By Kent Gray
Talk of golf’s ‘Big Four’ is redundant and you can forget another Tiger-esque era, perhaps ever. Oh, and while we are at it, half the field can forget winning the Claret Jug this week as well.
Jordan Spieth said what most every player at the 146th Open Championship was thinking after his Tuesday reconnaissance work around Royal Birkdale: Golf is young, athletic and wide open. Good luck picking a winner of a regular tour event, let alone a major anymore.
The last seven bigs have been won by first timers and Spieth wouldn’t be surprised if the trend continues over the windswept Southport links this week. The very limited-edition quartet of McIlroy, Spieth, Day and Fowler dominating? That media-fuelled folly didn’t factor in the emergence of Johnson, Rahm, Koepka and any number of long-bombing contemporaries.
“It could be anybody this week,” Spieth said ahead of his fifth Open appearance. “I’m not sure who it would be, if you asked me [to pick a favourite]. I think you look at a guy like [world No.11] Jon Rahm, how does he deserve not to be in a conversation like that?
“What he just did at the [Dubai Duty Free] Irish Open and what he has been able to do this year, he did it two weeks ago at links golf. He destroyed the field. Won by six or seven, right [six shots at Portstewart]? I don’t think he would have been someone that you would put there if you were about to name four guys.
“It’s pretty exciting, I think. I don’t know what’s better for golf [a solo domination or multitude of genuine contenders], but from my opinion it’s very exciting when you’ve got to beat that many great players with that much confidence.”
With that said, it’s not hard to see why Spieth can’t see a period of solo domination enjoyed by the 14-time major winning and now 1005th ranked Tiger Woods.
Spieth himself flirted with immortality in 2015 when he won the Masters and US Open back-to-back, had a serious tilt at the Claret Jug before finishing T4 at St Andrews before finishing runner up at the US PGA. But given golf’s new depth, the 23-year-old Texan urged “I wouldn’t get your hopes up” of another runaway world No.1 anytime soon.
“Having experienced a year like he continued to do for years, it just takes a lot out of you. It’s very tough to do. And you have to have a lot of things go right right at the right times,” Spieth said.
“I doubt you’ll see a dominance like that maybe ever again in the game. I just think guys are learning, guys are getting stronger. Athletes are coming to golf. Guys are winning younger playing more fearless, even in major championships, and I just think that it’s so difficult now.
“You’ll see a group of 10 to 12 guys over the next 15, 20 years, that are going to have a lot of different competitions that come down the stretch with each other.”
So what of Spieth’s hopes this week? He arrived in Southport refreshed from a three week break after victory at last month’s Travelers Championship, his second PGA Tour victory of 2017 following February’s four-stroke romp in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
He spoke of feeling “fresh” and ”ready to go” and likes the “tough but fair test” of “cool” Birkdale, a layout he rates just behind Muirfield as his favourite Open rota stop thus far. Contending on the Old Course had been “pretty fun” but Birkdale is “certainly a better test than St. Andrews is.”
But the world No.3 also has enough Open experience to know that the British weather is a lottery you can very easily lose depending on what side of the draw you find yourself on.
Cool 17 degree Celsius temperatures are predicted all four days but it’s winds gusting up to 30mph everyday and a wet weekend forecast that have the field apprehensive.
“At this tournament it tends to fall on half the field. You kind of cut half the field, depending on the draw. And it’s almost impossible to win in that circumstance at an Open Championship.
“There’s nothing you can do about that other than keep your head down, play as well as you can, and see what happens after two days. And then obviously the leaders have to play in the same conditions against each other.
“I think that’s the most frustrating part about this tournament is getting through the first couple of days, from my experience. Because [even] if you’re on the good end, you almost put that kind of pressure on yourself, hey, I need to jump out ahead. And so it’s a mind game that you play with yourself there.
“I’ve kind of seen a bit of everything in four years. I’d say that it may be the easiest of the majors to win, if you had to pick a major, just because the draw can take out half a field. So I’m not saying it’s easy based on competition or anything like that, I’m strictly saying that because a lot of the time some of the field is thrown out and you’re actually playing against a smaller field, your percentage chances go up.
“But it’s the nature of it, and I plan on playing 30 of these, and I guarantee you it will end up being 15 and 15 at the end of the day.” — Kent Gray travelled to The Open with Etihad Airways.