On a venue few have seen before — Royal Portrush last hosted The Open 68 years ago — there are plenty of intriguing subplots as the year’s last major gets set to tee off.
1. Will Tiger be a factor this week?
Bob Harig: It is difficult to envision that at the moment. The lack of competitive golf is simply too much to overcome. Taking a vacation is understandable. Managing the various ailments that come from four back surgeries is prudent. But 10 rounds of competitive golf in three months is far from ideal. Then there is the entire aspect of learning a new golf course and putting on slow links greens and dealing with the potential for more poor weather. A lot needs to go right for Tiger to be a factor at Royal Portrush.
Michael Collins: Nope. For the same reason he wasn’t a factor at the PGA Championship. When the temperature drops and the bad weather sets in, Tiger’s back just won’t give him a break. He has also done a lot of traveling with the family leading up to this event, so “prepared” is not what I’d call TW.
Ian O’Connor: I don’t think so. Tiger sure didn’t sound optimistic about his chances in his Tuesday news conference. This is the one major above all that gives the older guys with old-guy aches and pains a chance to compete, but it’s hard to picture a big week for Tiger after he took a sabbatical between Pebble and Portrush. You can never completely rule him out. Given the circumstances, and his own words, I just find it difficult to rule him in.
Mark Schlabach: I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something to what Paul Azinger said earlier this week, that Tiger is too content after winning the Masters in April. Was winning his fifth green jacket his walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth? Was that the icing on the cake in his storied career? He just doesn’t seem too interested in doing what is required to win major championships, and he knows his body isn’t going to hold up through the wear and tear of playing frequently. If the temperatures drop and rain starts falling in Northern Ireland, he’s not going to have a chance to win. You can never count Tiger completely out, but I don’t think he’s going to be much of a factor at all. He simply hasn’t played enough.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz: No chance. Might be home on the weekend. Listen, I’m the one who said before the year began that he’d win two majors this season. He has one. So this is his last shot for a second. It ain’t happening. Even he admitted when he sat down for his media session Tuesday that his game isn’t where he wants it. For someone so confident in himself to say that out loud 48 hours before the tournament begins, that is not a good sign.
2. Pick one: A. Rory plays well at home, basking in the support. B. It’s too much pressure; he presses, then fades.
Harig: He is going to play well this week simply because Rory has been playing well all year. That is the key to contending at Royal Portrush, far more so than having a home-course advantage. The latter could be of importance if he gets into contention, and certainly there is some pressure to win another major, but playing well seems a given.
Collins: I’ll go with the second choice. Unlike other major sports, golfers playing great in front of the home crowd doesn’t happen very often. There are tons of reasons why, but the main reason is he might press. I spoke to a couple of HOFers in other sports who play golf. They said what drives them the craziest about golf is that in baseball and football, when you bear down and try harder, you can get great results. The opposite holds true for golf, Rory has proven that at the Masters, and it will be the same this week.
O’Connor: A. I like his chances. I picked him to win, but if he doesn’t, I think he will at least have a shot on Sunday. If Rory loses, I don’t think it will be a choke job — someone will just outplay him. Let’s hope for the sake of a good story that he’s right there in the end.
Schlabach: I’m picking him to win The Open, so I certainly hope it’s the former. There’s every reason to believe that there’s too much pressure on McIlroy playing in his native Northern Ireland this week, but his local knowledge and track record on links courses might push him to the top. He was playing golf as well as anyone in the world at the start of the season, but he wasn’t much of a factor in the first three majors. He had two top-10s, but he started poorly at the PGA and didn’t finish great at the U.S. Open. I think Rory salvages the majors season by winning the tournament that matters most to him.
Pietruszkiewicz: He’ll be in the hunt. I cannot imagine a scenario in which he misses the cut or is a weekend afterthought. He plays this event so well, he knows this place so well, he knows this country so well. Too much aligns here for him to walk away from Royal Portrush with just a so-so showing.
3. Any chance Brooks Koepka has an off week at a major? Or should we expect another run at another title?
Harig: It is certainly possible that Koepka could fade at The Open, although it would not be surprising in the least if he were to contend again. This is the one major where Koepka has yet to be a true Sunday factor, even though he finished sixth two years ago at Royal Birkdale. And his form in the two events after his runner-up finish at the U.S. Open have been less than impressive. Then again, Koepka never impresses at regular events. He is likely to be locked in here.
Collins: “So you’re saying there’s a chance?!” Remind me what happened at the end of “Dumb and Dumber” … did they leave with the bus full of models or not? Bet against Brooks Koepka in any major right now and you’ll be standing by the side of the road with Lloyd and Harry as the bus pulls away, too.
O’Connor: The law of averages works against him, but everything else about this week works for him. Koepka built his career overseas, playing in all kinds of conditions, and his caddie grew up on this course. Right now, Koepka is by far the best big-game player in the world. The most staggering upset of the week would be Koepka waking up Sunday with no realistic chance to win.
