JOHN MCHENRY: Open’s variety of tests will reward senior stars

Before the first shot is hit in the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale this morning we are already guaranteed one thing: The tournament will be the most “open” and competitive championship of the four majors this year, writes John McHenry.

From a betting perspective, the bookies must be wary of the unpredictability of the one tournament where brilliant form or status mean nothing if inclement weather comes calling and the star player gets the wrong side of the draw.

On a stage most often dominated these days by aerial bombardment, the Open venues provide a refreshing change with their uneven lies, shaggy rough, penal bunkers, and typically slow greens.

Airborne may well be the preference but, around here, it’s the wind which dictates the terms and with most players under the age of 35 nowadays not comfortable with using the ground as a weapon or shot skills and imagination as a strategy, it is hardly surprising that the Open Championship more often favours the forgotten dinosaurs — the veterans of the game.

In the last 24 majors, the five oldest winners — Henrik Stenson (40), Phil Mickelson (43), Darren Clarke (43), Ernie Els (42), and Zach Johnson (39) — have all won the Open Championship, while only two winners since 2007 — Rory McIlroy (25) and Louis Oosthuizen (27) — have been under the age of 32.

By way of comparison, in that same period, there have been 10 US Open winners and six winners of both the US Masters and PGA Championships from the younger bracket.

As exceptional as this may sound, a player 38 years or older has won the Open 32% of the time in the last 25 years — while in the other three majors combined that average is only 10%. The contrasting averages for 40-year-old winners is just as large: 20% for the Open, 5% at the rest.

While the likes of our own McIlroy have openly complained about the element of chance (weather) playing too big a role in determining the winner of a major championship, few can argue with the drama generated by adversarial weather conditions or indeed the huge appreciation shown to the players by the knowledgeable crowds at the Open Championship.

So, before you head into the bookies for a flutter, study the week’s weather conditions and especially the form of the shotmakers or the older players in the field.

From an Irish perspective, Pádraig Harrington carries great links form coming into this tournament and as a past champion at this venue, he will be buoyed by the fact that his performances, and especially his putting, have been trending in the right direction.

While Darren Clarke is a shadow of his former competitive self, he can still play, especially on links golf courses — but you feel making the cut this week would be a bonus for the 2011 Open Champion.

Then we are left with Shane Lowry and McIlroy, both of whom are struggling with inconsistent form and what seems like very poor mindsets. These guys are meant to be the real deal — but right now neither are showing the necessary mental toughness, tenacity, or perseverance. Nor are they showing enough short memory or grit.

Lowry has all the links experience and shotmaking skills to be very competitive this week but unless he addresses his sloppiness in terms of the right shot selection at the right time, I can’t see him being competitive enough to be a factor on Sunday afternoon.

McIlroy, though driving the ball impressively well, shows no form in terms of his shot control variety around the greens and is suffering with a very “cold” putter. His body language suggests he wants to be somewhere else but he needs to get into the fight. At the very least, he needs to play four rounds and grind out a result.

This week, I am looking for a big performance from Justin Rose whose form is solid, if unspectacular, and Tommy Fleetwood. Both have the games to succeed, but for me Royal Birkdale is the perfect setting for Rickie Fowler to emerge from the chasing pack and win his first major title.

What’s very interesting when you dig into Fowler’s stats is that he really isn’t far off winning major championships. If winning is why the elite players are out there and the probability of winning fluctuates each week due to a number of tournament factors — the course setup, the weather, the quality of other golfers in the field — then Fowler and his legion of fans this week can take some comfort from the fact he has probably played his best golf in the biggest events. But more often than not, he has lost out to a form player like McIlroy who has destroyed the field.

Much like we have seen with Sergio Garcia in the past, wanting major success so badly can be a huge hindrance. Fowler will readily admit that he did not allow himself to play his best golf, when it mattered most, in the last rounds of this year’s Masters and US Open. For every time that he has fallen at the last hurdle, his task only gets harder.

To win this week, he has to block out the memory of all those loose shots and timid putts. He has to understand that Royal Birkdale is the type of course that will reward his accuracy, his shotmaking skills, and especially his putting.

There is no better time for him to go out there and get the job done. Should he do it, then the Open Championship will have another worthy name to adorn the Claret Jug and the game of golf will have no better ambassador.

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