Early Storylines Emerging Ahead of the 2014 Open Championship

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2014

Early Storylines Emerging Ahead of the 2014 Open Championship

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    The 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) begins July 17. The last time the tournament was contested at Royal Liverpool, Tiger Woods famously employed a driver-less strategy to win the tournament by two strokes.

    The win was a particularly emotional one for Woods, as it was his first major since the death of his father, Earl. One of the tournament's enduring images is Woods' tearful embrace with then-caddie Steve Williams. 

    Some eight years later, Woods will again be in the field (although that fact seemed doubtful until very recently). The former world No. 1's tournament entry is a significant storyline, as is his return to the site of his clinical display. 

    What else is newsworthy in the lead-up to the Open Championship? Click through to see.

The Defending Champ Isn't Looking Good

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    If you hadn't noticed, Phil Mickelson, winner of last year's Open Championship at Muirfield, hasn't been having a great year so far.

    Sure, he's made 12 of 15 cuts, but the left-hander doesn't have a top-10 finish in 2014, and he missed the cut at both the Masters and The Players Championship. And although he finished tied for 28th at the U.S. Open, Mickelson never threatened at Pinehurst No. 2, even though he entered the tournament on the short list of favorites. 

    Entering this year's Open Championship, Mickelson is the sixth- or seventh-most heavily favored golfer, according to Oddschecker—not exactly a ringing endorsement for the reigning champ by the world's bookies.

Some Version of Tiger Woods Will Be in the Field

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    This we know: Tiger Woods intends to participate in the Open Championship. This we do not know: what the state of his game will be. After a 100-plus-day layoff following back surgery, Woods returned to competition at the Quicken Loans National; he looked predictably rusty in his opening round. 

    Assuming Woods will not play the John Deere Classic the week before the Open (as he never plays the week before a major), his only other opportunity to tee up ahead of the season's third major will be next week's Greenbrier Classic. 

    It will be interesting to see if Woods decides to play in West Virginia to get a few more reps in before heading to Hoylake. Whatever he elects to do, the state of his game remains a wild card, as does his health, to a degree. Although, to the latter point, it's difficult to imagine his doctors letting him anywhere near a golf course if there was a significant chance he could compromise his recovery by swinging a club.

Despite Rust and Injury, Woods Is the Favorite

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    Looking at the 20-plus betting sites OddsChecker keeps an eye on, sportsbooks are pretty evenly split between Woods and Rory McIlroy as the favorite to win the Open Championship. 

    It's significant that Woods will have only had one or two tournaments under his belt entering the Open since returning from injury. It's significant, too, that prior to his surgery, Woods was off to a poor start to the season. Obviously, back issues contributed to his uninspired play, but opening the year in this fashion, T80, W/D, T25, before going under the knife, can't be taken as an encouraging sign. 

    Regardless, when the final odds are posted prior to the tournament, Woods will likely enter the Open Championship as the favoriteas he has nearly every year since he joined the tour in 1996. However, it's unlikely bettors will be putting nearly as much of their bankrolls behind Woods as they have in the recent past. 

    That could change, though, depending on what the Striped One does inside the ropes over the next two weeks.

Other Favorites: McIlroy, Scott

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    If you read the last slide, you learned McIlroy is the co-favorite (with Woods) to win the Open Championship. If you didn't read the last slide, well, McIlroy is the co-favorite (with Woods) to win the Open Championship. 

    McIlroy's play has been solid in this rebound season. Still, he hasn't won on the PGA Tour in 2014. He's made the cut in all 10 of his PGA Tour starts and finished inside the top 10 an impressive 60 percent of the time. He finished tied for eighth at the Masters and tied for 23rd at the U.S. Open. 

    Still, we expect wins and contention in majors from the young Ulsterman. Whether he's able to do either this year at the major he ought to be best suited to win is something we'll be watching closely. 

    From a newly single golfer to a newlywed: Adam Scott sits behind Woods and McIlroy in most sportsbooks' lists of favorites, according to OddsChecker. His performance, too, will be closely watched at Hoylake.

Rose and Westwood: Most Heavily Favored Englishmen

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    The Englishmen with the best shot at winning the Open Championship are Lee Westwood and Justin Rose, according to OddsChecker's survey of betting lines. Both are pegged around 25-1 odds and are thus given about a 4 percent chance of capturing the claret jug. 

    British papers in particular will be focusing on the performances of these two great hopes, and of course McIlroy, as a citizen of the UK, will attract much attention. 

    At last year's Open, Westwood finished tied for third. Rose carded rounds of 77, 75 to miss the cut.

New Qualifying Opportunities

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    The R&A has rolled out a new qualifying system for tour players. Over the course of 14 events, 56 players will qualify for the Open Championship by virtue of their strong play in one of the tournaments. The top four players at each venue not already in the field by other means will secure passage to Royal Liverpool. 

    As R&A chief Peter Dawson said of the decision, "The new move will allow the same range of players to have a go at entering the Open but be more straightforward in terms of their schedules, so they won't have a separate tournament to play in."

    As this is the first year the R&A has implemented the system, it and its ripple effects will be closely monitored as we progress toward the Open Championship.