2017 Open Championship Preview: Royal Birkdale (07/19/17)
The third Major of the year, the Open Championship, has arrived at Royal Birkdale, the next longest tenure at the Open Championship after St. Andrews. In a classic longer, links-style course, Royal Birkdale features deadly bunkers lining the course and tight fairways. The greens are not as undulating as many other famous links courses, but the weather and wind off of the sea will play a major factor like most Open Championships.
With a distinct advantage to keep the ball below the forceful winds, we should expect to see a lot of two irons off of tees, creating longer iron shots into greens. Longer shots into greens would mean more missed greens and more found bunkers around the greens. The green-side bunkers at Royal Birkdale aren't terribly punishing, but the fairway bunkers will be (another reason to expect long irons off of tee boxes). Thus, the two key factors for the Open Championship will be long iron play and scrambling/bunker play. The other thing to consider is that European players will have a bit of an advantage considering they typically play the ball with a lower flight as they've played in gloomy weather throughout their lives, unlike American-born players.
Using certain criteria, let's find the best bets for this week's Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Odds below are provided by Bovada.
Charles Howell III (150-1)
Howell isn't a name you'll see thrown around a lot this week, but we're not interested in the safest picks to compete. We're trying to find the best value. Howell's characteristics of extremely low ball flight, good scrambling, and solid bunker play match up nicely with Royal Birkdale. He's a longshot for a reason; he routinely finishes on the back end of the weekend after the cut is made. However, he has only missed one cut on the PGA Tour and still has eight top 15's this season. He'll likely play his way into the weekend, and if he gets on the right side of the ever-switching wind at Birkdale, he has a small chance.
Wesley Bryan (225-1)
Wesley Bryan certainly isn't a household name, but his surge since February is impressive for a relatively unknown PGA Tour player. Since the Genesis Open, Bryan has finished inside the top seven five times. He's also missed three cuts in that same time period, including the Players and US Open. TPC Sawgrass and Erin Hills are different challenges than Royal Birkdale, though. Bryan won't have to hit driver, his biggest weakness, often, if at all, this week. In 57 rounds this season, Bryan has a shots gained total of -39.5 off the tee compared to +38.9 on approach shots, +17.5 around the green, and +20.9 putting. Considering driver won't come out of his bag often this week, and the rough/fescue isn't overly penalizing, Bryan can layup short of the bunkers and let his solid iron play and scrambling takeover. At 225-1 the extreme longshot odds are a bit too high for a high variance player like Bryan.
Bernd Wiesberger (100-1)
Bernd Wiesberger is unknown player in American golf due to his time on the European Tour. The Austrian will be familiar with Royal Birkdale, the conditions, and requirements of the course as he plays them nearly every week. Wiesberger ranks 29th in the official World Golf Rankings, and although he only has 11 measured rounds on the PGA Tour this season, his game matches up nicely with Royal Birkdale. Over his last three shorter PGA Tour seasons, Wiesberger's only weakness is putting. That weakness will typically let him down on the PGA Tour at events like the Players, the Masters, the US Open, or the PGA Championship. However, the greens at Royal Birkdale are relatively flat and will play a lot slower than most events considering the moisture on the greens and the slowness required in case of high winds. There's a bit of value for the Austrian at 100-1.
Daniel Berger (80-1)
Daniel Berger is one of our favorite picks this week for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he's played great lately. Outside of missing the cut at the last Major Championship, Berger has finished in the top five in three of his previous four events including a win in the FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind. Berger is a good all-around player with a low, penetrating ball flight. His weakness is bunker play around the greens, which could be very penalizing at links-style courses. He's only saved 44% of sand opportunities this season with an average proximity to the hole of ten feet. Considering the greenside bunkers aren't as deep as a course like St. Andrews, I trust Berger a bit more to make up his poor bunker play with his putting. At +23.0 shots gained putting in 45 rounds this year, Berger ranks 15th on the PGA Tour.
