ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The 150th edition of The Open could very well end up being one of the best in its storied history, depending on what happens at the Old Course in St. Andrews on Sunday.
Seven of the top 12 players in the Official World Ranking are within 8 strokes of co-leaders Viktor Hovland and Rory McIlroy, who are under 16 strokes and have a 4-stroke advantage heading into the final 18 holes.
There are plenty of scenarios: McIlroy will try to end an eight-year drought without a major. Hovland, Cameron Young, Cameron Smith, Si Woo Kim and Tommy Fleetwood will be aiming for their first big wins. Scottie Scheffler, who is 5 strokes behind, will try to put a bow on one of the greatest seasons in golf history. US Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick will be looking to win a second straight major.
Are we headed for a shootout between Hovland and McIlroy in the final round, or will the Old Course finally bare its teeth and allow others back into the mix?
“I don’t know,” Hovland said. “There’s a lot of things that can happen. In those conditions and those pin placements, you can play well and even shoot, and that brings in a lot of other guys as well. So it just depends on the conditions. It’s going to be like [Sunday]pin locations and, frankly, how we play.”
Who will win the Claret Jug on Sunday? Here’s why the top contenders will win and why they won’t:
Why he can win: Hovland, who learned to play golf at an indoor facility in Norway, is one of the most talented young players in the world. The 24-year-old has already won the European Tour twice and the PGA Tour three times, including the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba in November. He is the first Norwegian player to hold a lead or co-lead after one round in a major tournament.
“I don’t think there’s any other place that could top it,” Hovland said. “Growing up in Norway, I always watched the Open Championship way longer than ever, for example, the Masters. Yeah, winning a major tournament closest to where I live would be really cool.”
Hovland drives the ball extremely well and is an excellent ball striker. He entered the week ranked 10th in the circuit in strokes gained: approach to the green. He hit 44 of 54 greens in the first three rounds of the Old Course. Hovland is also becoming a better putter; he putted 38 feet, 42 feet and 19 feet during a four-game birdie streak on Saturday.
Why he can’t win: As talented as Hovland is, he hasn’t been great in the majors, albeit in limited opportunities. He has not finished in the top 10 in his last eight major starts as a professional. His best result in a major is a tie for 12th, which he did as a weak amateur at the 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach and last year’s Open at Royal St. George’s.
As good as Hovland’s putter has been lately, will he stand up to the pressure? And what about the rest of his short game? His chipping was excruciating early in his career. He entered the week ranked 204th in shots won around the green. Will he bite him in the final round?
Why he can win: Outside of Scheffler, McIlroy might be the best player in the world this season. He won twice on tour and finished in the top 10 in each of the top three majors for the first time in his career, including a second solo at the Masters. He drives the ball as well as anyone and places the ball at a world class level.
Even though McIlroy hasn’t won a major in nearly eight full seasons, he’s been exceptionally good on major tournament weekends. Yes, some of his successes came when he was knocked out and fought his way into the top 5. Yet, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, McIlroy is under 33 in the last round of majors. , the best of any Masters-era golfer. He’s going to have most of the gallery behind him on Sunday, and it looks like it’s finally McIlroy’s time.
Why he can’t win: How many times have we been here before? There have been 30 major tournaments played since McIlroy won his last, the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. Twenty-two golfers have won major tournaments during this period, but not McIlroy. Will he finally be able to avoid the disasters that have derailed his chances in the past?
Why he can win: The PGA Tour rookie looks like he belonged since his second start of the season, when he finished tied for second at the Sanderson Farms Championship. Since then, Young has finished second at the Genesis Invitational and third at the PGA Championship. He already has five top-10s in his first 20 starts. Clearly, the New York product isn’t afraid of the big stage.
Young, who played at Wake Forest, is one of the longest hitters from the tee on tour. He averaged 369.6 yards per drive on Saturday. His iron game has also been better this week. He led the open field in strokes won: tee-to-green by more than one stroke in each of the first two rounds.
