As the players far from contention continue finishing their final rounds, 54-hole leader Lee Westwood stands on the precipice of history.
Westwood (-3) has a two-stroke lead over Tiger Woods and Henrik Stenson, the latter of whom he'll be playing with Sunday, and stands to make this the Summer of U.K.
Justin Rose's U.S. Open win set off the good times for the country, and a potential Westwood triumph would make for the first back-to-back major titles for English golfers in a very long time.
How long, you ask? Take it away, Oliver Brown of The Daily Telegraph:
The last time two English golfers won back-to-back majors, construction was just beginning on the Titanic.— Oliver Brown (@oliverbrown_tel) July 20, 2013
Oh, and Andy Murray became the first British winner of Wimbledon since 1936. Other than that, you know, it's been a horrible month for the United Kingdom.
However, finishing those two months of glory won't be easy for Westwood. Muirfield Golf Links has made for one of the most difficult Open Championships in recent memory. With gusty winds, and greens and fairways ostensibly made from asphalt, the scores have skyrocketed over the last two rounds—especially in the afternoon, when course conditions were near-unplayable.
It's very possible, as players get ready for their final 18 holes, that Muirfield joins Royal Birkdale as the only Open Championship this century to not crown an under-par winner. Conditions should again play in the low to mid-70s, as greens have only softened the slightest bit.
That means a leader who merely shoots par could pull this out.
With that in mind, here's a complete breakdown of our preview and predictions for Sunday's final leaderboard. Be sure to check back in with the live leaderboard and see how that does versus our early day projections for the Open Championship result.
2013 Open Championship Live Leaderboard
Round 4 Predictions
There Will Be No Lefty Comeback Story
If we're ranking Phil Mickelson's specialties, links golf would rank somewhere between creative nickname conjuring (we call him Lefty) and professional conservatism (see: Mickelson, Phil's whole career). He's historically hated going overseas, spending his July month flailing about and collecting a check, rarely with the opportunity to make a Sunday impact.
The popular statistic everyone pointed to heading into Muirfield was Mickelson's two career top-10 Open Championship finishes. That's a quarter of the times Mickelson has finished on the leaderboard of his second-worst major, the PGA Championship.
Well, Lefty is doing his best job at trying to up that total to three this week. Mickelson carded a one-over 72 Saturday, keeping himself on the fringes of contention for the championship at plus-two overall. He's stayed patient throughout the week, with his two major mistakes coming in Round 2—double-bogeys on Nos. 2 and 16—holes that could haunt his dreams come Sunday night.
Mickelson has eschewed the uber-aggression that so ingratiated him with fans over the years, clubbing down when necessary and not forcing the issue with shots. He's been among those not so pleased with the pin placement and course conditions, but you wouldn't necessarily know it based on his daily scorecard.
Though five behind, Yahoo! Sports' Jay Busbee is one of many who isn't ready to count out Mickelson just yet:
Mickelson finishes out at +2. He's still v much in the hunt. And Phil hunting is something you def. want to see.— Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) July 20, 2013
It's an understandable stance. If there is anyone in this field capable of going 65 Sunday and charging behind to win, it's probably Phil. The man's penchant for the spectacular outweighs his lack of comfort on links courses, at least from the narrative sense. Among the players hanging toward the middle of the pack, he's seen as the most likely comeback story, and that's just fine.
The problem with creating these lofty expectations is the inevitable disappointment when they don't come true. Lefty has shot one under-par round at Muirfield. It came on Thursday, the easiest day on the course by a significant margin and his only morning tee time. You can't take away Mickelson's two-under score that day, but he's hit just 57.5 percent of his fairways and 63 percent of his greens—both numbers that hang right about the tournament average.
Those aren't numbers that indicate a late charge is impending.
Lee Westwood's Inaccuracies Will Finally Come Back to Haunt Him
At age 40, Lee Westwood stands 18 holes away from winning his first major championship. Westwood has finished inside the top three seven times since 2008, including a second-place finish at the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews.
While he has only one PGA Tour win this decade (and only two overall), Westwood is a regular fixture around leaderboards and tends to always be on the precipice of a championship. He has nine top-five finishes in majors throughout his career and has finished in the top 10 five of the last nine.
The problem is: Westwood has never been able to put it all together and actually win one.
There is always one round that vexes him, whether it be a disappointing final-round 71 at the 2010 Masters or being unable to pull together a second superb round that year at The Old Course.
Luckily for Westwood, he doesn't need to be spectacular this time around. He holds a two-stroke lead through 54 holes, which all at once feels like a cavernous distance and inconsequential at the same time. If Westwood holds par Sunday, every feasible scenario on the planet has him winning the Claret Jug. Muirfield has been far too ruthless in the afternoon for anyone within striking distance to expect a score in the 60s.
It's 71 and kiss the jug for Westwood. He would become the second player this century to win his first major championship after turning 40, joining Darren Clarke's 2011 Open Championship victory, per ESPN's Justin Ray:
Lee Westwood trying to become 2nd player since 2000 to win 1st major after turning 40. The other was Darren Clarke at 2011 @The_Open— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) July 20, 2013
What could come back to haunt Westwood, however, is his reliance on getting himself out of tricky situations with the putter. Westwood's strategy all week has been attacking Muirfield hard, driving the ball at a 285.2-yards-per-attempt clip. That's right on par with Hunter Mahan's mashing ways and far beyond what the more conservative Tiger Woods is putting up.
While pushing forth on the tee makes sense if you're doing so accurately, Westwood has been anything but. He's hit 57.1 percent of his fairways and only 57.4 percent of his greens in regulation, rates that often put him in untenable lies. And frankly speaking, Westwood's insane 89 percent sand-save rate is unsustainable—even if it's only for 18 more holes.
There is no way anyone could predict Westwood will fall off a cliff Sunday. He's too good for that. But eventually, Open Championships punish players who can't find the fairway. That hasn't happened to Westwood yet, but it just might when he needs luck the most.
Tiger Woods Will Win His First Major in 5 Years
As someone who always takes the field and takes about the most pessimistic view one possibly can on Woods' outlook in major championships, I feel comfortable predicting him to win—possibly for the first time in my career.
Over this half-decade of disappointment, folks have talked themselves into Woods winning when all the mitigating evidence pointed in the opposite direction. He's never won a major when down coming into Sunday. He's been prone to have one round just bad enough to push him out of contention, and you never know when it's coming. He hasn't won a major championship since George W. Bush was president and Lil' Wayne's "Lollipop" was the No. 1 song in the country.
Tiger Woods (-1): has never won major without share of 54-hole lead— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 20, 2013
That latter fact matters, eventually. This isn't a small sample size anymore. Skepticism about Woods' chances of ever winning a major championship again is far more healthy than all the hand-wringing currently going on at the expense of Rory McIlroy.
That said, it's hard to remember a time when Tiger was playing this well at a major championship, either. Though one-under isn't exactly the most jarring score in the world, Woods has played perhaps the three best consecutive rounds of his career—especially when it comes to the Open Championship criteria.
Every year, players who win across the pond are among the best in driving and putting stats. Taking a conservative approach off the tee, clubbing down, and knocking the ball into the middle of the fairway has been a strategy many have suggested to Woods—often an up-and-down (at best) driver—in the past. He's taken a keenness to it this week, and the result has been sensational.
Through 54 holes, Woods is at 78.6 percent fairways hit—among the best in the field. That number is over 16 percent greater than his average for this PGA Tour season, and he hit every fairway on the front nine Saturday.
Couple the elite driving with Woods' 30 putts-per-round average, 15th in the tournament, and his 21 one-putts, and the formula for triumph is there.
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