something right, however, if the concern is beginning to mount. As long as he keeps playing well, which he has done reasonably well in 2012, the questions will continue to pile up.
In 2012, Scott has saved his best for the biggest moments. His four top finishes so far were at the Masters (T-8), WGC-Cadillac (T-13), the Players (T-15) and the U.S. Open (T-15).
Zach Johnson's consistent play has earned him a top-20 world ranking.
Very quietly, he has gone about the business of playing quality golf—and business has been good.
In 2012 thus far, Johnson has a victory at the Crowne Plaza Invitational and two second-place finishes—at the Players Championship and the Heritage.
That's a solid season in itself, but what about the majors?
The former Masters champion was T-32 at Augusta back in April and T-41 at the U.S. Open last week.
That brings us to the Open Championship, where his best-ever finish was a respectable T-16 last year.
The 2012 season has been a kind of all-or-nothing campaign for Louis Oosthuizen.
Victories at the Malaysian Open and the Africa Open, plus his Masters Tournament playoff loss to Bubba Watson, have continued to be the highlights (or lowlight, depending on how you define a playoff loss) of Oosthuizen's year.
He also has a third-place finish at the Houston Open and a seventh-place finish to his credit at the Volvo Golf Champions tournament.
When he has disappeared, however, he has been off the charts with very poor finishes at the WGC-Cadillac (T-60) and most recently, the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut.
It's difficult to know what to expect from Oosthuizen at this Open Championship, but the memory of his runaway 2010 victory is still fresh on the minds of golf fans everywhere. That win put his name on the world golf map for good.
Sergio Garcia doesn't think he has what it takes to win a major championship. But I do.
Of course, that doesn't matter much. If he doesn't believe it himself, it probably won't happen.
After a T-12 finish at the 2012 Masters, Garcia, now the No. 22 ranked player in the world, confessed that he doesn't think he can win a major unless he gets lucky. He felt his best wasn't good enough and expressed frustration with all aspects of his game.
It's not a mindset that bodes well for success at Lytham—or anywhere else for that matter—but especially at a course where a strong mental game is a pre-requisite for success.
Still, Garcia has to be considered as a favorite at a championship where he has seven of his 17 top-10 major championship finishes. If this is the week the lucky breaks go his way, he would win the major championship he covets the most.
With all the attention Ian Poulter has generated with his flamboyant style and colorful commentary, he has yet to match the walk with the talk.
Poulter has had a couple good showings this year—with a third-place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a seventh-place finish at the Masters. He was also a respectable T-25 at the Players Championship.
As a result, he has managed to keep himself in the top 30 of the Official World Golf Ranking.
The past three years have been disappointing for Poulter at the Open Championship, but if he can come close to his 2008 effort at Royal Birkdale, he'll attract a lot of attention for all the right reasons.
As long as Jim Furyk isn't still suffering from the disappointment of letting the U.S. Open slip through his fingers last week, he should be considered a favorite in this Open Championship.
Furyk has turned his British Open misfortunes around since missing the cut for five straight years from 2001-2005. And he's had a solid 2012 season thus far, finishing in the top 15 eight different times. His game seems well-equipped for the rigors that Lytham will present, and he's got the mental fortitude it takes to get this job accomplished successfully.
Furyk does have a major victory to his credit—the U.S. Open in 1997. But at 42 years old, he knows his chances are dwindling and that he'd better take full advantage of any reasonable opportunities that present themselves. Last week was just such an instance, which makes this British Open endeavor all the more important for him.
No one can argue that Jason Day's best hasn't been all that great in 2012.
Day is not playing up to his high standards these days. But his recent ninth-place finishes at the Byron Nelson and Wells Fargo tournaments are reasons for optimism.
I'm looking at Day's track record, and he has proven he can play well at the majors. He finished in second place at last year's Masters Tournament as well as at the U.S. Open. And he had another Top 10 at the 2010 PGA Championship.
This year's Masters (WD) and US Open (T-59) have been a far different story, however.
I'm still giving Day a fighting chance to pull his game together in time for what will be a tough test at Latham. He's just outside the top 20 in the world rankings and has the talent to be great. That would include challenging at and winning a major.