Which way will the pendulum swing this week at Royal St. George’s for the 149th British Open?
Upon the arrival of every major championship, we analyze who among the game’s top stars is hot and who’s not.
Entering this week, John Rahm is hot. Rory McIlroy is not. Brooks Koepka is trending. Dustin Johnson is not.
Then there are the players who are due, like Xander Schauffele, who at age 27, already has nine top-10 finishes (including six fop-fives) in the mere 17 major championships he has played.
You might, too, say Louis Oosthuizen is due. He has finished runner-up six times in major championships, including once at the British Open, at which he captured his one career major victory, in 2010 at St. Andrews. Oosthuizen finished solo second last month at the U.S. Open and was tied for second at the PGA Championship in May at Kiawah Island.
Johnson, who just lost his No. 1 world ranking to Rahm at the U.S. Open, has had a curious couple of years. In 2020, he won the Masters, finished runner-up at the PGA and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open. This year’s majors have been quite different for Johnson, who missed cuts at the Masters and PGA and managed a nondescript tie for 19th at the U.S. Open.
No player among the stars, though, is more of a question mark than the 32-year-old McIlroy. He enters every major as one of the betting favorites, yet is so streaky it’s difficult to figure out which McIlroy is going to turn up on a given week.
When McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship in May, it appeared he might in for a big summer. What followed that tournament at Quail Hollow, however, were a tie for 49th at the PGA, a tie for 18th at the Memorial and a tie for seventh at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he teased by being in contention, but never was able to mount a final-round charge.
Then there was his missed cut at the Scottish Open this past week. McIlroy’s game appeared to be stuck in neutral for two days.
Suffice it to say McIlroy is not entering this Open Championship with any momentum.
This not the first time that McIlroy’s form has dipped just when you thought it was going to spike.
In 2019, McIlroy was named the PGA Tour player of the year, was FedEx Cup champion, a four-time winner and the Vardon Trophy recipient. But after he won the WGC-HSBC Champions in November 2019 (at the start of the 2020 PGA Tour season), McIlroy went 18 months between victories, spanning 27 tournaments.
In that period, his world ranking plummeted from No. 1 to 15th, his lowest spot since 2009.
Through his inconsistencies, however, McIlroy has retained a healthy, positive outlook. He often talks about knowing the great golf “is in there’’ for him. Now he’s hoping he can bring it out on the biggest stage.
“All anyone asks of themselves is to give themselves a chance on Sunday,” McIlroy told reporters before the Scottish Open. “The only way you can win is to give yourself that chance. And I gave myself a chance [at the U.S. Open]. I was right there on Sunday. So, I’m getting there.”
A key for McIlroy this week will be getting off to a good start. At times, he has struggled with that, leaving him to chase low scores after mediocre opening rounds.
“That’s the thing about majors, you just have to hang around,” McIlroy said. “You don’t have to do anything spectacular. You can sort of par the course to death, pick off a few birdies here and there. It’s a different style of golf than we’re probably used to playing week-in, week-out, and I like that. I like that challenge.’’
“At the grand old age of 32, I like the fact that it’s probably more of a mental challenge than a physical one because I feel like I can use my experience to hang in there.”
That experience could come in handy at Royal St. George’s, considering this eye-opening statistic: In the past two Opens played there, just five players have finished those tournaments under par.
McIlroy recalled playing a practice round in advance of the 2011 Open at Royal St. George’s with Clarke, the eventual winner, and thinking, “At that point it didn’t look like Darren was anywhere near winning the golf tournament.
“But that’s the great thing about golf: You just never know. I think the big thing with St. Georges, though, is you know that you know you might get some unlucky breaks, but you’re going to get some good breaks, too. The ball is going to take some different bounces here and there. But if you just pack your patience and understand that it’s the same for everyone, the good and the bad bounces should all level out over 72 holes.”