Of all the individual events in golf, the Open Championship has always been my favourite. As a home player at the British Major, you are surrounded by support from friends and countrymen. That makes for an unbelievable atmosphere that is right up there with the Ryder Cup.
The setting is always epic, and this year is no exception. Royal Birkdale, where the action begins on Thursday morning, is a classic golf course with a rich history of staging the Open – and it’s a venue with a special place in my heart, too.
I won at Birkdale on my first year on tour, in 1972. It was the Lord Derby’s Under-25 Match Play Championship and I beat Bernard Gallacher, a fellow Scotsman who was then European No1, in the semi-finals and then Doug McClelland, who won the Dutch Open the following year, in the final. That was enormous for me.
I never really did well there in the Open – a share of 23rd in 1998 was the best of my four attempts – but I still love the course, which is looking magnificent. The rough isn’t too heavy yet it’s a very testing venue.
It’s not your typical links course, which goes straight out and straight in; many of the holes criss-cross, meaning that the wind can become a very important factor.
The Open throws up huge variety in tee-times, which means some players may benefit from still conditions while others have to play in blustery weather. That can make a huge difference, but it has always been part of the challenge and you can’t easily predict it; you can only play it and hope for the best.
No Englishman has lifted the Claret Jug for 25 years and the question on many people’s lips is whether hometown favourite Tommy Fleetwood can end that wait on Sunday.
The 26-year-old from Southport is certainly capable. He drives the ball hard and has a huge variety of shot-making in his bag, which makes him a great wind player.
Fleetwood is also in the form of his life. He has two wins and two runner-up places this season, enjoyed his best result at a Major a few weeks ago when he finished fourth at the US Open, and leads the European Tour order of merit, above even Masters winner Sergio Garcia.
He’ll have been preparing for this tournament for years. As soon as Birkdale was announced as the host, back in 2014, it would have been like a bell going off in his head. “That’s the one for me,” he must have thought. When, as a boy, he used to sneak onto the course to play a few holes when nobody was looking, he was surely imagining winning the Open. This is a chance for him to realise a lot of dreams.
The spectators will be out in force for Fleetwood and, while that can make a player nervous, I think there is nothing better. There’s another advantage of being followed by big crowds, especially in seaside golf: they offer shelter from the wind. Yes, you get grandstands at most holes but having people lining the fairways and in particular the tees keeps you cosseted, so in my opinion all the attention will work in his favour.
One thing’s for sure: Fleetwood won’t need to sneak anywhere at Birkdale if he pulls it off on Sunday; they’ll give him honorary membership.
The Spanish threat
Out to sink Fleetwood’s dream is an Armada of Spanish hopefuls, led by Garcia and Jon Rahm, the hottest golfer on the planet.
Rahm claimed his second title of the year a fortnight ago at the Irish Open, where he won by six shots on a very similar links course to the one he’ll be tackling this week.
The 22-year-old is so powerful, drives the ball superbly and has great wrists, making him perfectly suited to seaside golf – as he underlined at Portstewart earlier this month.
Long tipped for the top by those in the know in the United States, where he turned professional, Rahm is already up to world No7 in his first full season on tour. He’s a special talent and my favourite for the Open.
Garcia will really be looking forward to this, however. He shook off the nearly-man tag with that breakthrough victory at Augusta and has unfinished business at the Open, having been second in 2014 and 2007.
His swing is among the best in the business and he’s a beautiful iron player, especially on crisp fairways like those at Birkdale. Garcia is a certain contender and I’d put him equal with Fleetwood in my reckoning, just behind Rahm.
Don't write off big guns
None of the players who have dominated in recent years are taking great form into the Open.
Dustin Johnson is yet to hit his stride since injuring his back on the eve of the Masters and has not been playing enough; neither has Rory McIlroy, who has missed three cuts in his last four events. They’re missing a little bit of an edge that only comes from regular competition, from having the pencil in your hand.
That said, this is the Open Championship. Like the Ryder Cup, you don’t have to be in form and you don’t need lifting for it. When you walk out onto that first tee it’s like another world and experience comes to the fore. The adage that form is temporary but class permanent is particularly true here, so you can’t discount any of these guys.
There may be less expectation surrounding McIlroy this time but that won’t dilute the attention on him and, if anything, heightens the pressure. “You’ve missed two cuts in a row – how’s your game?” He’ll be hearing stuff he doesn’t want to hear like that every day until the tournament starts, he shoots 65 and it’s all forgotten.
Rory’s got something to prove, so he’s got to go back to his game – and now. Fluctuations can happen with swings as powerful as his. It may just be a slight head movement or a fraction of balance that can click and then you’re off and running again. He might have fixed it yesterday in practice. McIlroy knows the course well and is the epitome of permanent class, so never rule him out.
Justin Rose is another one. The wedge shot he hit to tie for fourth place and become low amateur at this course in 1998 generated possibly the loudest roar in golf. Now he is back where he first burst through, having overcome a difficult start to his professional career to go on to be a Major and Olympic champion.
Jordan Spieth is perhaps the most in-form of the recent world No1s. The two-time Major winner is another great wind player and boasts the vast short game variety needed to flourish in seaside golf.
You also can’t forget the defending champion, Henrik Stenson. The Swede will have been overcome with memories as he walked through the gates this week, hoping that he’ll be merely lending back the trophy for a few days. Stenson is class and another with some form, having shot a closing 68 at the Scottish Open on Sunday.
World No2 Hideki Matsuyama is a fine player and I have seen him hit great three-quarter shots in the past, but my concern is that he tends to hit the ball very high, which could make breaking his Major duck this week difficult if the wind picks up.