The 2014 Open Championship is bound to be a tight one, as Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake yielded a ton of birdies the last time the event was held here in 2006.
That also marked the third and most recent Open title for Tiger Woods, who will be teeing it up Thursday in major competition for the first time all season. Woods has only two competitive rounds under his belt since early March, having missed the cut at the Quicken Loans National.
Phil Mickelson is the reigning champion, coming off a tie for 11th in defense of his Scottish Open title last week. That result is among the best for Mickelson as of late—it's been a troublesome season for him. Being the first-back-to-back winner of the Open since Padraig Harrington would serve as redemption.
World No. 1 Adam Scott figures to have a great chance thanks to his prowess from tee to green. Woods won at Hoylake by two strokes with a 72-hole total of 18 under par. If conditions are calmer, Scott figures to post a similar number and be in contention for the Claret Jug.
Many marquee threesomes are playing together over the first two rounds, so it's especially hard to single out the standouts. However, following a listing of the basic information for the Open is more detailed analysis on the top groups to watch for in the early going.
Note: Statistics are courtesy of PGATour.com unless otherwise indicated.
When: Thursday, July 17, through Sunday, July 20
Where: Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Hoylake in Merseyside, England
Tee Times: For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit TheOpen.com.
Winner's Share: $1,660,000
FedEx Cup Points: 600
Purse information was obtained from Reuters, via Yahoo Sports.
|Thursday, July 17||4 a.m. - 3 p.m.||ESPN|
|Friday, July 18||4 a.m. - 3 p.m.||ESPN|
|Saturday, July 19||7 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|Sunday, July 20||6 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.||ESPN|
Analyzing Marquee Groups
Young Guns: Rory McIlroy, Hideki Matsuyama and Jordan Spieth
It doesn't get much better than this in terms of getting a glimpse into the future of the game.
Shane Bacon of Yahoo Sports approved of the McIlroy, Matsuyama and Spieth cluster, as they represent different nations and have similar, abundant amounts of potential:
I hope Spieth/Rory/Matsuyama like playing with each other, because these major venues will be pairing them together for years.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) July 14, 2014
Golf is such a mental grind, but it's refreshing that McIlroy has been uncommonly vulnerable when addressing the media about his lapses in form since his prolific 2012 season.
McIlroy has been struggling, to say the least, with his second rounds in tournaments, and he wasn't afraid to be candid about it Tuesday, per CBSSports.com's Kyle Porter:
It's more that I just get it in my head and I may be putting a bit too much pressure on myself on Fridays in trying to back up a good score. I have no problem shooting a low one on Thursdays so there should be no reason I have any problem shooting a low one on Fridays. I need to go out and pretend like it's a Thursday again.
There is precedent for this in the British Open for McIlroy, as he shot a 63 in the first round at St. Andrews in 2010, only to follow it up with an 80 the next day. Although his uncanny ability to bounce back saw him finish tied for third—by far his best Open result—McIlroy still lost an opportunity that year.
A solid tie for 14th at the Scottish Open gives McIlroy some belief that his game can translate to links golf, but he did shoot a 78 in Round 2 last week. If he can just cut out the bad round or woeful stretches of holes, McIlroy could very well seize the third leg of the career Grand Slam this weekend.
The USA's great young hope is Spieth, who finished tied for seventh in a respectable defense of his breakthrough win at the 2013 John Deere Classic. Spieth's game has few weaknesses, so limited experience on links courses shouldn't hurt him as much as it would other American players.
For all the hype Spieth, 20, has rightfully garnered in his young career, the 22-year-old Matsuyama has just as many PGA Tour victories—and a more prestigious one, at that.
Matsuyama won the Memorial Tournament earlier this season against one of the strongest fields. The Japanese prodigy hasn't fared well at the 2014 majors, but he did tie for sixth at the 2013 Open Championship.
Stripe Show Trio: Tiger Woods, Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson
Putting three of the best ball-strikers in the modern era together, with their collective experience and past domination, should make for a compelling group. Given that Woods isn't a heavy favorite, Cabrera and Stenson won't be second and third wheels as much as is custom.
