The 2014 Open Championship begins Thursday at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake. Ahead of this renowned competition for the Claret Jug, there are several notable pieces of news to comb through that should help predict what will transpire in Merseyside, England.
According to OddsShark.com, Rory McIlroy is the odds-on favorite, listed at 10-1. A trio of accomplished golfers have 14-1 odds in Martin Kaymer, Henrik Stenson and and world No. 1 Adam Scott.
Not featured among those top favorites is Tiger Woods, who won the British Open at Hoylake in 2006. Woods will be competing in his first major of the year as a 16-1 favorite—the same odds Justin Rose garnered for winning Woods' own event, the Quicken Loans National, then the Scottish Open.
And of course there's Phil Mickelson, a 20-1 contender, who has struggled all season but will be defending his Open title after winning his first Open Championship at Muirfield.
Here is some analysis on the latest news, along with predictions to follow the notable developments preceding Thursday's start.
Tiger Woods Declares Himself Healthy
All indications are that Woods is ahead of schedule regarding his health. A nagging pinched nerve required back surgery and kept the game's biggest star out of the Masters and U.S. Open.
Sitting out those tournaments had to be devastating for Woods, the ultimate competitor. Now that he returns to the site of his last Open Championship triumph, to adoring fans aching to see him in action at a major, the anticipation couldn't be greater.
Woods is doing nothing to extinguish the hype when it comes to how he feels physically, per ESPN.com's Bob Harig:
I'm not favoring anything. The little baby steps worked. We were very diligent about what I was doing. Going into it we pushed it pretty hard to get my abs and glutes strong so when I did come back I was able to rebound fast. I can do whatever I want. I'm at that point now. We didn't think we'd get to that point until this tournament or the week after.
[...] Before I had the procedure, I was at the point I couldn't do anything. This is how I used to feel. I had been playing with [the back injury] for a while and I had my good weeks and bad weeks. Now they are all good.
If all of Woods' weeks are good health-wise, all it's going to take to return to his familiar perch atop the golf world is a few more competitive reps. Expectations will always be for Woods to win, especially since he's done so at Hoylake in the past.
Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee made an interesting cross-sports analogy to describe how Woods won by two in 2006, hitting just one driver instead of using his legendary power to bring Royal Liverpool to its knees:
For most of @TigerWoods career he was Babe Ruth but at The Open Championship in 2006 he was Lee Mazilli.— brandel chamblee (@chambleebrandel) July 12, 2014
There is also the need for Woods to snap his slump in major victories that stretches back to the 2008 U.S. Open.
But perhaps expectations should be tempered for Woods at the moment. Two rounds and a missed cut at the Quicken Loans National is the only tournament experience Woods has had since early March. While that should help, he may still be far away from returning to his "A-game."
Even if that's the case, though, Woods' B-game has often been better than the best most of his peers can play. That should be enough to at least hang around the top of the leaderboard until Sunday.
Prediction: Woods finishes in top 10.
Phil Mickelson's Confidence Not Wavering
Part of Mickelson's charm is how he sees the silver lining in every scenario. That has helped him overcome adversity on the course and bounce back for numerous victories. Having a wonderful short game helps a lot, as does a Hoylake venue that is more generous than most in The Open Championship.
Combine that with a tie for 11th finish in defense of his title at the Scottish Open, and it comes as little shock that Mickelson isn't concerned about his overall turbulent season, per Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press:
Normally, I would be discourage or frustrated, but I'm just not. I feel like I've had some good breakthroughs in some areas. I haven't had the results. I know I haven't played well. But the parts feel a lot better than the whole right now. And I don't know when it will all click together. I don't know if it will be this week. I don't know if it will be in three weeks or a month or what, but it should be soon.
Since he's already a fan favorite, Mickelson should have plenty of supporters in Merseyside. He had to have garnered far more respect for his willingness to adapt to the links game at Muirfield. Now he gets to enjoy a venue that should prove easier to score on.
A final-round 65 at the Scottish Open showed that Mickelson may have indeed figured something out on the greens. Now that he has a feel for this style of play, don't count Mickelson out from making a second straight run at the trophy.
Seeing is believing, though. Until Mickelson can find more consistency, particularly with his flat iron, where he ranks 109th on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting, banking on his talent and pedigree is the only way to endorse Mickelson as a legitimate contender.
Prediction: Mickelson finishes in top 15.
Rory McIlroy Hoping For Homeland Open Champion
If McIlroy has his way, Mickelson nor any of his compatriots will take the ultimate Open prize stateside.
The nation needs a bit of a lift at the minute from the World Cup - obviously it didn’t go too well - and Andy getting put out at the quarters at Wimbledon. So to get a home-grown winner at the Open would be great for the country. It’d be great to see one of the guys, whether it is myself or Justin (Rose) or Graeme (McDowell) or Lee (Westwood) or Luke (Donald), winning.
McIlroy has had flashes of brilliance all year long, but has been unable to string together 72 brilliant holes as of yet. Although that's always easier said than done in golf, the talent McIlroy possesses suggests it should be happening more often.
The second round has been McIlroy's downfall, per Golf Central:
A victory at the BMW PGA Championship saw McIlroy rally from seven strokes behind on the final day, so as long as he's within shouting distance of the lead at Hoylake, he has a realistic chance to win.
There's pressure on McIlroy to deliver in his home major. If he does, it will mean winning the third leg of the career Grand Slam at age 25. Should conditions be calm, McIlroy can use his high ball flight to stop the ball quickly and set up some nice birdie looks, provided he remains precise from tee to green.
This could play out similar to the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, where McIlroy carded an opening 63 followed by an 80, yet still managed to finish in a tie for third. It was by far his best finish, so expect something reminiscent of that at Hoylake, where birdies can be had in bunches.
Who will have the best finish in the 2014 Open Championship?
Should one of the candidates McIlroy suggested break through, though, those would be excellent stories as well. Rose has pressed too hard in the past at the Open, but solidifying his status as a multiple major champion would give him real momentum to be a future Hall of Famer. The same rings true for McIlroy's fellow Northern Irishman in Graeme McDowell.
Past top-ranked players Lee Westwood and Luke Donald are two of the best never to have won a major. What better way to get it done than to seize the Claret Jug after years of trials and tribulations?
One week can change the perception of a golfer and his entire career. There are so many legacies on the line in the 2014 Open Championship, so it will be worth tuning in to see who's in it to win it down the stretch.
Prediction: McIlroy finishes in top five.