Golf,

Jordan sparks back into life at The Open?

THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP


Best bets
2pts each-way Jordan Spieth @ 18/1
1pt each-way Marc Leishman @ 50/1
1pt each-way Adam Scott @ 66/1
1pt each-way Phil Mickelson @ 66/1
1pt each-way Lucas Herbert @ 66/1
1pt each-way Viktor Hovand @ 28/1
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A year late but still at ferocious Royal St George’s, the 149th Open Championship tees off on Thursday and Shane Lowry who unexpectedly has had charge of the famed Claret Jug for two years finally gets the chance to defend it.

Everyone who matters bar Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson, 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson and of course Tiger Woods will be there at Sandwich on the first English links to have hosted The Open back in 1894 when it was just plain St George’s.

The Royal prefix wasn’t granted until the 2004 Open and it remains the only Open venue in the South of England. An English winner would be consolation after our footballers so gallantly failed at Wembley but we have to go back to Reg Whitcombe in 1938 to find the last one. We did have a Scot, Sandy Lyle, in 1985 and a Northern Irishman, Darren Clarke, in the most recent Open there ten years ago.

I have reported on five RSG Opens, from pencil-slim Bill Rogers in 1981, Lyle four years later, Great White Shark Greg Norman in 1993, unknown American Ben Curtis in 2003 and the jovial Clarke at 42 in 2011 just when we thought his best days were behind him. Hence his 125/1 starting price but let me tell you about the craziest Open winner of all time, Curtis, a 500/1 shot with no takers and even 999/1 on the main betting exchange.

From Kent, Ohio to Kent, England came Curtis and his fiancée Candace for his first Major on a links full of mysteries, blind drives, deep bunkers and humps and hollows that take a bit of knowing. Ranked 396 in the world and without even a top-ten in his rookie year on the PGA Tour, he grabbed a side-door entry into the Open by finishing 13th in the Western Open ten days before the Open. At the end of the week, Curtis was the only player under the par of 284 and 700 grand richer. If you wrote the script, nobody would believe it.

As leader Thomas Bjorn stumbled, taking three to get out of a greenside bunker at the short 16th, along with the faltering Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, it was the 26-year-old no-hoper who held his nerve best, much to bookmakers’ delight.

It was a great time to be a layer because the following year’s winner, Todd Hamilton, was almost as big a shock. So who is going to “do a Curtis” on these hallowed links this year? Answers on a postcard please because Mystic Meg is on strike.

Rogers and Curtis won on first sight of RSG so don’t be put off someone like the impressive Norwegian Viktor Hovland whose recent visit to Europe produced a commanding display in Munich. And don’t be put off if your fancy is 40-plus as we had three of those in a row from 2011, Clarke, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. Tom Watson was in his 60th year when he was just one putt away from winning at Turnberry in 2009.

Age matters least in our Open which is why the new, slimline, super-fit Mickelson at 51 has to come into the conversation. He has already astonished the golfing world by winning the USPGA on a tiring course at Kiawah at the end of May. Phil’s Open record demands close inspection. He finished runner-up with Dustin Johnson when both Americans helped Clarke across the finishing line with late mistakes in 2011, finally got his name on the Claret Jug at Muirfield two years later and played such beautiful golf at Royal Troon in 2016 he would surely have won any other Open. But Henrik Stenson played even better and beat him.

On his course form alone you have give the old fellow a chance but my main fancy is Jordan Spieth, another former Open champion whose comeback, like Mickelson’s, has been a joy to watch. Spieth is one of the good guys and his record since February is studded with high finishes. Only the one victory so far, in his native Texas, but a bundle of top-fours in a dazzling campaign interrupted for a couple of weeks by a bout of Covid.

His 2017 Open triumph was not Jordan’s only links form. He was only a shot out of the 2015 play-off at St Andrews. And he’s nicely rested since placing 19th at the US Open.

One stroke ahead of him and in that three-man St Andrews shootout was Marc Leishman who could be Spieth’s main danger now. The Aussies are on a roll having won the Irish and Scottish Opens through Lucas Herbert and young Min-Woo Lee and it’s a shame Detroit winner Cam Davis can’t come over because of a Green Card problem.

Leishman, second, third and sixth in past Opens, is a superb links exponent who has peaked at the right time with third place at the Travelers and a repeat of the form he showed when beating Jon Rahm at Torrey Pines last year would put him in the frame.

Adam Scott is another Aussie I rate on links. His 2-3-5-10 Open sequence from 2012-15 started with the one that got away at Royal Lytham when he bogeyed the last four holes and Els nipped in with a closing birdie to pip him. As a past Masters winner, Scott knows how to win on the big stages and, as we know from this year’s results, 40 is a dangerous age. It’s when golfers fear they are running out of time and I’m hoping Scotty, who turns 41 on Friday, has a second Major in him.

A third Aussie, Herbert, also appeals as the man in form after following Irish Open victory by finishing just one short of the Scottish Open play-off. A great putter with plenty of guts, Lucas has moved up a notch and is a guy you want on your side.

Few Brits are playing consistently enough to merit a pick, and that goes for Lowry and McIlroy as well, although Matt Fitzpatrick had a good week in Scotland. Rahm’s seventh place over the border wasn’t enough for the Spaniard to retain the world No. 1 spot. Don’t ask me why as Dustin Johnson who takes top spot back didn’t even play last week and his latest outings have been far from compelling.

Winning back-to-back Majors is a big ask so I’m ducking Rahm’s single-figure quote. He should not be less than half the odds of 20/1 shots DJ, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele, the latter pair having posted top-tens in their links warm-up at North Berwick.

