If the Masters is a "tradition unlike any other," then The Open Championship, which tees of Thursday at Muirfield Golf Links in Scotland, is the tradition that started all others.
The oldest of any major championship, the 2013 Open Championship will mark the 142nd event in history, by far the greatest of any other major. The U.S. Open is the second-oldest at 113 tournaments, a difference that shows why the British Open carries so much weight for players from all countries and walks of life.
Played on traditional, links courses that have become almost relics in today's modern course designs, the Open Championship courses boast perhaps the most unique set of conditions in any major. The courses aren't jaw-droppingly long for the most part, the fairways are mostly kept to a size most would consider fair.
But with course conditions that vary from minute to minute, greens that can confound even the world's best and rough that feels like you're weed-eating through marsh, things tend to get a little sticky when you make a mistake. You don't have to boom the ball to stay in contention. You have to hit it hard so the wind won't send your ball sailing into a fairway bunker or into the thicket.
Describing a course like Muirfield is easy. It's beautiful, a classically designed relic built by Old Tom Morris that almost makes you want to buy a pair of high pants and start making your own butter—until you remember that making your own butter was terrible that time in seventh-grade home economics.
One way you wouldn't describe the course, though, is forgiving. Not even the greatest players in the world will walk out of here unscathed, which makes watching the favorites this week all the more interesting. The oddsmakers are giving the nod to your usual cast of characters for this year's Open Championship, so these are names you've definitely seen before.
But do they have a chance? Here's a quick look at how the biggest favorites this year could fare.
*Odda via Bovada
Tiger Woods (8-1)
If history is any indication, Woods either has his best or worst shot to win a major in five years this week at Muirfield. The world's top-ranked golfer is a heavy favorite this week—no one else is any better than 16-1 odds—which is a fact that's starting to take on boy-cried-wolf connotations.
It's been a half-decade of Woods being the favorite, playing the part of the favorite and then never quite finishing the job. While no one would ever accuse Woods of being anything less than great—he already has four wins this year on the PGA Tour, one fewer than Justin Rose's career total—it's also true we're well beyond the point of measuring Eldrick by mid-tier victories at courses he dominates.
Favored again by Muirfield, Tiger will have to overcome one of his career's greatest frustrations to come away victorious. Halfway through what could have been a Grand Slam the last time The Open Championship was at this course, Woods was just two shots behind the leaders through 36 holes.
And then all hell broke loose. Conditions worsened as the day went along, and by the time Tiger stepped to the tee, he was playing in a near-impossible situation. Woods carded an 81, fell out of contention and watched on as Ernie Els captured the Claret Jug. To make the insult even worse, he went out in Round 4 and drilled a fantastic 65, meaning he would have made the playoff had he somehow kept his score at 75—a manageably bad number.
Over time Woods has become better at doing just that. It's rare at majors to see him just toss up a score that makes you shudder, but it's even rarer to see him card one that makes your eyes mist with pride. This version of Tiger will win not by pulverizing the field but merely by not buckling when so many around him do.
That's what makes Muirfield an interesting fit for his game. Tiger is in the midst of one of his greatest putting seasons ever, ranking fourth in strokes gained thus far. If he can putt well, continue driving at an average accuracy rate, which he's also done this year, then bad luck may be the only thing that can keep him out of contention this week.
In the battle of Tiger vs. The Field, I favour the latter. But Woods, especially considering his affinity for links games, has a real shot at finally getting over the hump here.
Justin Rose (16-1)
Things could be going worse for Justin Rose right about now. He's a major champion, up to third in the world golf rankings and has been on an extended run of consistent excellence that dates back to the 2012 Masters.
Going into a tournament where he once tied for fourth as an amateur, Rose has to feel good about making it two straight titles, right? Well, not exactly. Use whatever adjective you'd like to describe Rose's Open Championship performances since that surprising run in 1998—just don't make it a positive one.
Rose has played in 10 Open Championships since his initial run at Royal Birkdale. He's missed four cuts and never finished any better than a tie for 13th. In fact, as Rose has made his run up the world golf rankings, the one major event where he's seemingly gotten no better is playing the old links. Rose missed the cut at St. Andrews in 2010 and again last year at Royal Lytham, with tie for 44th thrown in at Royal St. George's two years ago for good measure.
While Rose's U.S. Open victory broke the so-called curse on English golfers that nearly stretched two decades, history says he's not much of a contender at Muirfield. It's a course that would seemingly play to his accurate tendencies and strong driving off the tee, but the performances in the past just seem to indicate he's not a great fit for links golf.
Now it's possible that getting over the hump at Merion will only boost his esteem and he'll pull off the shocker. It would mark a year of triumph for the United Kingdom, as Andy Murray's Wimbledon win has the entire country still standing with goose pimples.
Underlying numbers point to Rose being a strong contender this week. History says he stands no chance. Which will win out? We'll just have to see.
Phil Mickelson (16-1)
Speaking of having a checkered past across the pond, Lefty's struggles on links courses have been well-documented. Known for his propensity to take big chances—both ones that blow up completely and ones that help him raise championship trophies—Mickelson's Open Championship history has been filled with the former.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Mickelson has exactly two top-10 Open Championship finishes. He has at least eight at every other major on the calendar. And to make matters worse, Lefty has missed the weekend twice the amount of times he's finished in the top 10 and more than quadrupled that with finishes outside the top 50.
There are some players who are just poor fits for particular course types. Guys like Dustin Johnson tend to struggle on courses with narrow fairways like most U.S. Open courses, as their inaccuracies off the tee put them in a never-ending series of untenable second shots.
Links courses are equally vexing for Mickelson. You need a combination of things to go wrong on links courses—bad tee shots being chief among them—but it's more a sense of being able to recoup from mistakes. Everyone is going to hit an errant tee shot that costs them one or two strokes. It's bound to happen.
The difference between good links players and ones who struggle—a la Mickelson—is that the latter group tends to turn those one- or two-stroke holes into three or four. Or they compound their mistakes by trying to force the course to give you a stroke back. Courses like Muirfield will give a player what it pleases.
Mickelson did an excellent job of staying within himself last week at the Scottish Open, winning in a playoff for his first European victory in two decades. He played a calm and collected style for the most part—fourth round somewhat exempted—that even saw him go without a bogey in the third day. That's not the Lefty anyone is used to on these courses, even if the Scottish Open played almost laughably easy this year.
And that's part of the problem with taking anything major from that triumph. Going from the Scottish Open to the Open Championship will be like taking your skill level from rookie to All-Madden in Madden 25. Going and expecting the same ticks from a week ago to work again is an extremely flawed strategy.
Mickelson is smart enough to know this, but will he be good enough to execute? History, like it does with Rose, says no.
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