SOUTHPORT, United Kingdom: While uncertainty surrounds the form of leading names such as Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, the British Open begins at Royal Birkdale on Thursday (Friday in Manila) with a plethora of players hopeful of winning the Claret Jug.
When The Open last came to the links at Southport, near Liverpool on the coast of north-west England, it was 2008 and Tiger Woods had just won the US Open.
That was his 14th major, but Woods has not won any since and no longer does a single player dominate the sport.
The last nine majors have all been won by a different name, going back to Jordan Spieth’s back-to-back victories at the Masters and US Open in 2015.
Indeed, the last seven majors have all been claimed by players who had never previously taken one of the sport’s biggest prizes, including Brooks Koepka at last month’s US Open and Henrik Stenson in The Open at Troon 12 months ago.
“I think it’s a really impressive stat and it speaks to the state of the game. There are a lot of tremendous young players right now,” Spieth, the 23-year-old world number three, said on Tuesday.
“And then you’ve got guys like Henrik and Dustin, guys who are still young, but guys who have been around in contention many, many times, and it was sooner or later going to happen, and it did. It was just a matter of time for them.”
But, with the likes of Japan’s world number two Hideki Matsuyama looking a threat, can another first-time winner lift the Claret Jug in front of Birkdale’s distinctive white Art Deco clubhouse on Sunday evening?
“I think there’s a lot more guys who haven’t won majors than guys who have that are playing, so the chances are it is going to be somebody that hasn’t won one,” added Spieth.
Spieth’s game is in a better place than world number one Johnson, who sat out the Masters with a back injury and missed the cut in last month’s US Open at Erin Hills.
Nevertheless, Johnson, 33, has remained the favorite for the $1.845 million first prize with most bookmakers this week, while fourth-ranked McIlroy looks to climb out of a worrying slump.
He has missed the cut at three of the last five majors and also failed to make the weekend on the links at the Irish Open and Scottish Open recently.
Padraig Harrington was the last winner at Birkdale, a stunning par-70 course that winds its way through the sand dunes, nine years ago.
He is the last player to successfully defend the Claret Jug, and Stenson will hope that is an omen for him, although he must know the sort of golf that saw him defeat Phil Mickelson on the last day at Troon was once-in-a-lifetime stuff.
“I think once you win one, obviously that’s off your shoulder. And it’s more about putting yourself in contention again and trying to win a second one,” the Swede, 41, said on Tuesday.
Five of the last six Open champions have been aged 39 or older. In 1998, Birkdale crowned the 41-year-old Mark O’Meara, although a fresh-faced 17-year-old Justin Rose finished fourth as an amateur.
Rose, along with local lad Tommy Fleetwood, now look the best bets for a first English winner since Nick Faldo in 1992.
Birkdale is hosting The Open for the 10th time all told, with Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer among the former champions here.
The latter won the first of his two Opens at Birkdale in 1961, and a plaque sits by the 16th fairway to commemorate a famous shot he hit from a bush on his way to the title.
The course has great history and poses a formidable challenge, not least if the weather deteriorates.
Conditions were glorious on Monday and Tuesday but it is set to be much cooler and more unsettled for Thursday’s first round and there is a risk it could be downright unpleasant by Friday.
“I think it’s the fairest links golf course we play, it rewards great golf,” said Rose.
“But we really haven’t played this course in good weather. This week might not be great.”