According to odds makers, Tiger Woods is still the best bet to win the British Open, followed by Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy are—inexplicably—both at 16 /1. Phil Mickelson with his second place British Open finish in 2011 and new appreciation for links golf seems to have a better than 33/1 chance. If nothing else, it demonstrates how little the betting houses know about golf and anyone not named Tiger Woods, that is if they are basing the odds on any kind of recent performance and common sense.
Woods has won three times this year already, more than any other player, and despite his record in the majors this season, he should be favored. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, based on their world rankings and familiarity with bad weather golf, deserve a high standing. But Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy both at 16/1? Harrington hasn’t won a tournament since 2008. McIlroy won the 2011 US Open and the 2012 Honda Classic. Hmmm. Some strange thinking in the betting worlds.
As the late Tommy Bolt suggested when the U.S. Open was last at Southern Hills, even when Tiger Woods is in the field, it’s smarter to take the field over any one player, no matter how good he is. Or stated another way, with the possible exception of Tiger Woods, it makes more sense to bet against a golfer winning than to bet that he will.
Odds-makers aside, there are definite favorites for this week, whether sentimental or mathematical, and British golfers are in the lead there, starting with the top three players in the world: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood. Two of the three are in search of their first major. Rory, the youngest of the trio, already has his.
Despite the fact that Donald has been No. 1 most of this year, he hasn’t been getting the respect usually reserved for a No. 1. If there’s a sentimental favorite this week, it’s probably McIlroy. Everybody just loves the kid. He has had less hubbub surrounding his arrival at the British Open than last year when he had just come off the US Open victory.
“It's been nice to sort of prepare and definitely not the madness that was going on last year,” he said Tuesday. “I've tried to keep it as low key as possible and just go out and go about my business and felt like I've done that pretty well.”
He said last year’s performance at the British Open and his comments then were a reflection of his frustration at the time. “I just didn't play well enough to get into contention and didn't handle the conditions as best as I could have,” McIlroy admitted.
While not everyone agrees about how Royal Lytham and St. Annes should be played, everyone says the bunkers are a problem, all 200+ of them. In terms of top things to avoid at Royal Lytham, Lee Westwood said, “The bunkers would be one; the railway line would be another.”
“You do feel a little bit claustrophobic on a lot of holes,” Donald said about the sandy hazards. “They're everywhere.”
The bunkers start at about 230 yards and are placed up to about 100 yards from the green. Of course there are the greenside bunkers, too.
“I'm not sure it favors the longer hitter, especially, because some courses, some Open Championship courses, you have bunkers at 280 and past that you're okay,” Donald added.
“I've got to play smart off the tees, hit a lot of irons, a lot of things just to get in the fairway, but it's going to come down to ‑‑ it's all about short game with all these bunkers and hazards around the greens,” Bubba Watson said after a practice round. “Kind of like the U.S. Open, it's all about just hitting the fairway, hitting the right shot off the tee to avoid some of the bunkers, avoid the high rough and hitting some quality iron shots into the greens or close to the greens where you can get up‑and‑down.”
“They're very well placed,” Phil Mickelson said about the bunkering “And it does still give you an opportunity to strategically avoid them off the tee and have decisions as to which line you want to take and which bunkers you want to try to bring into play and take out of play.” He added it seemed that the bunkers were placed to provide different challenges depending on which way the wind is blowing.
“There's a lot of tee shots you have to step up and hit very good tee shots,” Luke Donald explained. “It's as simple as that. The bunkers kind of come into play whether you hit 2‑iron, 3‑wood or driver.”
“There's some forced carries to where you have to force it and then stop it or try and skirt past them,” Tiger Woods said about the bunker problem. “You can't just either lay it up or bomb over the top. There has to be some shape to shots.”
“Not that I counted, but there's 17 on 18, and there's nine on No. 1,” Watson said about the plethora of pits. “I don't understand why there's that many, but they didn't ask me to design it. They should have just threw one more on 18 and made it 18 on No. 18.”
Certainly, with all the rain, the sand should be hard packed and not fluffy. So there’s a better chance for a clean lie if a ball does land in the sand. The problem will be getting out with the steep sides of the bunker faces rather than buried lies.
So in a week that promises rainy, cool, wet conditions and so many bunkers that golfers are sure to have migraine attacks, what will it take to win? Talent? Luck? Ball striking? Putting?
“You've just got to step up there and hit good tee shots,” Donald explained. “You aren't going to find lucky lies in the rough. You're not going to be able to get to the greens from the bunkers. It's about hitting fairways, hitting greens, and hopefully I can do that.”
“It's one of the toughest tests I've played in an Open Championship,” Lee Westwood said. “I was going around yesterday in my practice round and trying to figure out where the birdie opportunities are, and I'm still trying to figure that out.” He thinks number seven might be one hole that will yield less than par if they are playing it down wind.
“Putting is always a key,” Mickelson said. “The greens are beautiful. They're in great shape. You really can make some putts.” But he added that getting the ball off the tee and into the right location is also critical. “There will be a number of holes I'll be a little more conservative off the tee, in an effort to ensure getting the ball in play.”
“I've got to play smart off the tees, hit a lot of irons, a lot of things just to get in the fairway,” Bubba Watson said. “But it's going to come down to—it's all about short game with all these bunkers and hazards around the greens.”
“The rough is certainly in play but it's pretty far off, but the bunkers are definitely in play,” Woods concluded. “And you're having to either carry them and stop it short of the next one or having to skirt past them. If you happen to pull or push something it will roll up against the face.”
“You have to play really good golf, but you have to have other people not play their best,” Bubba Watson summed up.
With wet fairways and standing water in places, the course should play a lot more like Velcro than links terrain. There will be mud balls. Shots that hit the fairway will tend to stay there instead of rolling into the rough. The only way that changes is if the wind blows like crazy and the sun comes out for several days and dries up the ground.
The greens should hold, eliminating the kind of bounces that cost Tom Watson his sixth British Open. But they will probably be slower than a southern drawl. Tiger Woods said that he usually puts lead tape on the back of his putter for this event. That gives the blade more smack at impact. He added he had not done that yet, but expect to see it unless the greens dry up. Right now, the greens are probably like putting on a soggy bathmat.
In other words, if a golfer hits a bad shot, it’s not going to get saved by a lucky bounce. It will more than likely be a squish and stick. How bad could it be? Get the ark ready. Phil Mickelson was already wearing rain gloves on both hands.
Quote of the day: on the distance from his rented ocean-front house to the sea: “Why is the water so far away? Like the beach goes for miles and then the water is way out there. Can you answer that one?” — Bubba Watson
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.