History tells us Americans do very well at Royal Birkdale.
Golf’s oldest major has been held nine times before at the glorious Southport layout and our cousins from across the pond have taken the Claret Jug back with them on five occasions.
It puts the Lancashire links up there with St Andrews when it comes to the favourite tourist trap for our transatlantic visitors.
This revered venue gave Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino their first triumphs and Tom Watson his fifth. Johnny Miller and Mark O’Meara have also tasted the greatest of successes on this stretch of coastline.
Not as relentless as Royal Lytham or as spirit-sapping as Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale gives the odd breather – the chance to pick up a shot or two – and that seems to appeal to the more target-golf-oriented among one of the best fields of the year.
Given the state of the world rankings right now, it’s no surprise to see those who pledge their allegiance to the stars and stripes right at the top of the betting order, with Dustin Johnson leading the way.
The globe’s best player was the master of all he surveyed for the best part of a year following the US Open last year but the back injury he suffered on the eve of Augusta, and then failing to win from a very good position on his return at the Wells Fargo, seems to have punctured that.
The missed cut at Erin Hills was unsurprising in the context of recent displays and you’ll want to see him pick up considerably to lift the Claret Jug.
Class, of course, is permanent and Johnson has come close to Open glory before – most notably at Royal St George’s, when he was second with a chance to win. Standing in the 14th fairway, he hit his approach out of bounds.
The following year, at Royal Lytham, saw another top 10 and there’s no doubt he can be a force in British conditions if firing on all cylinders.
If the weather stays kind, a fit Rory McIlroy would have a chance to add to his win at Hoylake in 2014, but back him at short odds at your peril.
Birkdale and it’s hard to believe we’ll escape without at least one blowy day. A big breeze is McIlroy’s kryptonite and you must keep that in mind when considering his Open fortunes.
Sergio Garcia is much more my idea of the possible champion. The Spaniard is obviously still on a high after winning the Masters and, pleasingly, seems very interested in getting on with the job of winning another major straight away.
His desire, at both the Players Championship and at the US Open, was there for all to see and is in stark contrast to some other first-time major winners who have finally hit the heights they have worked their whole careers towards.
Without having lifted the Claret Jug, Garcia’s Open record is one to be envied. Tied 5th at Royal Troon represented the third year in a row he’d finished inside the top 10 and his 10th in total.
He’s already come so close to winning this title, losing out in a play-off to Padraig Harrington at the fiendishly difficult Carnoustie in 2007. Why am I slightly concerned? Because aside from the odd missed cut, Garcia’s worst Open display came at Birkdale, when he was tied 51st.
And 2008 was not a lean year. He won the Players Championship and would end the campaign in wonderful form – losing play-offs at The Barclays and the Tour Championship and winning the HSBC Champions.
Did he not like the course? It should suit him nicely with its demands on driving accuracy and the ability to work the ball off the tee.
Hopefully his first shot at Birkdale, so soon after losing in such horrendous fashion the previous year, was simply a bad week. I still think Garcia wants the Open more than any other crown – and might even swap his Green Jacket for it. With the major monkey off his back I’ll still get stuck in if his price stays nearly three times that of Dustin Johnson.
Louis Oosthuizen is another Open specialist and must always be on my staking plan, whatever sort of form he is in. It’s seven years since the South African won at St Andrews but he came so close again in 2015.
Perhaps he’s just a specialist at the home of golf, but he’s got the game to contend in this every year.
Hideki Matsuyama looks a major champion in waiting to me. The Japanese exploded onto the Open scene at Muirfield in 2013 when finishing sixth and he added another top 20 when 18th at St Andrews two years later.
His profile has risen dramatically since then, not least by a magical spell at the start of the PGA Tour season that brought wins at the WGC HSBC Champions, World Challenge and the Phoenix Open. No one could keep that sort of form up and it was only natural for him to have a lull during the spring. But he came back to life in some fashion at Erin Hills when a closing 66 saw him surge up the leaderboard into tied second place.
His outstanding all round game (9th in strokes gained off the tee, 21st in strokes gained approaching the green, 7th strokes gained tee to green) gives him a great chance of being in the hunt come Sunday.
I think ball striking is at a premium – and Matsuyama ticks that box. When he hits a streak, few can keep up and that might just make him the year’s Champion Golfer.
TOP 10: Zach Johnson
The American is Mr Reliable at the Open.
Tied 12th last year, which would have been better but for a third-round 75, that was an admirable performance considering Johnson was defending the title he won at St Andrews the previous year.
Add in further finishes of sixth and ninth in 2013 and 2012 and you have a player who is built for links golf.
He knows how to play the wind and his accurate short game always gives him advantages at courses where you have to hit the right spot.
With Royal Birkdale far removed from the monster length courses you routinely see in majors, this should be right in his wheelhouse.
He finished tied 51st in Southport the last time the Open was at Birkdale in 2008 but, given subsequent performances in the tournament, that was before he grew accustomed to the unique challenges provided by this type of golf. At a three- figure price, he’s hard to ignore.
DARK HORSE: Steve Stricker
Despite recording top-20 finishes at both the Masters and the US Open this year, I don’t expect him to do a Tom Watson by any means in Lancashire.
But I do think there’s merit in looking at him in the varying place markets given he’s as big as 200/1 in the outrights.
Fourth at Royal Troon last year, Stricker largely picks when he wants to play and, following a successful introduction to the Champions Tour, did extraordinarily well to qualify for Erin Hills – played in his home state of Wisconsin – and then perform admirably over the final two rounds.
Immensely accurate off the tee, no-one finds more fairways on the PGA Tour than Stricker, that feels like a big advantage to me – particularly if, as we did on the Ayrshire coast 12 months ago, we see some inclement weather. And when you putt as well as he does – he’s absolutely deadly from five and six feet – then you’ve always got a chance of being in the frame, whatever the odds that are quoted.
TO GO HOME EARLY: Bubba Watson
Bubba scraped into a finish for tied-39th at Royal Troon last year but tried to mess it up with a second-round 76.
That result was a boon for the two-time Masters champion – he’s missed four cuts in the eight Opens he has played.
If conditions get difficult, or he isn’t playing as well as he’d like, I always feel that the American has the potential to down tools and drift out of the tournament. That’s never a trait you want to be spending money on at an Open.
Watson’s certainly an enigma, though, and we have seen flashes of form from him during this season.
He recorded top 10s at both New Orleans and the Memorial. But he sat at home during the latter stages of both Augusta and the US Open having missed the cut on both occasions.
Given his form has trended poorly in general, he’ll be a good shout to make a quick exit from Royal Birkdale – although that’s a privilege we might have to pay for with the bookies.
TOP GB&I: Paul Casey
Casey enjoyed himself at Royal Birkdale back in 2008, when finishing seventh.
That’s significant because he’s only had one Open top 10 performance since – at St Andrews in 2010.
Having struggled with a shoulder injury for a good chunk of the last few years, the Englishman has once again established himself as an ultra-reliable performer on the big stage – check out his performances during last year’s FedEx Cup play-offs.
When he’s on song, he’s an each-way bet to nothing. Casey has already performed very creditably in the two majors so far, following his sixth place at the Masters with a top 30 at the US Open.
The latter should have been far better – he was well placed at the halfway mark before falling away on the weekend.
But he doesn’t lack for confidence and, in a market where there will be a couple of much shorter-priced horses, he might land you a touch.