Great wide open!

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Published: July 19, 2015 12:14:13 AM

The ‘true test of golf’ returns to the ‘home of golf’ at St Andrews, where a 22-year-old American is the undisputed favourite to hoist the Claret Jug

The trouble with making forecasts is that you often end up with egg on your face. And especially when it comes to professional golf, just the sheer breadth of field and depth of talent make prediction a foolhardy endeavour.

However, at the time that this column is being written—on the eve of the first round of the British Open (better known as the Open Championship)—I’m just going to go by the odds: and those are stacked wholly on a precocious 22-year-old American who’s won the last two Majors on the trot. By the time you read this, the leading group will be all set to tee off for the concluding round of the Open Championship, and I would wager that Spieth will be smack dab in the middle of those contending for the biggest prize in golf—the Claret Jug. Implicit in that prophecy is that he will make the cut for the weekend: I’m going to go out on a limb and aver that, given the way the youngster has been playing in 2015, missing the cut is not within the realm of possibility.

It’s not just about the way Spieth won at Augusta—tying Tiger Woods’ 1997 cumulative score of 18-under, the lowest in the history of the tournament on the back of 28 birdies (another record)—or at the US Open—where he gave a masterclass in putting and course strategy. It’s also about the inexplicable way the youngster has prepared for the Open Championship: unlike the majority of the world’s top players, he eschewed playing in the Scottish Open last week, which presents similar links-style playing conditions, and played the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour instead. That move, quite understandably, evoked a mixture of surprise and criticism: Spieth has played the Old Course only once and that, too, as an amateur. Spieth, being Spieth, hit a curve ball at his detractors by proceeding to win the John Deere Classic with yet another come from behind playoff win. Not only did he shoot an astounding 20-under par in three rounds (his first round was even-par 71), but pretty much won the tournament with a flurry of birdies on the last nine holes on the final day. That calm and calculated last-gasp charge has become something of a hallmark of Spieth’s game. His driving has been a bit wayward, but, most importantly, and this is crucial at St Andrews, his putting has never been so sublime. “I love where my putting is at. Really, my pace control, my speed, is awesome right now,” he told The Guardian earlier this week.

Spieth’s chances aren’t just about how he’s playing, but tangentially also about who’s not playing: those hoping for a Spieth versus Rory McIlroy duel were bitterly disappointed when the top-ranked Ulsterman injured his ankle severely while playing football ruling him out for the Open Championship. With McIlroy not in the field, Spieth could not hope for a better chance at taking the third leg of a calendar Grand Slam.

Amongst those who could spoil Spieth’s party include the no-longer-mercurial Ricky Fowler. The 2015 Player’s Champion announced his intentions by winning the Scottish Open last Sunday. Like Spieth, Fowler is going into the Open Championship bursting with a winning confidence. Fowler has more power than Spieth and an uncanny ability to pull of miracle shots. In a way, the colourful American is the anti-thesis of Spieth in the way he plays the game: while Spieth is considered to have a high ‘golfing IQ’, Fowler is the quintessential risk taker—going for everything.
And let’s not forget the hugely talented Dustin Johnson: if the long-hitting American, who’s presumably still smarting from his last-hole meltdown at the US Open, can match his physical prowess with mental strength then he would be tough to catch. But he’s still a long shot because of his putting woes—historical precedent suggests that the Open at St Andrews will be decided by putting ability within 20 ft.

It’s a sad indictment of Woods’ game that he can only be mentioned on second thoughts. But there’s no denying that both of his Open wins have come at the Old Course. Can he rekindle the magic? I wouldn’t count on it. There’s also ex-world number one Martin Kaymer who has a penchant for lying low and then coming out of nowhere to win the big tournaments like he did at the US Open and the Player’s Championship in 2014.

If he does win, Spieth will unseat McIlroy as the top golfer in the world, and would have notched up five victories this season. The American’s rivalry with the Ulsterman is already the defining one in world golf, and is injecting some much-needed drama back into the game after Wood’s era of dominance. Of course, if he’s already missed the cut, then all this is moot talk. In any case, I’m going to be rooting for Fowler—golf needs flamboyance more than sobriety to appeal to the younger generation, and Fowler has that in spades.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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