St. Andrews, Scotland – Amid the chaos sits the winner of the 150th Open. The concoction of top-ranked contenders combines players at different stages of their careers, and with mixed expectations and urgency.
There are those looking to end a long wait without a major, or for world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler – who is in a blockbuster pairing with Dustin Johnson on Saturday – he is continuing another feat in an already remarkable season. Then there are the local hopefuls, first-timers and the group of LIV golfers looking to join in the 150th Open celebrations.
In short – predicting an Open winner has rarely been so difficult, or exciting.
St. Andrews has seen some great battles over the years – and there are reminders of tales of yesteryear everywhere about this famous course of the narrow margins between golf ecstasy with a place among the greats and those infamous near misses .
With the greatest respect, no one wants to be lumped in with a Doug Sanders or a Costantino Rocca on Sunday – it was the poor players who saw victory ebb at the vital moment they had a hand on the Claret Jug.
Before the tournament started, Rory McIlroy said it would be “better for the game” if the winner wasn’t part of the LIV breakaway series. R&A CEO Martin Slumbers tried to remain diplomatic during his pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday when asked if he agreed that it was best not to hand the Claret Jug to someone. one of this group of players, saying, “Whoever wins on Sunday will have their name etched in history. And I’ll welcome them to the 18th green. It’s a golf tournament.
But it followed him closely earlier saying that LIV was “damaging the perception of the sport.”
Those who have joined the LIV series have surely heard and read the comments (although most are adamant, including Sergio Garcia, who said on Friday, “I can’t read anymore”).
Of the 24 LIV players here, two are near the top of the table. Talor Gooch – who is 6 shots off the lead – said the critics have galvanized them as a group.
“Everyone, it seems, is against us, and that’s okay,” Gooch said. “As you said, it kind of brought us together, I think.”
Johnson, in fifth place and just 4 strokes behind, was less engaged.
“I wouldn’t know what you were saying or if there was anything negative that was said,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to it.”
It would be fascinating to see how the sport reacts if the man holding the Claret Jug on Sunday comes from this group of players.
But those in the R&A clubhouse may be crossing their fingers that the winner is someone not involved with LIV. There are plenty of suitors, such as Cameron Smith and Patrick Cantlay, who won’t want to be known among golf’s almost men.
It has been 29 years since there has been an Australian Open winner. Ironically, it was Greg Norman, who also happens to be the CEO of LIV Golf and was not invited to this week’s celebrations despite winning the event twice. Still, you wouldn’t know there’s pressure on Smith’s shoulders, despite setting an open record at 13 under after two rounds (beating the previous mark of 12 under by Nick Faldo, Norman and Louis Oosthuizen ). He’s much more eager to talk about gorging on ‘Peaky Blinders’ or trying to catch up with what his Maroons are doing in the rugby league home state.
But there is expectation around him following his Players Championship triumph, and his whole game is perfectly tuned to dance around the Old Course’s 112 bunkers.
“I think leaving late [Saturday] in the afternoon it’s obviously going to be a bit firmer…so I’d say it’s going to be pretty rough there,” Smith said. I think there’s going to be a couple more gnarly pins, and I think being smart there is definitely going to be key to staying at the top of the leaderboard.”
Smith says he is playing the best golf of his life this year. Cantlay has just had its best year. He is ranked fourth in the overall World Golf Rankings and added a victory to the three he had a year ago when he earned FedEx Cup and PGA Tour Player of the Year honors. In his understated way, he says he’s in a “good position” heading into the weekend and says he will continue to “play trouble” over the next two days.
You can also add Viktor Hovland – who will play alongside McIlroy on Saturday – to those looking to end their wait for a major debut, with the Norwegian in the mix at 10 under after his second-round 66, which included a spectacular eagle on the 15th.
