Picking an Open winner becomes ever harder in era without a hierarchy | Andy Bull

In a golfing epoch with no dominant figure but an abundance of talented competitors, mental strength and adaptability to the conditions could be key at Royal Birkdale

The rain came late to Royal Birkdale, hours after the weathermen reckoned it would. They said the blizzard that swept across the south on Tuesday night would arrive around 11 in the morning. Then they pushed it back to two in the afternoon, then again to five in the evening.

The diligent spectators maintained their umbrellas furled and their anoraks packed through the morning and afternoon, while the air all around grew thick and sticky, everyone but the golfers grateful for the cool wind blowing in off the Irish Sea. But then, forecasting is a tricky business. Just ask the punters here. There are 156 players in the field and if you start counting the contenders among them you will soon run out of fingers. And toes.

When Rory McIlroy won the Open and the PGA back-to-back in 2014, most fans imagined it was the start of his era. Turned out to be anything but. The following year, Jordan Spieth won the Masters and the US Open. So one became two. Then Jason Day and Dustin Johnson took turns at the upper part of the rankings. The big two became a big three, then a big four, and it is now a big many more. The last seven majors have all been won by first-time winners, a operate that started with Days victory at the PGA in 2015, and may proceed with Danny Willett, Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, and, this year, Sergio Garca and Brooks Koepka. Its hard for the casual fan to keep up.

Spieth said he could not even begin to name a big four in his sport. Im not sure who it would be if you asked me, he said. I think you look at a guy like Jon Rahm, how does he deserve not to be in a dialogue like that?

Rahm, only 22, won the Irish Open by six shoots a fortnight ago. He did it two weeks ago at connects golf. He destroyed the field. Won by six or seven, right? Rahm, Spieth said, would not be among the first four guys you would pick if you were making a listing, but then, after a performance such as that, how could you count him out? That strength in depth, Spieth said, is pretty exciting because it speaks to the state of the game.

McIlroy said something similar. Golf is in a place right now where you have so many players playing really well. That, he said, is sort of where golf is at the moment , no one is really standing out and sort of taking it by the scruff of the neck.

Likewise, when someone asked Johnson whether anyone could boss the sport as Tiger Woods once did he replied: The talent level is so high on the PGA Tour that its hard to be that dominant. A key discrepancies between tennis and golf, Johnson explained, is that in his sport every player in the top 50 has a really good shot at winning the majors. Spieth concurs. It could be anyone who wins at Birkdale this week.

McIlroy has been working on this problem for a while now. He believes the progress achieved by athletic science have tightened up everything. Not merely the technology in the golf clubs and golf equipment, but also the technology with coaching, with TrackMan, with the knowledge out there, the coaches, the stats guys, you know way more about your game than you did 20 or 30 years ago, and everyone has access to that now. And thats why the margins are so fine and thats why youre detecting all these guys so closely grouped together because its so hard to find that little per cent or two per cent that separates you from the rest of the pack.

If there is an edge anywhere, McIlroy said, it may be in the mental side of the game and being maybe a little bit better in that aspect than the rest of the guy. This, he explained, is really about knowing yourself and knowing what works for you and what supposes run and what techniques run. This rings true. Especially at the Open. In the decade since Woods last won a major, the average age of the Open champion has been 37.

During that time, McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen were the only players under 30 to win the Claret Jug. The remainder Padraig Harrington, Stewart Cink, Darren Clarke, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, and Henrik Stenson were all in their late 30 s or early 40 s.

So if you are looking for likely wins, you could start by skimming through the players DOBs. But then, it is only a hypothesi. And the day before the tournament starts, theories are a lot easier to come by in Birkdale than tickets, and a bargain cheaper too. Almost everyone in there has got one, about how the wet ground will give the advantage to the long-hitters, or that the course suits those who can shape the ball left to right, or the players willing to compromise their sway to keep it low beneath the wind. On Wednesday, the cyclone finally transgressed around 6pm. We will need to wait a while longer yet to find which is right, and who is the winner.

Back me to win the Open, says McIlroy

A bullish Rory McIlroy has insisted his Open Championship prospects have been understated, including by bookmakers, with the four-times major winner adamant he can rip up the form book.

McIlroy begins his pursuit of a second Open after a running of three missed cuts in four events. Two of them, at the Irish and Scottish Open tournaments, came in his last two starts. An unusual year has seen equipment change and injury, both mitigating factors in his slide to No4 in the world.

As a result, McIlroy is in the strange stance of being priced at 20 -1 to prevail on Merseyside. Its a good time to back me, I think, he said. Twenty to one? Look, if I was a betting company and I considered my sort over the past few weeks, you would say: Yeah, thats probably a fair enough price. But all it takes is one week for those working odds to go back to 7-1 or 8-1 at[ the US PGA Championship at] Quail Hollow. So as I say, good week to back me.

Im in good spirits. I feel like its all coming together. Im just waiting for that round or that moment or that week where it clicks and Ill be off and operating. Ive had little periods like this before in my career and Ive been able to bounce back. Id say I was in worse positions than this. I feel like my game; the pieces are all there, its just about trying to fit them together.

One thing McIlroy does not lack is longing. I want to win this week, he said. I dont need to win, a second Open Championship isnt going to change my life. But I want to win. Im still as ambitious now as I was starting off my career, if not more so now because I know what Ive achieved and I know what I can achieve. So it only makes you want to do that even more.

Having that success, you merely want to do that more. You want to emulate that and you want to do it again and again and again. I definitely havent lost the thirst that Ive always had.

McIlroy has routinely constructed no qualms about the fact he has to back up such talk with outcomes. As someone who has always maintained his legacy will be based on major titles, the 28 -year-old is especially anxious to end a wait for another of golfs big four awards that stretches back to the US PGA in Valhalla in August 2014.

Its been a very stop/ start year, he said. It hasnt been the year had schemed, going back to January and feeling like I was in a good place in my game. But these things crop up out of nowhere and they challenge us.

Im sticking to what I know, which is working hard on my game and feeling like Im doing the right things. Im just trying to stay as patient as is practicable and to enjoy the process of trying to improve and trying to get better and trying to prepare for tournaments and hit the shootings that Im going to need for that week. It hasnt quite happened for me over the past couple of weeks but, as I keep saying, it doesnt feel that far away.

I wish I was here being the No1 player in the world, having won a couple more majors and whatever but I havent. Im in a place where Im trying to figure out how I get back to that position where I was this time two and a half, three years ago.

Im working on it. Im trying to get back there and Im doing everything I can. Hopefully the start of that crest of a wave happens this week.

Ewan Murray

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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