It’s the final round of The Open Championship, which means the once lush green hues at the Muirfield property have been baked out by the sun and wind-blown into a more diabolical light brown.
The Open Championship has turned into a marathon horse race on a fast track. Tempers are running hot, and golf balls running hotter.
Muirfield, the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, has given the best golfers in the world fits through the first three rounds. It’s no surprise that the previous champions at the venue in the past half-century are not only Hall-of-famers, but legends of the game. The winner this week will join the likes of Cotton, Nicklaus, Player, Trevino, Watson (Tom, not Bubba), Faldo and Els on the list of Open champions that have won on the hallowed grounds of Muirfield.
Ball striking, imagination, a few fortunate bounces and (as with any round of golf) putting will be paramount to joining the list of golfing greats who have beaten back the brutal test of links golf that is Muirfield.
Early week pretenders were filtered off the leaderboard by the course’s unusually firm and fast conditions. Through 54-holes, the top of the leaderboard is left with only a handful of contenders, ready to have their names etched into the Claret Jug below the name of Ernie Els, the defending champion.
Here are five golfers that have the best opportunity to become the 142nd Open Champion on Sunday, in order of best-to-worst chances:
Tiger Woods: 1-under (T2)
The ultra-firm, fast conditions at Muirfield play to Woods’ strengths.
They allow him to keep his driver hidden beneath a head cover, and stick to a game plan reminiscent of his victory at Hoylake in 2006. That’s why despite his 2-shot deficit heading into the final round, the 14-time major champion is still the man to beat, because how can you bet against one of the best iron players to ever play the game at a venue that’s all about well-placed iron shots?
Over his professional career, Woods has also established himself as one of the best pressure putters of all time, particularly in majors. Westwood, who leads Woods by two shots, and Mahan, who is tied with Woods, are both without a major championship victory, and don’t even figure into the conversation of good pressure putters in their era.
If Tiger is going to regain his major dominance in an ever-growing pool of younger competition, he needs this victory. He knows that better than anyone. He was a poster boy for mental toughness once upon a time, but his self-applied pressure is likely his biggest competition on Sunday.
Lee Westwood: 3-under (1st)
Westwood’s 39 worldwide professional wins, 15 top-10, and 7 top-3 finishes in major championships make him one of the most decorated and experienced players without a major victory. However, his inability to close leaves well-deserved question marks.
Born in England, the fans have tried to carry their local hero to a win on the big stage. With a victory, Westwood would become the first golfer from England to win the British Open since Faldo, ending the 21-year drought.
The 40-year old, ranked No. 12 in the world, recently switched to swing instructor Sean Foley and putting coach Ian-Baker Finch. Westwood has always been known as a wonderful ball-striker, but he has struggled in previous years to make the putts necessary to win. That has golf fans curious to see how his new and improved putting approach will hold up under the stress of a 2-shot leading heading into Sunday.
Saturday saw a mixture of fine putting and signs of shakiness from Westwood. He will need to make solid strokes early in tomorrow’s round in order to set the tone of confidence.
Westwood’s cushion over Mahan and Woods seems comfortable on paper, but it is anything but safe with the unpredictability of links golf and his previous history of missing out at the majors.
Adam Scott: Even (4th)
On the back of Adam Scott, Australia gained its first Masters championship earlier this year with his dramatic playoff victory. The green jacket also meant Scott shed the burden of the “best player without a major” labels.
In last year’s Open, he notoriously bogeyed his closing four holes, handing the Claret Jug to Ernie Els. Scott has since overcome his major struggles, surely opening the floodgates for more success.
One of the most pure ball strikers in the world, Scott’s career was always plagued with poor putting. For now, and until the anchored-putter ban takes affect, the long-putter has been Scott’s salvation. By filling in the blank that has burdened his game for years previously, Scott has once again put himself in major contention.
His putter, however, remains on the stand for questioning in the biggest moments. Scott is only three shots back, but birdies will be very difficult to come by in the final round, and a few bogies are almost unavoidable. That means the leaders will likely have to come back for Scott to win, or his long putter will have to get red hot.
