Just ask the players. The Open Championship test is like no other because unlike the one-dimensional bomb-and-putt target golf they play for the rest of the year, links courses offer so much variety, and they demand so much more from a player’s arsenal, like the forgotten skills of imagination and shot creativity.
Where else does nature have such a profound impact on your prospects? Where else is the time of your draw so critical? Where else can you play an almost unreachable par four one day only to drive it the next? Where else must the players truly appreciate the bounce of a ball, the swirling wind or the fact that keeping the ball along the ground may be your best option?
From a player’s perspective, it is hard to process all of this information so quickly. It’s hard to trust yourself when there are no visible targets, like trees to line up off. It’s hard to judge the impact of a cross wind especially when you have to start a ball over unplayable gorse bushes or penal pot bunkers and trust that the wind will play its part. And then there is just the pure unfairness of it all — the perfectly hit shot that catches a gust of wind and makes you look like a complete novice.
The experienced Adam Scott knows all about the perils of playing links golf, having been unceremoniously humbled, as recently as 2012, when blowing a four-shot lead on the 15th hole of the final round of the Open at Lytham St Annes.
These days, with so much competition, it is very difficult to win a tournament, let alone a major championship. Given that the two most successful golfers of all time, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, have a career winning percentage of approximately, 16 and 25%, it gives you an understanding of just how hard it actually is to win one of only four major championship annually.
The great golf writer Charles Price described the challenge perfectly, when he compared it to walking a tightrope. “Ordinary golf… is like walking a tightrope when it’s just off the ground. Tournament golf is when they raise the rope to 60 feet. Championship golf is when they take the net away.”
In championship golf, there is no room for error. No one remembers who finishes second. Playing for a place in history can be an overwhelming burden but success in major championships is how the greatest players measure their careers.
This week only one man can win, so favourites aside, who of the “outsiders” has a real opportunity to climb that mountain and mingle with the game’s most accomplished players by winning their first major championship this week?
More and more, golf is becoming a young man’s game, with players 35 or younger winning three-quarters of all majors since 1960.
Putting is mostly a young man’s game. So too is power.
It’s somewhat surprising, then, that the average age of a major champion is still 32, which suggests that experience still counts for an awful lot.
Many of the best golfers of the last half-century stopped winning majors in their early 30s, players like Arnold Palmer (34), Tom Watson (33), and Seve Ballesteros (31). Even the great Tiger Woods won his last major at 32.
Sure, there are always exceptions in golf, like Ernie Els’s victory at 42 in 2012, but it should be noted that statistically, players like our own Pádraig Harrington and indeed Els this week have less than a 10% chance of winning. So who has the experience, the shot-making skills, the patience as well as the ability to win this week?
Sergio Garcia, 36
Twice a runner-up at the Open, he has all the ability. His form is good and Troon places a huge emphasis on accuracy off the tee box. His short game is back to somewhere near his best, so it should allow him to take advantage of the small greens. But has he the temperament to win? He vanished, all too easily, down the stretch at Oakmont but the Open Championship still represents his best opportunity to win a first major.
Shane Lowry, 29
Still a novice when it comes to competing for majors, but his win in last year’s WGC in Ohio and brilliant performance in last month’s US Open suggests he is now comfortable competing with the very best.
That said, his game is still dogged with inconsistencies, more a result of a loss of concentration than anything else. His US Open experience will have told him a lot; especially that he needs to trust himself, so he needs to show a little more “flow and trust” in his ability, especially his short game.
Ricky Fowler, 27
Although his form is indifferent, Fowler has proven his big game temperament time and again. He has all the shots so he will love the challenge that Troon presents. Should he find his form, then expect him to dominate the small putting surfaces. My biggest concern is that he is usually a slow starter so he needs to take some chances. He has nothing to lose but plenty to gain.
Henrik Stenson, 40
The elder statesman, this week represents one of his final opportunities to really contest for a major championship. He has form at previous Opens and his accuracy and sound course management could prove a winning formula. His putting is always a concern but the slower surfaces should help.
Branden Grace, 28
Destined to win many majors before his career ends. He has already had his chances, like at Chamber’s Bay. His game is simple with very few faults. His mind is also very good so expect the experience gained in recent years to count in the very near future.
While all these players know a victory this week will define their careers, its imperative they don’t get caught up in making the occasion almost too important. The real challenge will be whether or not they can use the Open Championship to define themselves, by summoning up the ability to deliver their best performance, when all around are trying to do the same.
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