British Open Picks 2015: Dark-Horse Candidates to Win the Claret Jug

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2015

British Open Picks 2015: Dark-Horse Candidates to Win the Claret Jug

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    Jimmy Walker is a dark horse with his eye on his first major.
    Jimmy Walker is a dark horse with his eye on his first major.LM Otero/Associated Press

    The Open Championship takes center stage this week with the biggest storyline resting squarely on Jordan Spieth’s 21-year-old shoulders: Can he win three majors in a row and keep the calendar Grand Slam alive?

    Rory McIlroy won’t make the trip to St. Andrews to defend his title, but that leaves the door open for some of the serious contenders and, of course, some dark horses to hoist the jug.

    Players coming out of the Scottish Open and the John Deere Classic will be hoping to ride some hard-fought momentum or dispense with forgettable pre-Open Championship efforts.

    The following golfers are a mix of players that don’t, on the surface, inspire images of Claret Jugs, but if they catch the right wave, they could find themselves in contention on Sunday at St. Andrews.

Luke Donald

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    Andrew Redington/Getty Images

    Most Recent Result: Tied for seventh at the Scottish Open

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: Luke Donald qualified for the Open Championship at the Travelers Championship after several players fell off the pace at TPC River Highlands.

    After finishing in a tie for seventh at the Travelers and the Scottish Open, Donald could be primed to win his first major in his native U.K.

    Being outside the top 50 in the world made Donald perform best when the stakes were highest.

    “Having had to go through qualifying, it felt good to come through when the chips were down and I needed to come up with the goods,” Donald said in Bob Harig’s ESPN.com story. “And I was able to do that. Everybody earns their way in, but when you earn your way that way, you feel like there's an extra pat on the back."

    His berth in the Open Championship wasn’t a given and playing that well under the gun makes him a dark horse at St. Andrews.

Matt Kuchar

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Most Recent Result: Tied for second at the Scottish Open

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: Matt Kuchar fully expected to be teeing the ball up in a playoff at the Scottish Open. Then Rickie Fowler went on a victorious run that ended in a birdie on No. 18 and the outright win.

    Kuchar said, “Little Rickie.”

    That’s got to sting to have the tournament swiped out from under him, but being in contention in one of the most integral Open Championship prep tournaments must give Kuchar lots of confidence heading to St. Andrews.

    The greatest stat in his back pocket is his putting. Kuchar ranks seventh on the PGA Tour in strokes-gained putting. So long as he keeps rolling the ball with that degree of aplomb, he’ll be a contender from the stable of dark horses.

Victor Dubuisson

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    Most Recent Result: Tied for 10th at the Scottish Open

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: Links golf seems to be right up Victor Dubuisson’s alley. He finished high up the leaderboard at the Scottish Open firing three rounds under 70.

    A year ago he finished in a tie for ninth in the Open Championship, and despite being a bit of a pariah, he has the type of game that can result in a big result at St. Andrews.

    He, like Matt Kuchar, hangs his visor on his putting. On the European PGA Tour, where he spends most of his time, Dubuisson ranks 10th in putts per green in regulation with 1.722. The real problem is getting to the green.

    Dubuisson has hit only 65.5 percent of said greens—just 11.8 per round—and that could be his undoing. Cleaning that up will go a long way for this young player.

Brooks Koepka

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Most Recent Result: Tied for 22nd at the Scottish Open

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: Brooks Koepka is only 25 years old and gets washed over by names like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed. And, to some extent, rightfully so.

    Koepka isn’t in their league yet, but he has won a tournament on the PGA Tour (the 2015 Phoenix Open) and that grants him entry into the club, just not the VIP room.

    Koepka said in Doug Ferguson’s Associated Press story (h/t PGA.com):

    Whether it be success or failure, I have learned a lot. I think I won maybe two, three times in college. But it's funny. Looking back, I have won on the Challenge Tour, one in Europe and one here now. It's been special. But my drive, I think, is what it is. I want to be the best player in the world. I'm not there yet, and I know it's going to take time. But I want to get to that point.

    No, he isn’t there yet, but a top-five finish at the U.S. Open in 2014 proved that Koepka can play on the major stage.

    Add to that his top-10 length off the tee and ranking eighth in strokes-gained putting, and that’s more concrete evidence that he’s a sleeper pick to contend at St. Andrews.

Jimmy Walker

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Most Recent Result: 82nd at the Scottish Open

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: The way Jimmy Walker handled the first round at the Scottish Open suggests he will play very well at St. Andrews. That was a five-under 65 to open the tournament.

    It’s that putrid eight-over 78 on Saturday that sank his ship and sent him to the bottom of the leaderboard ahead of just one post-cut player.

    His latest effort at the Scottish Open makes it easy to forget that he finished in a tie for second at the Byron Nelson and a tie for third at the CVS Health Charity Classic.

    Walker is easy to overlook, but do so at your own risk.

Kevin Kisner

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Most Recent Result: Tied for 35th at the John Deere Classic

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: Kevin Kisner doesn’t do any one thing exceptionally well, but he has a habit of finishing toward the top of leaderboards.

    He has six top 10s and three runner-ups (all of them in playoffs) in 2015. Since the RBC Heritage, Kisner has racked up five of his six 2015 top 10s. He has found a groove that he can possibly carry over across the Atlantic.

    "I keep knocking on it, I'll be there soon enough," Kisner said in Scott Michaux’s Augusta Chronicle story (h/t PGA.com). "I keep playing well, I'll win one of them."

    Kisner, 31, is playing the best golf of his career and he could sneak up and be a serious contender at the Open Championship.

Steven Bowditch

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Most Recent Result: Missed cut at the John Deere Classic

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: Proving you can win on the tour goes a long way to making you a contender—albeit tangential—to win a major golf tournament.

    Bowditch, coming off a disappointing missed cut at the John Deere Classic, won the Byron Nelson by throwing down the boom with an opening round 62. He carried that all the way through Sunday, finishing at 18-under par for his second career win.

    “I have always expected more myself and I think winning again, and the way I was able to do it, was a great feeling and I guess and for me it validates I am doing the right stuff and just getting more belief in what I am doing,” Bowditch said in the Daily Telegraph.

    What also makes Bowditch a dark horse is his play out of the sand. He ranks 11th in sand-save percentage and that will pair well with St. Andrews’ 112 bunkers.

Tiger Woods

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    Peter Morrison/Associated Press

    Most Recent Result: Tied for 32nd at the Greenbrier Classic

    Why He Can Win at St. Andrews: Tiger Woods has won at St. Andrews in 2000 and 2005, that last one where he famously kept the driver in the bag the entire four days.

    Woods finally got reacquainted with what it means to shoot multiple rounds in the 60s. At the Greenbrier, he shot three rounds in the 60s, the first time he had done so since the 2013 Barclays. Woods finished under par at a tournament for the first time since the Masters, so it’s a promising result as he continues his growth toward better swings.

    Woods said in Bob Harig’s ESPN.com story that he put in a lot of work:

    I feel good. Sunday at Greenbrier is probably the best I hit it in two years. That was fun. It sounds crazy when I told everyone at Greenbrier that I felt close, after the scores I shot at the Memorial and the U.S. Open. I just didn't quite have the feel yet. I shifted the baseline so much I just didn't quite have the feel yet.

    It’s too bad his game isn’t tight as of yet because St. Andrews is a course Woods chews up. Should Woods make a step forward off his performance in the Greenbrier, there’s reason to believe he can crack the top 20 and maybe higher as he did at Augusta National Golf Club this year.

    Twitter: @BrendanOMeara