Big names in fight for form going into British Open

SOUTHPORT, United Kingdom: The last British Open at Royal Birkdale was won by a golfer from across the Irish Sea, something Rory McIlroy will hope is an omen ahead of this year's championship starting on the English links next Thursday.

The 146th Open is the first to be held at the par-70 Birkdale, set amidst the sand dunes in Southport, near Liverpool in north-west England, since Padraig Harrington successfully defended the Claret Jug in 2008.

McIlroy, who won his only Open to date not far away at Hoylake in 2014, is always one of the main focuses of attention ahead of a major but the Northern Irishman hardly comes into the tournament in his best form.

He has missed the cut at three of the last five majors and also failed to make the weekend at the recent Irish Open.

"It's been a really frustrating year. Just hasn't really went the way I wanted it to," the world number four admitted in the wake of that disappointing showing.

Of the venue, he added: "It all depends on the conditions, but I don't envisage myself hitting a lot of drivers at Birkdale. It's definitely a course where it dictates to you how you play."

McIlroy is far from the only big name with concerns about his game.

World number one Dustin Johnson may be the bookmakers' favourite but the 33-year-old has not been at his best since a back injury forced him to miss the Masters – he returned to defend his US Open crown but promptly missed the cut.

Jordan Spieth and second-ranked Hideki Matsuyama of Japan are in better shape, while defending champion Henrik Stenson missed the cut at the season's first two majors.

Another first-time winner?

Stenson beat Phil Mickelson in a thrilling shoot-out on the final day 12 months ago at Troon and is another who can read something into Harrington's triumph on the same links nine years ago.

That is the last time anyone retained the Claret Jug. Tiger Woods is the only other player to have achieved the feat in 30 years.

With no one player now able to dominate the sport since the demise of Woods, the last nine majors have all been won by a different name, going back to Spieth's back-to-back victories at the US Open and Masters in 2015.

Indeed, the last seven majors have all been claimed by players who had never previously taken one of the sport's biggest prizes, including Brooks Koepka at last month's US Open and Stenson 12 months ago.

"It's kind of like before and after having kids," said the Swede on how life changed for him after ending his major search.

Stenson has taken the trophy everywhere with him, including on a jet ski in Florida, but now he must reluctantly hand it back before trying to win it again, along with the US$1.845 million (RM7.8 million) winner's cheque.

"I haven't played my best golf this year. I've been quite busy off the course, and I'm sure that's impacted the performances to a degree. But at the same time, I don't feel like it's miles away," he added.

Sergio Garcia – who sported his Masters green jacket on a recent visit to Wimbledon – is another European star who recently ended his long search for a major, but history favours the Americans at Birkdale.

Five of the nine previous Opens held here have seen an American lift the Claret Jug in front of the white Art Deco clubhouse, including Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer.

The latter won the first of his two Opens at Birkdale in 1961, and a plaque sits by the 16th fairway to commemorate a famous shot he hit out of a bush on his way to securing the title.

Such moments make The Open, which has never seen a British winner at Birkdale, something a player such as Tommy Fleetwood may be conscious of.

Along with Spain's Jon Rahm, the 26-year-old is one of the men of the moment on tour, and after coming fourth at the US Open and winning the French Open, the Southport native will take to his local course with the home support behind him. — AFP