Majors specialist Brooks Koepka is much respected and the 33/1 about the eccentric Bryson DeChambeau is tempting but he has yet to reveal he can handle top-level links golf. The weather looks set fair, the wind always blows but the forecast is not frightening and a better winning score than Clarke’s five-under 275 for this 7189-yard par 70 (only two par fives) is on the cards. Bring it on!

THE OPEN – THREEBALLS & SPECIALS


Best bets
1pt Harris English (10:42am threeball) @ EVS
1pt Troy Merritt (12:09pm threeball) @ 13/10
1pt Johannes Veerman (12:20pm threeball) @ 23/10
1pt Padraig Harrington (12:42pm threeball) @ 4/6
1pt Marc Leishman (top Australian player) @ 7/2
1pt Takumi Kanaya (top Asian player) @ 5/1
1pt Takumi Kanaya (top Japanese player) @ 21/10
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It’s going to be a helluva long Thursday (and Friday) at Royal St George’s with the first threeball teeing off at 6.35am and the last at 4.16pm. Who’s going to be leading when the final putt of the day  drops around 9.30pm? And is the draw going to be important?

When Darren Clarke won at RSG ten years ago those drawn early on Thursday and late on Friday got the worst of the deal as the blustery Friday afternoon wind was tough.

First-round tee times have favourite Jon Rahm alongside defending champion Shane Lowry and 2010 play-off winner Louis Oosthuizen at 9.58.

Jordan Spieth has the 9.28 slot with Bryson DeChambeau and Branden Grace; and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world again (but shouldn’t be), goes out at 10.20 with Justin Rose and new American star Will Zalatoris.

On the late shift are Rory McIlroy (with Patrick Reed and Cam Smith at 3.21) after Justin Thomas (with Tommy Fleetwood and Adam Scott at 3.10). And that’s just five of the marquee games that will thrill 32,000 on-course fans and millions more watching the wall-to-wall Sky coverage.

Over the years I have found threeballs the hardest market for making a profit and most of the marquee pairings go into my “Too Difficult” folder.

British Masters champion Richard Bland who led the US Open at halfway will hit the first drive of the morning and can win that early-bird all-English threeball at 6/4.

Other fancies: Travelers winner Harris English stands out at evens at 10.42, Detroit runner-up Troy Merritt, a straight driver who will keep it out of the heavy rough, is tasty at 13/10 at 12.09, Johannes Veerman, third in Ireland and eighth in Scotland,  is 30 under par for those eight rounds and a generous 23/10 shot at 12.20 and double Open winner Padraig Harrington is a 4/6 banker at 12.42.

With Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, who tested positive for Covid on July 2, pulling out, Japan’s best hope could be 23-year-old Takumi Kanaya, for 55 weeks world’s top amateur and already a triple winner on the Japan Tour, the first one coming before turning pro.

He has made a good start to his European Tour career with ninth in Dubai and 17th in Munich and could be worth a bet at 5/1 for Top Asian and 21/10 for Top Japanese.

On the Asian market, PGA Tour regulars Benny An and CT Pan rate the main dangers in the absence of Matsuyama, Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim.

Marc Leishman, almost an Open champion at St Andrews in 2015, should have a good week. He had the perfect prep when finishing third at the Travelers. He can come up at 7/2 in a very competitive Top Aussie market

THE BARBASOL CHAMPIONSHIP


Best bets
2pts each-way Luke List @ 22/1
1.5pts each-way Charl Schwartzel @ 16/1
1.5pts each-way Seamus Power @ 16/1
1pt each-way Richie Werenski @ 28/1
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With 150/1 and 50/1 winners in Min-Woo Lee and Lucas Glover at the golf and our gallant footballers falling at the final hurdle, it was a sombre weekend for most punters.

If they hope to retrieve losses on the Barbasol Championship, the PGA Tour birdie-fest that runs alongside our Open, good luck to them as the field of 132 is full of unreliables who struggle to string two good finishes together or even two good rounds.

The Barbasol, being played for the third time at Keene Trace, Kentucky – last year’s had to be ditched because of the pandemic – requires a hot putter as Jim Herman had to go to 26 under par to edge Kelly Kraft last time.

Although three Major champions, John Daly, Charl Schwartzel and Jason Dufner, lend the tournament a veneer of distinction, their glory days came a long while ago. Schwartzel, the South African who snatched the 2011 Masters away from Australian rivals Adam Scott and Jason Day by finishing with four straight birdies, has had his career interrupted by a nagging wrist injury but is now on an upward trend again and looks a bet in this modest company.

This year he almost won the pairs event in New Orleans with his long-time pal Louis Oosthuizen and was third at the Byron Nelson in a stronger field than this. Top-20s at the US Open and Wells Fargo are also encouraging.With defending champion Herman having a poor year, a repeat looks unlikely but a trio we know are in decent nick because they shared fourth spot at the John Deere Classic behind Glover on Sunday are Luke List, Adam Schenk and Scott Brown.

For Schenk and Brown it was a rare good week but List has three other top tens on his 2021 record, at Quail Hollow, Torrey Pines and Puntecana, and this 36-year-old from Seattle can break through at the 195th attempt on his Keene Trace bow.

Europeans Seamus Power, Tom Lewis, Henrik Norlander and Korn Ferry Tour star Stephan Jaeger aren’t out of it while cases can also be made for last year’s Pebble Beach winner Nick Taylor, Chesson Hadley, Hudson Swafford, JT Poston and Richy Werenski.

After a poor start to the year, Irishman Power has hit his stride and his game since mid-May has taken a dramatic upturn with his last five form figures reading 9-19-19-8-8. A first PGA Tour victory could be just around the corner.

Last year’s Barracuda winner Werenski was runner-up to Troy Merritt in the first Barbasol at 7328-yard par 72 Keene Trace in 2018 and appeals more than many. After a dry Thursday, it’s going to be a hot, thundery weekend so stand by for disruptions.

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