But at minus-8 hides the best player in the world and the reigning Masters champion. A triumph here for Scheffler would add his name to the elite club of those who have won two major tournaments in a year. That would also make five tournament wins and there is still time on the golf calendar. If he tops the standings on Sunday, he would become only the fifth to achieve the feat, joining Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. For someone who feels he’s not “perceived” as the world No. 1 – that would be something for the man who spent the build-up to this tournament watching YouTube videos of past winners to glean little clues on how best to tame the old Course.
Britain’s Matt Fitzpatrick is also aiming for his second major this season, having won the US Open last month. He’s at 6 under after the first two rounds, having been tied after the first, and is certainly improving as the week progresses. He played alongside Woods on Thursday and Friday. Amid the frenzy around their reunion, Fitzpatrick thrived on Friday.
“I feel different,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to the confidence that comes with just winning a major tournament. “I can compete and I can win. [Winning a major] don’t hold me back. It’s not something that makes me nervous. I have to show myself a little more. Yeah, it just gave me that extra confidence.”
His compatriot Tyrrell Hatton is not lacking in confidence either. Although he’s kept a lid on his exuberance this week – there have been no club antics, although he did kick a ball into the burn on Thursday – he’s sitting at 8 under and firmly in the mix. .
But the main hope for many in the crowd is McIlroy.
Sheila Walker, the great-great-granddaughter of Old Tom Morris, is hoping for a British winner this week. It’s been 22 years since they’ve had one here in St. Andrews at The Open, reminiscent of Faldo’s 1990 triumph. And many thought McIlroy would be the man to end that wait. After his impressive and judicious 6-under 66 on Thursday, he posted 68 on Friday to sit perfectly in third place.
“I felt pretty much in control of everything,” McIlroy said.
It has been eight years since McIlroy won a major tournament. He came here to play golf. How he would love to end the wait here and exorcise those demons of seven years ago when he missed coming to St. Andrews as the defending Open champion after being injured playing the football in preparation.
“I just need to get out there and play my game and play golf for the next two days and that’s all I can do,” McIlroy said. “Cam Smith comes out and shoots two more rounds like he did the first two days, I’m going to have a really hard time winning the tournament. So I just have to go out and do my best and worry about myself. I hope it’s good enough.
As far as long waits go, Adam Scott is in the same boat here, having last won a major in 2013, but he too is in on the action at 7 under. He also wants to end an earlier pain, having lost a 4-shot lead with four holes remaining in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“Every time I think about letting one slip through my hands, it hurts,” Scott said Friday. “And it would be exciting if I shot a really good round [on Saturday] to leave with a legitimate feeling that I’m in the running, not only for the fact that I haven’t really been in this position for a middle finger in a little while, but also for the fact that I’ve had one about it jug, I feel like it, and I would like to put two.”
As always, there are those who had slightly longer odds of heading to The Open. This contest has a nice track record of surprise winners, so both Cameron Young and Sahith Theegala have a chance. Young is alone in second, two strokes behind and plays alongside Smith in the final pairing on Saturday. Theegala is tied at eighth and six strokes back.
“Obviously it’s a special place for golfers, especially competitive golfers who are playing one of our biggest championships on one of our oldest and biggest golf courses, it’s great fun,” he said. Young said. “But I will be head down trying to do my job for the next few days.”
Xander Schauffele (5 under) and Jordan Spieth (4 under) are hiding a little further. Neither came out with so much golf left to play.
One of the local takeaways has a ‘Munch Box’ – it’s basically an all in one mix, great for those who have trouble deciding what to do. And this weekend’s standings are of Munch Box proportions.
St. Andrews is a fairy tale place for golf. Some of the best in the world said goodbye to the championship on the Swilcan Bridge. There are those who made their career here. Some have suffered the kind of heartache that their careers will never recover from.
Whoever tops this leaderboard on Sunday will have kept his cool and navigated each of the Old Course’s championship-ending dangers. As it says above the 18th grandstand, “It all led up to this.” But the sheer unpredictability of this championship means no one is quite sure where this story will lead and what the outcome will be by Sunday night.