There is something special about an Open Championship that makes everyone in the field believe they can lift the famous Claret Jug on Sunday evening.
Which is why, between the hours of 6.35am this morning and 4.16pm this afternoon, the first tee box on Carnoustie’s championship links will be the most optimistic place on the planet, as 156 golfers get their opening rounds underway at the 147th Open.
Not all, of course, will even get a sniff of the rare air at the top of the leaderboard, though the strength of major championship fields in recent years has become so deep that Rory McIlroy believes half of this week’s players have a realistic opportunity to claim golf’s oldest and most storied prize.
For McIlroy, the 2014 winner at Hoylake, and defending champion Jordan Spieth, this week’s Open provides an opportunity to find something both have felt has been lacking in their games, such are the restorative powers of this tournament.
In each case, it is a mental spark as fresh as the North Sea air that is chief on their list of requirements.
“Coming to an Open Championship requires a lot of feel and imagination, and I think that’s what I needed a bit of in my game,” said Spieth, 24, this week after he returned the Claret Jug he collected for the first time at Birkdale 12 months ago.
“I’d gotten very technical and very into making everything perfect instead of kind of the way that I normally play, so this week kind of provides that opportunity where you don’t know how far the ball is necessarily going to go off the tee.
McIlroy, five years Spieth’s senior and searching for his first major victory since 2014, the year in which he won both The Open and PGA Championships to take his tally to four, is also seeking the carefree attitude he possessed when he made his Open debut at Carnoustie as a fresh-faced, curly-haired 18-year-old in 2007, winning the Silver Medal for finishing low amateur. If only he could rekindle that teen spirit.
“It was actually nice playing [a practice round) with Jon Rahm, because the first instinct he has is get up on a tee box and pull a driver out of the bag. Not think about the trouble or think about anything. Just, this is where I want to hit it, and this is where I want to go,” said McIlroy yesterday, returning to a theme he had mined at Ballyliffin two weeks ago.
“I just think, as you get a little older, you get a little more cautious in life. I think it’s only natural. I think it’s more of that. It’s more of playing with the freedom and, you know, almost like, I don’t want to say naive, but there is something nice about being young and being oblivious to some stuff, and I think that I remember back to when we last played The Open here, and, look, I was just happy to be here. I was bouncing down the fairways, didn’t care if I shot 82 or 62. I was just happy to be here.
It took seven attempts to convert silver into gold and be proclaimed the Champion Golfer of the Year and having missed his title defence due to a football injury, his two appearances since have seen the Irishman finish fifth at Troon in 2016 and fourth last year behind Spieth at Birkdale.
“Surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament, but at the same time, I’ve grown up on these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot, I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course. You’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit it and where not to hit it.
“Yeah, it’s been a good run. Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St Andrews (in 2015). I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major. I did something slightly silly a couple of weeks before, and I’ll have to wait a few more years to get my chance there.
“My form’s been good in The Open. I’ve played well. Even the fifth and the fourth the past couple years, I haven’t... Phil [Mickelson] and Henrik [Stenson] were so far ahead of everyone else at Troon, and I was on the fringes of contention when Jordan made that bad start last year at Birkdale, but I made bogey on 15, and that really sort of stopped me in my track, but I’ve played well.