Hunter Mahan: 1-under (T2)
While many of his contemporaries have rejected the challenges of links golf on a brutally quick links course, Mahan has embraced them.
“The course is just awesome. It’s going to test every part of your game,” Mahan said earlier in the week. “The speed is up, and we really got to think ahead out here… It’s really neat.”
Sunday at a major championship requires steely nerves, not just a happy-go-lucky attitude, but Mahan sits at 1-under for the week following an impressive Saturday 68.
He’s ranked No. 23 in the world, has five PGA Tour wins, and boasts a robotic swing that Sean Foley has deemed the prototype for his other students (namely Tiger Woods). Mahan’s career resume in majors is less than stellar with only five career top-10 finishes, but a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open last month at Merion may have given him the confidence to contend late into Sunday afternoon (or morning, depending where you’re watching).
Mahan, one of the four members of the pop band Golf Boys, needs to prove his worth on the big stage—Muirfield, not Carnegie Hall.
Phil Mickelson: 2-over (T9)
Despite two consecutive rounds over par and a five-stroke deficit, Phil has the propensity for theatrics. He’s made football fields worth of par putts at Muirfield, but will need to make birdies on Sunday to contend.
The British Open has baffled Phil throughout his career, as he admittedly just didn’t like links golf. He’s claimed to turn that hatred into love, proven by his first win overseas last week at the Scottish Open.
Teeing off earlier than the leaders could give Phil an advantage with a couple more minutes of morning saturation. If he can come out early and make birdies, post a number in the 60’s and get to even par or 1-under for the championship, the leaders may crumble around him down the stretch on the demanding closing holes.
Phil will hope to add the Claret Jug to his major championship trophy case, which would be his first “Open” (British or United States) championship victory. Muirfield may be “too much course” for Phil to make up a 5-shots, but his go-for-broke mentality makes him the perfect suspect to make a comeback.
The Wedge Guy: What you CAN learn from tour pros
I have frequently noted how the game the PGA Tour players play is, in most ways, a whole different game than we “mere mortal” recreational golfers play. They hit their drivers miles it seems. Their short games are borderline miraculous. And they get to play from perfect bunkers and putt on perfect greens every single week. And it lets them beat most courses into submission with scores of 20-plus under par.
The rest of us do not have their strength, of course, nor do we have the time to develop short game skills even close to theirs. And our greens are not the perfect surfaces they enjoy, nor do we have caddies, green-reading books, etc. So, we battle mightily to shoot our best scores, whether that be in the 70s, 90s, or higher.
There is no question that most PGA Tour players are high-level athletes, who train daily for both body strength and flexibility, as well as the specific skills to make a golf ball do what they intend it to. But even with all that, it is amazing how bad they can hit it sometimes and how mediocre (for them) the majority of their shots really are — or at least they were this week.
Watching the Wells Fargo event this weekend, you could really see how their games are – relatively speaking – very much like ours on a week-to-week basis.
What really stood out for me as I watched some of this event was so few shots that were awe-inspiring and so many that were really terrible. Rory even put his win in jeopardy with a horrible drive on the 18th, but a very smart decision and a functional recovery saved him. (The advantage of being able to muscle an 8-iron 195 yards out of deep rough and a tough lie is not to be slighted).
Of course, every one of these guys knocks the flag down with approach shots occasionally, if not frequently, but on a longer and tougher golf course, relative mediocrity was good enough to win.
If we can set these guys’ power differences aside, I think we all can learn from watching and seeing that even these players hit “big uglies” with amazing frequency. And that the “meat” of their tee-to-green games is keeping it in play when they face the occasional really tough golf course like Quail Hollow. Do you realize less than 20 of the best players in the world beat par for those 72 holes?
It has long been said that golf is a game of misses, and the player who “misses best” is likely to be “in the hunt” more often than not, and will win his or her share. That old idiom is as true for those of us trying to break 100 or 90 or 80 as it is for the guys trying to win on the PGA Tour each week.
Our “big numbers” happen for the same reasons as theirs do – a simply terrible shot or two at the wrong time. But because we do not have anywhere near their short game and recovery skills, we just do not “get away with” our big misses as frequently as they do.