Schlabach: It’s a major, so of course Koepka is going to be near the top of the leaderboard. It’s what the guy does. He has a lot of experience playing links courses, and, oh, his caddie, Ricky Elliott, grew up in Portrush and played Royal Portrush as a junior. Koepka’s talent plus Elliott’s knowledge is going to equal another top-five finish — if not yet another victory in a major championship.
Pietruszkiewicz: I’ve questioned where he’d finish once this season in a major and been horribly wrong. I’m not going there again. Clearly, he loves major weeks, when the spotlight is on and he can stick it to anyone who thinks he’s not either the best player on the planet or in the conversation about who is the best player on the planet. How about a Koepka vs. McIlroy duel on Sunday afternoon?
4. Which player who no one is talking about could shock everyone and hold the Claret Jug on Sunday?
Harig: Matt Kuchar. The year has been filled with controversy for the otherwise affable Kuchar, but while all of that has gone on he’s put together one of the best seasons of his career, with two victories and a runner-up finish at the WGC-Dell Match Play. Kuchar performed well last week at the Scottish Open, has been top-10 in each of the past two Opens — including runner-up to Jordan Spieth two years ago — and seems to have found the formula for links golf.
Collins: Paul Casey. Finished T-21 at the U.S. Open and followed that up with a T-5 at the Travelers Championship. Casey comes into this week well rested and confident. While his last Open Championship wasn’t stellar (T-51), his result at the 2017 Open Championship (T-11) should be proof enough to know he is close to ready for his moment in the spotlight. Coming in under the radar can only benefit Paul.
O’Connor: Gary Woodland. As far as guys with chances to win this thing, I haven’t heard his name mentioned once in the past two weeks. Granted, he’s never had a top-10 finish in The Open. But he does have three top-10s in his past four majors, including, of course, his breakthrough victory at Pebble Beach. Woodland now knows he has what it takes to win a major. Belief is always the most important club in a player’s bag.
Schlabach: Given the way Adam Scott has played on tour this season, it’s a surprise that he hasn’t yet won. He ranks in the top 10 in nearly every statistic that matters, including No. 3 in shots gained: total, and he’s even No. 23 in putting, which hasn’t always been his strength. He has six top-10s and nine top-25s in 13 PGA Tour events. Scott has played well in The Open in the past, finishing second at Royal Lytham in 2012 and tied for third at Royal Liverpool in 2014. Darren Clarke, who knows Royal Portrush as well as anyone, said earlier this week that Scott is playing “imperious” golf on the links course.
Pietruszkiewicz: Does Rickie Fowler count? I’m taking him to win the whole thing … hey, one of these days I’m going to be right … right? He has an impression for the history of the game, so why not win the sport’s oldest major? After a T-9 at the Masters, he was a nonfactor at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. So, yes, he’s flying under the radar here at Royal Portrush.
5. Who needs a good week to salvage a disappointing major season?
Harig: Patrick Reed. He barely made the cut at the U.S. Open after missing at the PGA and finishing well back in his Masters defense. Reed has not won since his 2018 victory at Augusta, so it’s a lot to expect a victory here. But Reed could stand to see his fortunes turn around. He’s dropped from 15th to 25th in the world.
Collins: Justin Rose himself has admitted the new schedule shook him, preparation-wise. For a guy I joked with last December about going between No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, his major season can be salvaged only with a great week here in Portrush.
O’Connor: You can make a case for Jordan Spieth or Rickie Fowler, but I’ll go with Rory McIlroy. He’s won twice this year and has played well, but no top-5s in the majors. Let’s face it, he was the signature player of the post-Tiger generation but hasn’t won a major in five years. It’s a home game this week, so there’s a lot of pressure on him. Time for Rory to deliver. Time for him to be that 16-year-old boy who shot 61 at Portrush again.
Schlabach: Tommy Fleetwood hasn’t won a tournament on American soil, but he’s one of the most talented players on tour. We’re still waiting for the 28-year-old Englishman to translate that talent into victories. He had a good track record in majors the previous two seasons, finishing fourth in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, second in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock and then tied for 12th at The Open at Carnoustie last season. It seemed as if he was ready to make the next step, but his performance in the majors so far this season has been disappointing. He was tied for 36th at the Masters, tied for 48th at the PGA Championship and tied for 65th at the U.S. Open. Fleetwood is better than that.
Pietruszkiewicz: Justin Thomas. After a top-15 finish at the Masters (he was T-12 at Augusta National), it’s been downhill since. He withdrew from the PGA Championship because of a wrist injury and missed the cut at the U.S. Open. His season started with such promise that a big year was coming. He had seven top-20s — four of which were top-5s — in his first eight tournaments of the season. Then the solid Masters. But the wrist injury has thrown everything out of whack. He’s had two missed cuts, a T-20 and a T-36 since he came back.