Matt Cooper takes a look at the final major championship of the 2022 golfing season.
Welcome to the Home of Golf, the auld grey town of St Andrews, which is, as you might expect, absolutely buzzing ahead of the 150th Open. The town is electric, the weather set fair and the course looks magnificent. There are going to be parties, special events, fireworks and all manner of hoopla even before the first tee time on Thursday morning. But who is going to lift the Claret Jug?
There was a time when we’d look at who won Open on The Old Course and coo that it was a list of the great and good, especially of the linksland variety. After the Second World War the great American Sam Snead and the two seaside experts Bobby Locke and Peter Thomson thrived. Jack Nicklaus bagged a pair of victories in the 1970s and Seve famously triumphed in 1984 before two contrasting win in the 90s: the ruthless Nick Faldo in 1990 and the big-hitting John Daly in 1995. Tiger Woods combined both of that pair’s qualities in his two wins in 2000 and 2005, and then it all became a little curious.
Louis Oosthuizen thrashed the field in 2010 off the back of three missed cuts in the championship and then, five years later, everyone was convinced Johnson would win. They assumed it would Dustin and when he grabbed the first round lead everything looked set, but by the end of the week it was Zach lifting the Claret Jug.
Oosthuizen and Johnson were not flukes however. The former has more second place finishes in major championships than most of us have rooms where we live and the latter has also won the Masters, but are we due a high quality winner? Might we even see just the second British or Irish winner since the War? The occasion rather demands one or the other. Let’s hope for the best.
After a lovely run of major championship tipping form we’ve drawn a blank in the last two, but the key method has remained successful because, although we didn’t pick Justin Thomas or Matt Fitzpatrick, both had recent experience of contending in the majors. That, you may well recall, is my first means of sifting the wheat from the chaff in the big ones because, since the start of 2017, 20 of the 22 major winners had finished top eight or been top four with 18 holes to play in at least one of the three previous majors.
If that trend maintains, then it places a tick against the names of Shane Lowry, Justin Thomas, Cameron Smith, Matt Fitzpatrick, Scottie Scheffler, Will Zalatoris, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa among those at the top of the market. Big deal, you might say, and I’d agree because there’s plenty of reason to like their chances anyway, never mind my wheat-sorting secret weapon. It’s entirely possible one of them will, like Thomas and Fitzpatrick, win but do so from a short starting price. That’s the kind of thing you have to take on the chin when punting. It happens. Of more interest are players who fit the trend yet remain a little overlooked and I like one in particular.
Englishman Tommy Fleetwood finished tied fifth at Southern Hills in the PGA Championship and it was a first re-entry into the world of major championship contention since he played the final round of the 2019 Open alongside Shane Lowry. The Englishman was knocked about by that experience so it was good to see him testing himself among the best again.
He has a brilliant record in the Dunhill Links Championship with nine top 25 finishes from 10 visits including six top 10s. He’s also gone sub-70 in nine of his 10 final rounds in that tournament, which all take place on the Old Course so he plays it well under a bit of pressure. Seven years ago his fondness for the layout was widely discussed and it somewhat spooked him, but he’s older and wiser now. He also warmed up nicely with tied fourth last week in the Scottish Open.
My listing of previous Open winners on The Old Course above was no mere idle flick through the history books. Consider those modern champions: Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo, Woods. All four of them are multiple winners at the Masters. Johnson also won at Augusta National, Oosthuizen would have done but for some Bubba Watson magic and even Daly finished third there.
That’s another tick for Scheffler, but more so for Jordan Spieth who is a past Masters champion and has come mighty close to becoming a multiple winner there. The 2017 Open champion was also just one blow outside the play-off on the Old Course in 2015.
He says of that experience: “I have fond memories, vivid memories. It’s one of those courses you play where you don’t really forget much. There’s only a couple of those maybe in the world. I think here and at Augusta National are my two favourite places in the world.”
As we noted 12 months ago, when Spieth was the headline pick and came up just short of the win, he loves a course that utilises his creativity on and around the greens. And he’s another who played nicely last week, carding rounds of 68 and 66 on his way to T10th.
Finally I’m going to add Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama who fits both the discussed strategies. In the first instance, he was tied fourth in the US Open, and in the second he was a winner at Augusta National in 2021.He was also winner at the start of the year in the Sony Open and second at halfway on defence of the Green Jacket, eventually finishing T14th.
Injury has limited his starts this summer but, in addition to those two decent major efforts, he was third at the AT&T Byron Nelson. A missed cut last week has seen him drift to a backable price.