British Open Predictions 2012: 6 Hometown Heroes Who Will Shine at Royal Lytham

Matthew Dicker@@MattDickerContributor IIIJuly 16, 2012

British Open Predictions 2012: 6 Hometown Heroes Who Will Shine at Royal Lytham

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    After more than a decade without a British Open champion who called the United Kingdom home, Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke won the 2011 Open by three strokes. The tournament, which had been won by British natives in every year but one of the first 60 years of play, has now been won by golfers from five continents.

    Though the British crowd gives great support to all the competitors, nothing excites the fans quite like a hometown hero making a run at the Claret Jug. This year offers a prime opportunity for the U.K.'s best to win the Open in consecutive years for the first time since 1947-48.

    Of the top-10 ranked golfers in the world, four are UK citizens, including each of the top three golfers, and several others a bit down the ladder still have the talent and experience to contend deep into Sunday.

    Here we look at the six hometown heroes with the best chance of keeping the Claret Jug at home.

Darren Clarke

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    Everything about this year's Open suggests that Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke is a major threat to win the tournament despite his struggles over the past 11 months.

    Clarke is, of course, the reining Open champion, winning last year's tournament at Royal St. George's by three strokes over Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson.

    Clarke has historically played some of his best golf at the open, finishing in the top 10 three times in addition to his 2011 win; in no other major has he accomplished this more than once.

    Clarke has also played very well at Royal Lytham in the past. One of his top 10 finishes, when he tied for third in 2001, was at Royal Lytham, and he tied for 11th at the 1996 Open at the same course.

    Since his victory at the Open last year, Clarke has struggled at the majors, missing the cut at both the PGA Championship and the Masters, and he did not play at the US Open. He also missed the cut at two of the four non-major events he played on the PGA Tour this year.

    He's been better on the European Tour where he has twice finished in the top 20 this year, but he hasn't finished higher than 17th and has turned in some pretty bleak performances.

    Darren Clarke hopes to turn things around for himself at Royal Lytham, and if history is any indicator, he very well may. 

Luke Donald

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    Luke Donald might just be the best golfer in the world right now, and his No. 1 ranking reflects that. He has won three PGA Tour events in the past year and a half, and has racked up three additional wins in the same time period on the European Tour.

    Donald has yet to win his first major. He came closest at the 2005 Masters and the 2006 PGA Championship, finishing in a tie for third in both tournaments, and has only once finished in the top 10 at the British Open. Donald also struggled at last year's Open and missed the cut.

    Donald's excellence playing from the bunkers will also offer him a significant advantage over his opponents. Royal Lytham has 206 bunkers, an average of more than 11 per hole, and Donald is among the sport's very best at hitting from the sand.

    The course also favors accuracy over distance, and Donald is 15th on the tour in driving accuracy, first in the tour on scrambling from the rough, and eighth on the tour in proximity to the hole. Driving distance, Donald's biggest weakness (179th on the tour) is less of a factor at Royal Lytham than at most other courses.

    Luke Donald is one of two English golfers with the best chance to win the Open for the first time since Nick Faldo in 1992, and Donald will be carrying quite a large weight of expectations on his shoulders at Royal Lytham.

Lee Westwood

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    Lee Westwood is almost certainly the best current golfer without a major victory, though he has certainly come close. Westwood has finished in the top 10 at 14 major championships, including five third-place finishes and two second place finishes.

    Though his success on the PGA Tour has been somewhat limited, earning only two career wins, Westwood has been a dominant force on the European Tour, where he has collected 22 wins over his career.

    Though Westwood missed the cut at last year's Open, he finished in the top three in each of the previous two tournaments. He's currently ranked third in the world, and won the Nordea Masters in Stockholm last month with a score of -19.

    Westwood will benefit from a skill he shares with countryman Luke Donald: his outstanding play from the sand.

    Royal Lytham is littered with sand traps, and Westwood is currently 3rd on the PGA Tour in sand save percentage (64.15 percent). Westwood also has devastating accuracy, earning a greens in regulation percentage of 71.63 percent, second best on the tour.

    Westwood struggled in the last two Opens held at Royal Lytham, finishing in a tie for 47th in 2001 and missing the cut in 1996. Still, Westwood is a much better golfer than he was at either of those tournaments, and his game is uniquely suited to a course like Royal Lytham,

    This just might be the tournament that Westwood sheds the moniker of "best golfer without a major win."

Rory McIlroy

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    Though he grew up across the Irish sea from England, Rory McIlroy identifies himself as British, and is very much a hometown hero at Royal Lytham.

    McIlroy struggled a bit during last year's Open, which he attributed largely to the weather, and finished tied for 25th. He was much more successful in the previous year's tournament, where he finished in a tie for third place.

    McIlroy has generally played well since winning the 2011 U.S. Open, winning events on both the European and PGA Tours, and he is currently ranked second in the world. However, he's largely been a non-factor at majors, finishing 25th, 64th, 40th, and missing the cut in the four most recent majors.

    Royal Lytham favors accuracy much more than distance, which could be worrisome to McIliroy, who is tenth in the PGA Tour in driving distance average, but 136th in driving accuracy.

    Despite McIlroy's inconsistent play, he is a star whenever he plays in Britain, and with all eyes focused on him there is a high likelihood that he will return to his 2009-early 2011 form.

Ian Poulter

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    It's time for Ian Poulter to put his money where his rather big mouth is.

    Hetfordshire native Ian Poulter has never been shy about expressing his high opinion of himself, and he has painted a large target on his back in the process.

    In 2008 he said in an interview that he had yet to play to his full potential, and "when that happens it will just be me and Tiger."

    Though Poulter has become one of the better golfers in the world since then, he still trails Tiger by 14 majors (Poulter has yet to win one), 73 PGA Tour wins (Tiger has 74, Poulter 1), and 27 European Tour wins (Tiger 38, Poulter 11).

    If Poulter really feels he still has enough remaining potential to become one of the two best golfers in the world, the time for the 36-year-old to win is now.

    Poulter has missed the cut at two of the last three Opens and finished tied for 60th in the third, but finished in second place the year before that. Poulter is also an accurate driver, averaging 66.52 percent this year on the European Tour, and is 15th on the PGA Tour in sand save percentage, a critical skill at Royal Lytham.

    Poulter is one of the most polarizing figures in golf, but a win at Royal Lytham would bring a lot of English golf fans to his side and begin to prove that his abundant self-esteem is not entirely misplaced.

Justin Rose

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    In the first PGA Tour event Justin Rose ever competed in, he tied for fourth at the 1998 British Open. Only 18 years old at the time, it was easy to imagine Rose dominating the tournament for years to come.

    Since then, Rose has never finished in the top 10 at the Open, and has missed the cut three times. He turned in a couple of solid performances in 2007 and 2009, but Rose has found less success at his home nation's major than at each of the other three majors.

    Yet despite his struggles at the British Open, Rose is always a threat to win a tournament. He has six top 10 finishes at majors, and has won four PGA tournaments this year, including the WGC-Cadillac Championship in March. He has yet to miss a single cut on the PGA Tour in 2012, and has six top 10 finishes on the year.

    Rose should benefit from the layout of Royal Lytham. He's one of the lighter drivers on the Tour, but his driving accuracy is 25th at 65.36 percent, and he is fourth on the Tour in greens in regulation.

    Rose has looked great in 2012 after an almost equally strong 2011, and he is one of England's best chances at winning the British Open.