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Thursday sees the 145th staging of the Open Championship begin and for the ninth occasion it is being staged at Royal Troon. First staged in 1860 when Willie Park, one of only eight entrants, carded the lowest score over two rounds played in a single day,
Played on a links course every year, it is the major which provides a form of golf which captures its’ intended essence and for the ninth time it is Royal Troon (simply “Troon” until 1978) which will provide the test. A traditional out-and-in seaside links course which is set on the Ayrshire coast, it is a tale of two nines with the wind usually helping on the front nine before becoming a hindrance on the way home. With the help of a prevailing wind the first three holes can become driveable par-fours for players like Dustin Johnson while the par-five fourth can be reached in two. Low scoring for the start of a player’s round is very possible and the remainder of the front nine offers a player in form, experiencing the right conditions, to pick up further shots.
The back nine however, is a different story and holes 10-12 provide the toughest test – they were the three hardest holes by average score in the last edition at Troon in 2004 – where many a challenge will be scuppered. 13-18 are a mixed bag with opportunities to pick up shots at the 13th, 14th and especially the par-five 16th (which was ranked easiest in 2004) but at 15, 17 and 18 lie all kinds of danger with bunkers, headwinds and out-of-bounds areas all expected to dirty players’ scorecards.
The weather, as always with links golf, will play a huge part in the destiny of the Claret Jug – Rory McIlroy’s victory two years ago was aided by some favourable tee-times on the first two days - with the course’s defences vulnerable if the wind is not strong and the fairways are dry and running hard. On the flip side, a strong wind will cause havoc and the vast majority of the players will be shooting over par with more than a handful signing for 80+.
At the time of writing, the forecast for the four days is for generally calm conditions with a strong breeze on Thursday but this is subject to change and the forecast for links courses usually does change, and often changes sharply.
Patience is key to a successful challenge and this is borne out by the fact that seven of the last 10 winners of this event have been 35 or over while the experience required to master the links test is highlighted by the fact that 13 of the previous 16 winners were competing in at least their seventh Open Championship and had recorded at least one finish in the top-six at the event.
As well as Johnson ticking all these boxes last year, Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson were all over the age of 40 when winning the Opens between 2011 and 2013. 59 year-old Tom Watson famously missed a short putt to win the title before losing in a play-off to Stewart Cink in 2009 while at six years younger, Greg Norman took a two-shot lead into the final round the previous year but was overhauled by Padraig Harrington’s majestic 32-shot back nine to deny him a third major victory.
List of previous winners at Royal Troon
1923 - Arthur Havers (England) +15
1950 - Bobby Locke (South Africa) -1
1962 - Arnold Palmer (USA) -12
1973 - Tom Weiskopf (USA) -12
1982 - Tom Watson (USA) -4
1989 - Mark Calcavecchia (USA) -13 (playoff)
1997 - Justin Leonard (USA) -12
2004 - Todd Hamilton (USA) -10 (playoff)
While Locke, Palmer and Watson would make anyone’s shortlist for the 10 greatest players to ever pick up a golf club, the victories here were Calcavecchia, Leonard and Hamilton’s only major wins – and came at big prices with the bookmakers - so a surprise winner at tasty odds cannot be ruled out here this week.
Last 10 Open Winners
2015 - Zach Johnson -15 (playoff)
2014 - Rory McIlroy -17
2013 - Phil Mickelson -3
2012 - Ernie Els -7
2011 - Darren Clarke -5
2010 - Louis Oosthuizen -16
2009 - Stewart Cink -2 (playoff)
2008 - Padraig Harrington +3
2007 - Padraig Harrington -7 (playoff)
2006 - Tiger Woods -18
However, the Open Championship seems to have a way to let the cream rise to the top with the last 10 winners only featuring two players – Clarke and Cink – who didn’t claim more than a single major in their career.
Last year St. Andrew’s hosted a thrilling staging of golf’s oldest major with a string of narratives and stories combining to produce an all-time classic. Jordan Spieth, fresh from winning the Masters and US Open earlier last year, missed the chance to win a third major on-the-bounce – and in doing so, set up a shot at completing a magical grand slam at the US PGA – finishing just a single shot off a play-off spot. Dustin Johnson, who handed the US Open to Spieth by taking three putts from 12 feet on the final green, played superbly to lead at the halfway stage before falling away dramatically over the weekend to eventually finish tied for 49th place.
Padraig Harrington turned back the clock and held a share of the lead early in the final round – which was on the Monday after a series of weather delays – before his putting woes saw him fall out of contention. Perhaps the greatest story of the lot was the Irish amateur Paul Dunne leading after three rounds, the first amateur to do so at the event since 1927 and the lowest 54-hole score by an amateur, before the pressure told on the final day.
Jason Day, so long the bridesmaid at golf’s four biggest events, left a putt on the 72nd hole centimetres short to miss out on a play-off while Louis Oosthuizen, Marc Leishman – whose wife almost died earlier in the year – and Zach Johnson made the extra holes. Leishman dropped out of contention first with Johnson’s supreme putting eventually edging out 2010 champion Oosthuizen by a single stroke.
A twisting, turning major for the ages and while we are unlikely to see another with so many different threads running through it, this year’s edition should have enough to draw the viewers in for the four days.
On Wednesday we’ll take a long look through the potential contenders before hopefully picking the man who will leave with the Claret Jug on Sunday evening.
You can catch all four days of the Open Championship LIVE on eir Sport