What makes Royal Birkdale such a good course, particularly for The Open?
First and foremost, it’s an excellent driving course. A stiff par of 70, 7,000+ yards. Good par-5, par-4 finish. The 16th is a legendary hole, where Arnold Palmer hit it out of the willow bushes on the right-hand side.
What’s more, there were a few crucial improvements made in 2008; the 7th hole was changed into more of a difficult par-3, the green was changed at the 17th. All these small changes have helped define the course even further.
If you really want to judge a course – you only have to look at the list of winners. Aside from Ian Baker Finch, they’re all multiple major champions – which shows you the quality of the course.
Image credit: The Open
How will the weather affect how the course plays?
Most seaside courses are designed around certain wind conditions. Birkdale needs a stiff wind to make it a real test. Sometimes it doesn’t work – I think the wind in 2008 was too strong, in fact it almost stopped play one of the days. The scoring was extremely high, Padraig Harrington won with +3, Ian Poulter was runner-up with +7!
When it’s right thought, it works. All these seaside courses need a bit of wind – bunkers that come into play with prevailing wind, the varied conditions all make it so special.
At the moment, the winds are only meant to be about 5/10 mph – so it might not be as much of a test as expected.
Unfortunately, the wind won’t be a big factor this year, which means the field will really open up (pardon the pun). As such, it’s even harder to predict a winner. With 15mph wind or more, you can really separate the men from the boys. With a softer breeze, it’s really anyone’s to win. A lot will fancy their chances.
While experience counts for a lot, particularly in the Open – could less severe winds mean we see another unexpected champion, like in the US Open?
There are plenty of good players that could fly under the radar – whether that’s John Rahm, Matsuyama or someone else. Indeed, they can all take inspiration from Brooks Koepka at the US Open in fine style – 16-under par. Koepka has enough game to win here, so why not him or someone like him?
Speaking of Jon Rahm, he always seems to be a crowd favourite, but did his Irish Open performance show a new side to his game?
The thing about Jon Rahm’s win at the Irish Open was that the conditions were unusual. There was no wind – not a thing. He was fancied to do well at the US Open and missed the cut. What’s more, he was very petulant throughout Erin Hills and it didn’t go down well. What I saw from him at the Irish Open was a little remorse – he had calmed down a bit and his temperament was much better. He will be a big threat at Birkdale, not least because Seve is his hero and he wants to follow in his footsteps. This is where it all started for Seve in 1976, and who’s to say this won’t be the start of even bigger things for Jon Rahm?
Image credit: Jon Rahm
Who else do you think could do well?
You could make a case for a dozen players. Whether it’s Sergio, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson – and even Rory McIlroy despite his current mini-crisis.
Despite only missing the cut by a single stroke at the Scottish Open, McIlroy’s struggles are clearly evident. Three missed cuts in his last four. What’s wrong with him?
What Rory is finding out at the moment is, there’s more to golf than just hitting a good tee shot. He’s driving the ball well – long and straight. But what went wrong at Dundonald was, he missed the green with his irons a lot – especially short irons and pitching wedges.
Watching it on television, it was clear. Every time there was a bunker involved, he wasn’t getting it up and down. Everyone knows the saying, “drive for show, putt for dough” but it’s true.
Is it still a hangover from having new equipment?
He was experimenting with new clubs all winter down in Dubai – practised hard. He then went down to South Africa and played well – even winning the South African Open with Callaway clubs. When he came back and picked up and injury – he swapped once again to Taylor Made. It’s not as easy as you think to go from Nike, to Callaway, to Taylor Made – nothing is straightforward with new clubs.
We’re at the point now where any shaft, any head, the right loft and lie – simply won’t do. There’s a lot of ‘feel’ involved. If you look again at Dundonald, one of the main issues was with his wedges. Wedges are very personal clubs – it’s instinctive feel and muscle memory distinctive to each club – so he’s not quite back on first name terms with his equipment, let’s say.
However, Rory is far too good a talent to be restrained for long. Despite a poor year so far, from The Players to the US Open, and then three missed cuts – it’s not gone well. Something has to pick up soon. If he can even get in the Top 10 here, it will be significant step forward.
Image credit: PA
McIlroy often doesn’t turn up early to tournaments. After not making the cut at the Scottish Open, he came to Birkdale early. Will it help him?
I don’t think it will help him, no. Golfers are creatures of habit, they like routine. Rory’s routine is now broken. He had it all planned out, he was going to play in the Scottish Open till Sunday, probably stay over Sunday night. Monday would have given him a nice drive down to Birkdale, have a bit of a rest when he got there. Tuesday and Wednesday, he could have had a good practise, ready for the Tournament. Instead, he’s there earlier – maybe too early.
Having said that, where his game is currently at – being at Birkdale without a crowd and instead practising quietly with his coach, Michael Bannon, might suit him. He might go 9-holes Tuesday and 9-holes Wednesday, not do too much. As golfers are creatures of habit, maybe disrupting that might be a blessing in disguise for Rory.
Is he panicking?
He’s an ambitious person. He clearly wants to be World Number One again and he’s going the wrong way. Thanks to injury, he’s only played nine tournaments this year – so there’s a lot of catching up to do. It’s an experience he’s never had to cope with before, and I think he will be stronger for it. Put it this way, if he wasn’t worried – he wouldn’t be as good a player as he is.
Read Part 2 of Bernard Gallacher’s EXCLUSIVE Open Preview HERE!