Because of the unique challenge links golf presents, the British Open often produces the most surprising results of the four PGA majors. From Ben Curtis to Louis Oosthuizen, recent champions have often emerged from nowhere to hold off more vaunted golfers.
Royal Liverpool hosted one of the lower-scoring majors in recent history, as Tiger Woods won the event in 2006 at 18 under par. Making just his second start after returning from a debilitating back injury, Woods is no longer in his accustomed position as the bona fide favorite, as the pre-tournament odds illustrate:
via Vegas Insider as of July 14, 1 PM ET
However, that does not eliminate him from consideration. In fact, digging past the top favorites, a few dark horses stand out as particularly threatening contenders to win the Claret Jug this weekend. Below are predictions for where some of the top sleepers will finish, as well as forecasts for their form headed into the week.
Phil Mickelson: Top 15
It feels strange labeling the defending champion a dark horse, but Mickelson had accrued just two top-10 finishes in 19 Open Championship starts before winning his first Claret Jug last year.
Despite failing to accrue a top-10 finish all season on the PGA circuit, a move overseas could actually benefit the 44-year-old. As the Associated Press (via Golf.com) relays, Mickelson has adjusted his game to embrace the quirks inherent in links golf:
Mickelson is a big fan of the old Scottish courses -- and of Scotland in general. And he has learned to embrace the quirky challenges that characterize links golf, such as playing in fierce winds and dealing with the unpredictable bounce on undulating fairways, which is some feat given his Californian roots.
"I would love to be able to get out and play in that stuff that I never get a chance to back home, and have actually started to play pretty well in over the years," he said. "I've played some of my best golf in bad weather."
Mickelson finished 11th in his tuneup at the Scottish Open, equaling his best finish in the United States all year. In particular, a strong closing round of 65 could propel him to greater results at Hoylake:
Phil Mickelson might not win the Scottish, but he's building terrific momentum today going to the British Open. He's -5 today thru 11 holes— Randall Mell (@RandallMellGC) July 13, 2014
Few saw Mickelson's first British Open title coming last year, and fewer expect him to repeat given his poor 2014 form. However, look for Lefty to remain on the fringes of contention, even if a winning breakthrough may prove too unrealistic.
Sergio Garcia: Top 5
Garcia remains arguably the best active player to never win a major, and the British Open has been a particular source of chagrin in the past. With seven career top-10 finishes at the event, Garcia has had more success at the Open Championship than in any other major.
Garcia has yet to win in 2014 but is coming off a pair of top-three finishes at the Travelers Championship and the Players Championship. The 34-year-old Spaniard is approaching the tail end of his prime but still clearly possesses one of the highest ceilings on tour.
He also has some history at Royal Liverpool, as he finished in a tie for fifth when the event was held at the course in 2006. However, even that stellar result came with a bitter finish, as Garcia shot a 73 while playing in the final group with Woods.
Still, the odds are that Sergio will find himself in contention on Sunday. Whether or not he breaks through is an entirely different discussion, but he should once again thrive on a course where he has experienced past success.
Tiger Woods: Top 30
Calling Woods a sleeper is paradoxical, but such is the state of Tiger's game. After missing the cut at Congressional two weeks ago, expectations are extremely low for Woods this week.
Still, a healthy Tiger has proven a consistent threat at majors, even if he has not captured a title since 2008. Woods himself seemed to suggest that he had no physical limitations headed into the second start of his return:
He hasn’t played but one tournament, so how can he expect his swing to be swing to be consistent and accurate. Even before his surgery, he wasn’t playing well so when you have an operation and you’ve been out for three months, you’re not going to a better player. If he goes to Hoylake saying: 'I’m here to win and that’s the only thing’ then he would be telling a lie to himself.
In truth, simply making the cut could be deemed a success for Woods as he gears up for the PGA Championship and auditions for a Ryder Cup spot. Though Tiger may be healthy, do not expect his game to allow him to seriously contend on Sunday.