It certainly helps that Woods has won at Hoylake before. That should offset the rust factor to some degree, and the ample time he's had to prepare figures to help improve his distance control and feel from 100 yards and in, where the real difference in scoring lies.
Golf Central alluded to some encouraging history regarding Woods' pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' all-time major record:
ESPN Stats & Info highlighted how difficult it's been for Woods to position himself for a first major since the 2008 U.S. Open, though:
Speaking of his last major conquest, Woods put forth some convincing testimony at a Tuesday press conference, per Jon Ackerman of Back9Network.com.
"If you remember in '08 I had knee surgery right after the Masters," Woods said. "I won a U.S. Open (two months later). I didn't play more than nine holes, and the Sunday before the U.S. Open I didn't break 50 for nine holes and still was able to win it in a playoff, with a (torn) ACL and a broken leg."
At least give the man a chance. After all, a valid argument can be made that Woods is the best to ever play this game.
As rare as it is for Cabrera to pop up on the leaderboard, when he does, it tends to be in the biggest tournaments. The Argentine has won both the Masters and the U.S. Open, and he lost to Scott in a playoff at Augusta National last year.
Coming off a victory at the Greenbrier Classic in his last start, Cabrera figures to be a factor in The Open Championship. When all the pieces of his game are clicking, there are few better than the man known as El Pato.
Last year's runner-up finish was nothing for Stenson to be ashamed of. If not for Mickelson's extraordinary final round, Stenson would have been a major champion. That was just about all that was missing from Stenson's sensational 2013 campaign, wherein he won the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai.
Stenson is on a tear lately, finishing tied for seventh at the BMW PGA Championship, fifth at the Nordea Masters, tied fourth at the U.S. Open and joint runner-up at the BMW International Open. The trend of Stenson's strong results suggests he will be in it to win it come Sunday.
Bound For a Breakout: Ian Poulter, Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker
Which group is most likely to produce the 2014 British Open winner?
Johnson has done a good job of maintaining the early momentum from that monumental win, while Poulter hasn't quite been the same. Save for a missed cut at the Scottish Open, though, Poulter has been clicking better, finishing tied for sixth at the FedEx St. Jude Classic and joint 17th at the U.S. Open.
Poulter almost needs the maximum amount of intensity, pressure and national pride at stake to perform his best. The Ryder Cup dynamo often takes until later in the season to turn it on. Since that competition in September is approaching, now is the time for Poulter to flip the switch.
Per PGATour.com's Helen Ross, Poulter is battling a sore wrist. Given his passion and competitive fire, it may not matter. Ties for ninth and third in his past two Open starts point to Poulter putting in a solid effort at Hoylake. He's a far different player than the one who missed out on the weekend in 2006.
Ranked fourth in the FedEx Cup standings, Johnson could dominate in Merseyside if his putter and short game cooperate. On the cusp of his prime, he's missing only a major on his resume to be considered a legitimate superstar.
Poor scoring in the third round (ranked 101st on tour) has prevented Johnson from accomplishing more this year.
Similar to reigning PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner, Walker is a late bloomer, benefiting from the tutelage of Butch Harmon to win three times on tour this year.
The FedEx Cup points leader has done well in his first taste of major action with any sort of expectations, placing inside the top 10 at both the Masters and the U.S. Open. That means Walker, ranked second on tour in birdie average, shouldn't wilt as he continues his dream campaign.
Course conditions will be the key factor for all players involved in this week's Open Championship. More so than in any other major, golfers at The Open Championship are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Unpredictable bounces that occur in links golf force the world's best to tweak their game plans.
If scores are as low as they were in 2006, this Open will truly live up to its name in that it will be anyone's to win. The tougher and more blustery it gets, those acclimatized to such environments will be better suited to pursue the Claret Jug.
An intersection of golf's young studs, seasoned players trying to bolster their standing and Woods' return will create a magnificent British Open. If Woods again bounces back from health issues and is in the hunt for his 15th major title, then it will be a massive bonus. All parties affiliated with The Open Championship will be better for it, which has always been the case when Woods is in action.