Why he can’t win: Young is participating in his first Open – in the “cradle of golf”, no less. Can there be more pressure than that? It’s not that rookies never win the Open when they start out; Collin Morikawa did it at Royal St. George’s last year. But that’s only happened 10 times in 150 years, and Young is a rookie.
Why he can win: Smith loves birdie festivals (his total of under 34 at the Sentry Tournament of Champions is proof of that) and no one on tour has been better than him at converting birdie chances this season. He also performed well under pressure. When Smith won The Players in March, he putted eight times in the final nine holes to put it away.
The Australian is one of the best putters in the world, and his flat stick was scorching through the first two rounds. He made an incredible 253 feet of putts when he shot 8-under 64 in the second round. Although Smith missed more than a few chances in the third round, he won’t lack confidence on Sunday. It’s obvious he doesn’t fear much, given his shirt selection on Saturday.
Why he won’t win: As good as Smith’s putter was on the first 36 holes, it was unreliable on Saturday. After needing just 28 putts in each of the first two rounds, he needed 35 in the third. Smith missed a 5-footer on the very first hole and bogeyed. He never got anything from there.
Much like his tee shot on the 12th hole of the Masters final round, which splashed Rae’s Creek and resulted in a triple bogey, you have to wonder if Smith’s double bogey at No. 13 on Saturday might have cost him another shot at his first big win.
Why he can win: Over its 150-year history, the Open has produced some pretty unexpected champions, including Ian Baker-Finch (1991), Paul Lawrie (1999), Ben Curtis (2003) and Todd Hamilton (2004). Kim would certainly fit the bill, given his recent form and his past at the majors.
Give the South Korean player credit, though. He is imaginative and has guts. On Saturday, he hit a fabulous flop from the green on the Road Hole and saved the par. He’s a three-time winner on tour, so it’s not like he’s never won before.
Why he can’t win: It’s probably too much to ask Kim to put together a round that would eliminate the best players in the world.
Kim picked up his third PGA Tour victory at the American Express in January 2021, but he hasn’t done much this season. He finished in the top 10 in 24 starts, at the Sanderson Farms Championship in October, and had missed the cut in each of his last three starts. He has never had a top 10 in 22 major starts and has missed more cuts (11) than he has made (10).
Why he can win: Scheffler is the No. 1 ranked player in the world and has earned more than anyone this season. He had never won on tour in 2021, but he went on to win four in six starts this spring, including the Masters. He finished tied for second at the US Open.
Scheffler is balanced and seems unfazed by the pressure. If he wins the Claret Jug, he will be the author of one of the most beautiful seasons in the history of golf. Only four other players have won five times in a single season, including the Masters and the Open: Ben Hogan in 1953, Arnold Palmer in 1962, Tom Watson in 1977 and Tiger Woods in 2005. They are an elite company, and that’s how good Scheffler is. has been in the past five months.
Why he won’t win: Is Scheffler too far behind? The 54-hole Open’s biggest comeback came in 1999, when Lawrie rallied from a 10-stroke deficit. Unfortunately for Scheffler, Jean van de Velde is not ahead of him on the scoreboard. Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els came back from 6 shots in 2007 and 2012, respectively.
“Guys are pretty good at golf,” Scheffler said. “There’s a lot of talent here and I’m hanging on. Apart from a few putts [Saturday], I could have been much closer to the lead, but that’s the way it is. I hit a lot of good putts there. They just dodge the cut. But looks like I’ll probably be about 6 shots away before [Sunday]. I never know what can happen.”
Why he can win: DJ is one of the best players in the world and has won 24 times on tour, including two majors. How talented is he? On Sunday, Johnson teeed off at No. 18, one of golf’s most famous holes, but still birdied. He fell as low as 12 under after 12 holes in the third round, but made too many errors in the sequence. Still, he has the talent to come back if the leaders falter on Sunday.
Why he won’t win: There are 72 holes in The Open.