On Tuesday morning, ESPN Radio had a featured segment with Scott Van Pelt, the jovial sports analyst and commentator reporting directly from the British Open host course Royal St. Georges in Kent, England.
Van Pelt’s description of the course environment sounded more like a horror movie than a major championship venue. Swirling winds, arid, rolling fairways, deeply entrenched sand traps and overall grueling conditions under ominous, English skies.
At the end of his analysis, Van Pelt offered just a single nugget of advice for the players, who will begin competition in less than 48 hours.
Those may not be the most encouraging words of wisdom, however it begs the question of just who among this international field will be able to tame the two-century-old beast of a course.
After a win at last week’s Scottish Open, which was highlighted by a dazzling final-round 63, Luke Donald is primed for a victory this week at the British Open. The Englishman has more momentum heading into this week than any other player in the field, even the boyish US Open hero Rory McIlroy.
When Donald tees it up Thursday, he will be playing in the comfort of his backyard. Born and raised in England, Donald understands the distinctive links style and challenge, which is partially what gave him a leg up in his victory in Scotland, as well as in his luminous history at the Open Championship, where he’s finished fifth and 11th over the last two years.
In addition to the sense of ease he will feel amidst the stormy, English conditions, Donald is brimming with a confidence unlike anything he’s ever had in his career.
It’s not hubris. It’s conviction.
In just the first half of this season Donald has been catapulted to the forefront of the golfing world with three prodigious worldwide victories; first at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, in which he beat out the World’s No.1 Ranked Player Martin Kaymer, second at the BMW PGA Championship in a playoff over his stalwart countrymen Lee Westwood that launched him to No.1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and then again this past Sunday at the Scottish Open with a bogey free, 9-under-par final round.
On the PGA Tour this season, he’s ripping through the competition statistically. He’s competed in ten events, made nine cuts, and finished in the top-10 eight times. The statistical thrashing continues. He’s ranked fourth in Putting, fourth in Birdie Average, third in Scoring Average, and first in Top-10 finishes (8).
Donald recognized the inhibiting elements of his game last season and has clearly made the necessary adjustments to become a competitive threat. In 2010, Donald ranked 120th in Driving Accuracy and 152nd in Greens in Regulation.
So far this season: 30th in Driving Accuracy and 55th in Greens in Regulation. There’s no doubt these improvements are paying off and this week will be about compiling all of the energy, determination, passion, and pride into four phenomenal rounds of golf.
Lee Westwood is quickly on his way to becoming golf’s next Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing; an absolutely terrific player who has proven his talent in a variety of competitive environments, yet never in the most prestigious and pressure-filled: a major championship.
Between 1997 and 2011, Westwood has accumulated 11 top-10 finishes in major championships, six of which have come over the last three years. Most professional golfers are lucky just to get invite to a major championship, whereas Westwood has been a constant contender throughout his career.
Yet his amazing run in the majors is clouded by the glaring void of an actual victory. But this year may just be the year that he breaks through.
He’s been playing outstanding golf this season, finishing in the top-30 in four events on the PGA Tour and in the top-15 in four events on the European Tour, including a victory at the Ballantine’s Championship.
He’s also continued his surge of major championship golf with a T11 at the Masters and a T3 at the US Open.
Unfortunately, Westwood has the tendency to get over-aggressive. His bold play often leads to overshooting greens and attempting to overpower tee shots. His success at the British Open will come down to a single factor: minimizing mistakes.
Not a single player in the field will do everything perfectly. Even in the midst of McIlroy's miraculous run at the US Open, he hit a ball in the water and committed a few bogeys.
Westwood will need to come to terms with the fact that mistakes are inevitable, and yet make sure that he does his best to minimize them.
For example, if he misses a green, he needs to miss on the side that does not filter into a sea of pot bunkers. Or if the hole is at the top of a tier, he will need to make sure he putts the ball with enough pace so that it does not roll back and cost him a few more strokes.
This will be about strategy and awareness and it will need to be constant throughout his four rounds.
Rory McIlroy isn’t talented. He isn’t good or tough, either.
McIlroy is a 22-year-old golfer on the verge of capsizing the golf world with a second, consecutive major championship victory at the British Open.
He captivated the sports world with a blowout victory at the US Open just a month ago. His triumph was so dominant that it was as if a massive wave crashed on Tiger Woods’ 13-year reign and then washed it away with the sand, leaving just a faint imprint.
McIlroy hasn’t competed over the last three weeks since winning the US Open, but he’s shown in his short, professional career that majors are his priority and puts more preparation into these events than any other.
He earned two top-10 finishes in the majors in both 2009 and 2010, and so far this season finished T15 at the Masters and then earned his first career major victory at the US Open.
McIlroy will enter Royal St. George’s with not only the confidence of links style play, but the newfound poise of a major champion.
When you mix these factors with his power, touch and nearly flawless swing, he may just be able to grab another major victory at the end of this week, capping another historic moment in the golf world.
On a course like Royal St. George that has been painted as a grueling test, only made more difficult by the unpredictable weather conditions, what player would have more of a chance to win than the guy best at staying out of trouble?
Enter Matt Kuchar.
Sometimes it’s all about the numbers and from this perspective, Kuchar, one of the few Americans projected to win the British Open, is a model for consistency.
Kuchar owns the third overall ranking on Tour, highlighted by his No. 4 ranking in Scoring Average, No. 15 in Greens in Regulation, and No. 11 in Birdie Average. He’s contended throughout the 2011 season and is currently tied with Luke Donald and Nick Watney with eight top-10 finishes.
Kuchar’s story is incredibly unique because while he emerged in the shadow of Tiger Woods in the late 1990’s, he went into a terrible tailspin throughout the 2000’s. But since last year, Kuchar has been rejuvenated and transformed himself into one of the most constant threats Tour.
He finished T27 at last year’s British Open and although he doesn’t have much experience across the pond, perhaps he has the overall experience to capture a victory this week.
Nick Watney’s game has been constantly evolving over the last few seasons and today he's emerged as one of the substantial American threats to taking home the Claret Jug.
Watney had one of his best seasons of his career in 2010, capturing eight top-10 finishes, two of which came in major championships (T7’s at the Masters and British Open), with a near victory at the PGA Championship.
However, now at the midpoint of the 2011 season and Watney is in the running for PGA Tour Player of the Year with victories at the WGC-Cadillac, AT&T National, and six other top-10 finishes.
His success has been a testament to his versatile game. He’s boosted his length off the tee to just around 300-yards (17th on Tour), his precision with his irons has provided him with viable scoring opportunities (14th in Greens in Regulation on Tour), and his touch on the greens has been the true catalyst for his two victories this season (fifth in Putting on Tour). Watney also ranks first overall in Scoring Average on Tour (69.40).
He clearly found his rhythm last year at St. Andrews on the links, shooting rounds of 67-73-71-71 and this week will require that same consistency, as well as resiliency in the face of adverse weather and the foreign, brutal conditions.
There’s no denying that he has the game to win, but executing the right shots at the right times will be the deciding factor in whether his name is etched into golf’s record books this Sunday.