Nick Faldo did. Ditto Sam Snead and Seve Ballesteros. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus pulled off the trick twice.
Time and time again, when the oldest golf championship has come to the Old Course, the biggest names in the game have come out on top.
Except when they haven’t. John Daly and Zach Johnson claimed the Claret Jug at St. Andrews. In 2010, Louis Oosthuizen took the title by seven strokes.
If anything is clear from the historical record, it is that anything can happen at the home of golf, which has hosted the Open more often than anywhere else. Of all the majors, the Open Championship is perhaps the least unpredictable, so let’s give it a go, with the help of a top architect, a Tour coach, a handicapper and a former champion.
UNDERSTANDING THE DESIGN
At first glance, the field might be mistaken for an open field, bordered by wispy grasses, with little elevation change. But what you see isn’t what you get on a course that Scottish-born golf architect David McLay Kidd calls “the most nuanced in the world.”
Never mind the lack of dramatic ups and downs. The terrain is not flat. It’s a hump-and-hollow wonderland, filled with blind shots and wacky rebounds. The subtleties, difficult to decipher when playing on the field, are even more difficult to appreciate on television.
“[The Old Course] it’s completely contrary to what I would call American golf, in the sense that it’s not a visual extravagance,” says Kidd. Attacking it, he says, requires a leap of faith and a measure of acceptance. On many holes, he must pick a line and trust it, avoiding dangers hidden in plain sight, knowing his ball won’t stop where it lands. Idiosyncrasies abound. Take for example the par 4 17, the legendary “Road Hole”, with its daunting tee shot to the right and a greenside bunker that does to balls what black holes do to galactic matter.
“It’s such a weird, twisted hole that I’d be shot if I tried to build it today,” says Kidd. That it makes sense on the Old Course tells you something crucial about the venue for this year’s Open.
“You can spend your whole life here,” says Kidd, “and not discover its complexities.”
HANDICAPING THE EVENT
If you’ve won the green jacket, do you have a better crack at the Claret Jug? As a golf forecaster, Brady Kannon takes a hard look at recent form. But he also scrutinizes the historical record, looking for patterns in player performance. Something he’s noticed: “Guys who have done well at Augusta have tended to do well at the Old Course as well.”
And not just guys like Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Woods and Faldo, whose games stacked up well wherever they put him. Consider Zach Johnson. Or Louis Oosthuizen, who came close to adding the Masters to his list of major wins.
“Marc Leishman and Jason Day are two other guys who have good records on both,” says Kannon, who co-hosts Long Shots, a PGA Tour betting show on the VSiN radio network.
Maybe it’s just appropriate. When designing Augusta, Alister MacKenzie was inspired by the Old Course. Or maybe that draw only goes so far. Where the greens at Augusta National are lightning fast and choppy, they are relatively flat and slow around St. Andrews.
“In the Open, I probably put less emphasis on putting than any other event,” says Kannon. “Overall, I think the lack of speed on the greens puts everyone on the line.”
Who, then, stands out? Since the wind can be a big disruptor, Kannon leans toward low-ball hitters. “I’ll be looking at some of the younger guys, like Joaquin Niemann and Daniel Berger,” he says. And he’s already backed a canny veteran.
“Unlike Augusta, the Old Course is easy to walk, so that won’t be a problem,” says Kannon. He has Tiger at 50:1.
MASTER THE MENTAL GAME
All Tour professionals can control their ball, but no one can control the weather. That’s worth remembering at the Open, where fate can be determined by tee time alone.
“More than any other tournament, you can’t stand a chance being on the wrong side of the draw,” says coach Claude Harmon III. Sure, it helps shape your shots, just as it pays to have a good understanding of the ground game. But, says Harmon, “most gamers these days are so good and so adaptable that they can adapt quickly and play anywhere.”
Not many players modify their games much when they land across the pond, either.
“You’ll see creative shots, but, at the elite level of the Tour, these guys have so much skill and confidence that they’re going to show up and do what they do,” says Harmon.
Gone is the era of open specialists whose games seemed especially suited to the test. Of today’s stars, Harmon says Jordan Spieth would seem to fit the bill, given his creativity. “And it’s no surprise that he was Open champion.”
On the other hand, Harmon says, “Rory McIlroy hasn’t historically dominated in the way you think he would.” No wonder the foresight can seem crazy. If there’s one metric that matters above all else, Harmon says, it’s the mental game.
“It’s more about patience and mindset,” he says. “You have to understand that you’re going to make some good shots that are going to end up in some bad spots.”
That’s one of the things Harmon’s father, famed trainer Butch Harmon, did to help Phil Mickelson win the 2013 Open. “He encouraged him to embrace randomness.”
FIND THE RIGHT THINGS
Zach Johnson has played in three open championships at the Old Course. In each of those events, the winners carried 14 clubs in their bags.
“Otherwise,” says Johnson, “we had nothing in common.”
That diversity reflects the beauty of a course that favors no one. People often say that you need to hit low. And you do, Johnson says, although he sometimes helps pitch it. And you also have to know how to fade it and draw it. Your wedges must be sharp. Long irons too.
“Whatever you do wrong, the course will expose it,” says Johnson.
You can try planning. It’s a way to make the gods of golf laugh. No strategy makes sense until you know what the wind is doing.
“The advice you always hear is hit left because it’s better to go out and go in left,” says Johnson. But, if the gusts are blowing with a force and direction you weren’t expecting, be ready to craft something else. A robust par 4 on Thursday could be manageable on Sunday.
The one constant truth is that the greens are “slow and steady” compared to most places on the Tour. Often, Johnson says, “the streets are faster, so you have to adapt.” The winning formula, he says, is “imagination” and athleticism to “make any shot in any condition.”
If I had to pick a winner, why not? – would choose himself. “It’s always been my favorite course anywhere and now coming back after winning, I can’t wait.”
WHAT GOLF GURUS SAY
Under the veil of anonymity, the GOLF staff chose their favorites for the 2022 Open. Here, in order of the ones with the most votes, are some contenders and hot shots.
JON RAHM. “Not only will he win on the Old Course, I’ll tell you how: by making a birdie on the 72nd hole, following in the footsteps of his fellow countryman, Seve Ballesteros.”
JORDAN SPIETH. “The supreme grinder of the game has always played well in the Open, where creativity and will are paramount. There is also a lot to like about his game this summer.”
JUSTIN THOMAS. “At Southern Hills, he fought through a storm of doubt to finally win his second major. Fitting for a guy who, take note, is among the best in the game when he’s in bad weather.”
TIGER FORESTS. “A two-month break from the PGA will do his aching body a lot of good, as will the flat terrain of the Old Course. It’s time for the game’s preeminent iron player to shine again.”
Matthew Fitzpatrick. “The Brit has been playing in the United States (oh yeah, and he just won a US Open). Familiar UK conditions could be just what he needs to keep the momentum going.”
VIKTOR HOVLAND. “An elite ball driver who, at St. Andrews, won’t have to worry too much about his poor chipping game.”
Shane Lowry. “He has quietly become one of the most consistent players in golf, especially in difficult weather. He has also finished inside the top 25 in five of his last six majors.”
CAMERON SMITH. “Brilliant short game, and he keeps knocking on the door. It has to open soon, right?