So, what can you take away from that observation? I suggest this.
Play within your own reliable strength profile and skill set. Play for your average or typical shot, not your very best, whether that is a drive, approach shot, or short game recovery. And don’t expect a great shot to follow a bad one.
If, no, when you hit the “big miss,” accept that this hole can get away from you and turn into a double or worse, regroup, and stop the bleeding, so you can go on to the next hole.
We can be pretty darn sure Rory McIlroy was not thinking bogey on the 18th tee but changed his objective on the hole once he saw the lie his poor drive had found. It only took a bogey to secure his win, so that became a very acceptable outcome.
There’s a lesson for all of us in that.
Ways to Win: Horses for Courses – Rory McIlroy rides the Rors to another Quail Hollow win
Tell me if you’ve heard this before: Rory McIlroy wins at Quail Hollow. The new father broke his winless streak at a familiar course on Mother’s Day. McIlroy has been pretty vocal about how he is able to feed off the crowd and plays his best golf with an audience. Last week provided a familiar setting in a venue he has won twice before and a strong crowd, giving McIlroy just what he needed to break through and win again. A phenomenal feat given that, not long ago, he seemed completely lost, chasing distance based on Bryson DeChambeau’s unorthodox-but-effective progress. McIlroy is typically a player who separates himself from the field as a premier driver of the golf ball, however this week it was his consistency across all areas that won the tournament.
Using the Strokes Gained Stacked view from V1 Game shows that Rory actually gained the most strokes for the week in putting. Not typically known as a phenomenal putter, something about those Quail Hollow greens speaks to McIlroy where he finished the week third in strokes gained: putting (red above). He also hit his irons fairly well, gaining more than 3.6 strokes for the week on a typical PGA Tour field. Probably the most surprising category for McIlroy was actually driving, where he gained just 1.3 strokes for the week and finished 18th in the field. While McIlroy is typically more accurate with the driver, in this case, he sprayed the ball. Strokes gained: driving takes into account distance, accuracy, and the lie into which you hit the ball. McIlroy’s driving distance was still elite, finishing second in the field and averaging more than 325 yards as measured . However, when he missed, he missed in bad spots. McIlroy drove into recovery situations multiple times, causing lay-ups and punch-outs. He also drove into several bunkers causing difficult mid-range bunker shots. So, while driving distance is a quick way to add strokes gained, you have to avoid poor lies to take advantage and, unfortunately, McIlroy hurt himself there. This was particularly apparent on the 72nd hole where he pull-hooked a 3-wood into the hazard and almost cost himself the tournament.
It’s rare that a player wins a tour event without a truly standout category, but McIlroy won this week by being proficient in each category with a consistent performance. From a strokes gained perspective, he leaned on his putting, but even then, he had four three-putts on the week and left some room for improvement. He gained strokes from most distances but struggled on the long ones and from 16-20 feet. Overall, we saw good progress for McIlroy to putt as well as he did on the week.
McIlroy also had a good week with his irons, routinely giving himself opportunities to convert birdies where he tied for seventh-most in the field. When he did miss with his irons, he tended to miss short from most distances. His proximity to the hole was quite good, averaging below 30 feet from most distance buckets. That is surely a recipe to win.
When you add it all up, McIlroy showed little weakness last week. He was proficient in each category and relied on solid decision-making and routine pars while others made mistakes on the weekend. Sometimes, there is no need to be flashy, even for the best in the world. It was good to see McIlroy rejoin the winner’s circle and hopefully pull himself out from what has been a bit of a slump. Golf is better when McIlroy is winning.
If you want to build a consistent game like Rors, V1 Game can help you understand your weaknesses and get started on a journey to better golf. Download in the app store for free today.
Club Junkie: Fujikura MC Putter shaft review and cheap Amazon grips!
Fujikura’s new MC Putter shafts are PACKED with technology that you wouldn’t expect in a putter shaft. Graphite, metal, and rubber are fused together for an extremely consistent and great feeling putter shaft. Three models to fit any putter stroke out there!
Grips are in short supply right now, and there are some very cheap options on Amazon. I bought some with Prime delivery, and they aren’t as good as you would think.
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