(CBS New York/CBS Local) — With the British Open returning Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland, is it Rory McIlroy’s time again? The stars certainly seem to be aligned that way.
McIlroy is the favorite going into the season’s fourth major, to be held near his childhood home. He shot a course record 61 at Royal Portrush as a 16-year-old. He has played some of the best golf of anyone in the loaded field, both this season and in recent Open Championships. And he’s due for another major.
The closest he’s come lately is his T2 at Carnoustie last year. Though he has not won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship, McIlroy has enjoyed a top-10 finish in 11 of his 13 events this year. And for a couple stats that matter on a links-style course — driving distance and strokes gained: tee to green — he ranks second and first respectively on the 2019 PGA Tour. Can he deliver the performance he’s capable of in a setting fraught with possible distractions?
While McIlroy and his bid for a fifth major at home attract headlines, other storylines abound. Tiger Woods chasing his 16th major after a month-long break is among them. Woods has not competed since the U.S. Open in mid-June. A month-long break may be necessary to heal his aging body, but it makes staying sharp more difficult. The four weeks off after the Masters has been blamed for his MC at the PGA Championship. Will the long break have the same effect this week?
The younger Brooks Koepka keeps a more regular playing schedule. Though the type of event seems to determine which version of the player shows up. A major machine, he’s won three of the last seven majors and also turned in a T2 and a second-place finish. Those performances contrast with his 65th place at the 3M Open and T57 at the Travelers, both regular PGA Tour events against much weaker fields.
Expectations for Phil Mickelson have slipped from where they once were. A mainstay in the top 10 a decade ago, he’s currently ranked 28th. Lefty is still capable of reeling off a win, like he did at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am back in February. But the missed cuts come all too often these days; he hasn’t made the weekend in four of his six events since the Masters. Seeking a better result, Mickelson recently dropped 15 pounds in a six-day fast. Whether a leaner Phil can capture his sixth major remains to be seen.
Aside from these marquee names, the field for the 148th Open Championship includes, well, everyone. Each of the world’s top 30 players, from Koepka to Matthew Fitzpatrick, will tee it up Thursday, as will every 21st century champion, save for Ben Curtis (2003) and Todd Hamilton (2004).
The magical Royal Portrush will host the event for the first time in 68 years. The links-style Dunluce course — standard for the British Open — plays at a par-71, stretching to 7,344 yards. An extensive 18-month redesign added new seventh and eighth holes with land from a different course and removed the original 17th and 18th holes. Other changes include added distance, five reshaped greens and an assortment of new tees and bunkers.
The new holes blend in nicely with the classic course. The scenic seventh is a par-5 that extends to 592 yards, dropping down into a valley and sloping up to the green, along the seaside dunes. The dramatic eighth is a par-4 measuring 434 yards that plays over a chasm to reach the fairway. Both are welcome additions to Royal Portrush. But the 236-yard, par-3 16th hole, nicknamed “Calamity Corner,” remains the signature challenge.
The favorites for season’s fourth major include some familiar names…
Rory McIlroy (8/1)
Royal Portrush is a different challenge from what McIlroy conquered as a teenager. But that performance remains a fond memory. McIlroy, ranked third in the world, is playing magnificent golf, with two wins this year among his many top 10s. Can his familiarity with the course counter the weight of expectations and deliver a fifth major?
Brooks Koepka (10/1)
It’s another major, so Koepka has to be considered a contender. The world’s top-ranked player has only one poor showing in a recent major — a T39 at Carnoustie last year. He also has a caddie from the area, who’s familiar with the course. Look for his name near the top of the leaderboard.
Dustin Johnson (10/1)
Johnson’s name seems to have been lost among the many storylines heading into the tournament. But he’s ranked second in the world for a reason, with two second-place finishes in his last three majors. His last two Open Championships, however, ended in a missed cut and a T54.