Jordan Spieth (14-1)
Of the top golfers in the world in the field this week, Jordan Spieth is your best bet. We've seen a number of folks come to this conclusion this week due to his recent play and hot putter. Though we do value his recent play, his biggest advantage on the field will be his supreme long iron and approach game, lower ball flight, and bunker play. His average apex height of 102.9 feet is quite a bit lower than most top players like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, and Jason Day, which is a nice problem to have in high winds. Admittedly, Spieth hasn't been a great scrambler this year, but the combination bunker play, ranked 15th overall at 59%, and +14.9 shots gained putting should handle the flatter Royal Birkdale greens nicely. Spieth's lack of length off the tee is the worst part of his all-around game, but he'll benefit from laying up short of the bunkers this week and hitting longer irons into greens. You won't get a ton of value at just 14-1, but if you're going to fire on a top player, Spieth should be your choice.
Rory McIlroy (20-1)
As the apparent King of Golf after the Tiger Woods era, Rory McIlroy hasn't lived up to the hype. Sure, he's still a top golfer in the world, but he's in no way as dominate as he was just a few years ago or as we all expected. Purely growing up in Northern Ireland will be an advantage to Rory this week. Though he has the ability to flight the ball very high, his preferred ball flight is a bit lower and can routinely play the ball below high winds. Rory is an incredible longer club player including off the tee box and firing into greens. His breakdowns come around the green; however, putting ability will be muted at Birkdale and his proximity from the sand of 8'2” this season, is plenty good enough to keep him competitive. Again, you aren't getting great odds here, but he may be worth the risk as an alternative to Spieth.
Rickie Fowler (16-1)
Fowler's game fits Royal Birkdale almost as well as Spieth's. He also played well at the Scottish Open last week, finishing T9. Fowler is the best player in the field without a Major and he'll be gunning for the Open Championship this week. Besides missing the cut at the St. Jude Classic, Fowler finished inside the top five in three of his last four PGA Tour events, including a T5 at the US Open. Fowler's overall scrambling ranks ninth overall at 64.7% which gets a huge boost from his 71% sand save percentage, best on the PGA Tour. Fowler hasn't missed a scrambling effort from the fringe, a prominent feature at links-style courses, in 20 attempts this season. His overall approach shots rank 8th overall at +25.6 shots gained in 35 rounds. He'll have no issues on the greens as he ranks 3rd in shots gained putting. If Fowler wins this week, it'll be by dominating around the greens.
Paul Casey (33-1)
We planned on throwing Paul Casey in here due to his recent play and low ball flight, but were hesitant once we saw 33-1 odds. We expected Casey to be a bit higher than that. As we dug deeper, we realized Casey is the top value or one of the top values of the week. Casey's not a terribly long player, but he won't need to be when two irons are going off of so many holes. Out of the forty or so golfers examined, Casey ranked seventh in apex height, ninth in approach shots to the green, and fourth in scrambling. He's having a good year to set him up for the Open Championship. In his most recent tournaments on the PGA Tour, he's finished in the top 15 seven times.
Louis Oosthuizen (45-1)
In search of his second Open Championship, Louis Oosthuizen is hard not to like this week. Oosty hasn't had a marvelous season, finishing inside the top ten only three times, but he tends to prepare and gear up for the bigger tournaments. Not to mention, his game fits Royal Birkdale. The South African has one of the smoothest, low, penetrating ball flights in the world of golf. The only concern we have with Oosty this week is his approach shots. He only ranks 63rd this year in shots gained and 121st in proximity to the hole. However, his play around the greens is some of the best on tour. Oosty ranks 13th overall in scrambling and seventh in sand save percentage. For someone who tends to prepare for the major championships, Louis Oosthuizen seems like a gift at 45-1.
Who to Avoid
Without going into great detail considering we'll be arguing the reciprocal sides for these players, the top players to avoid this week are Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Jason Day, and Brooks Koepka.
Although we were in favor of fading Brooks Koepka in the last Major Championship (d'oh!), in which he won, he displayed an approach game at Erin Hills unlike he has in any tournament in his career. Is this a new Koepka we haven't seen before? We tend to lean towards the larger sample of this season and his career, rather than a span of four good days. In combination with lack of approach game, Koepka is one of the highest ball flight players in the world, ranking ninth. With similar approach problems as Koepka, Jason Day ranks fifth overall in apex height. Henrik Stenson has missed the cut in five of his last six PGA Tour starts as he's been putrid in his play around the greens and scrambling.
The Open Championship is a tournament and field unlike any other. You get a huge field of amateurs, European, and PGA Tour players, horrid conditions, and unique courses. Royal Birkdale has always fit that bid. You won't see a lot of 300+ yard drives this week. It'll take imagination, shot shaping, and par saves from around the greens to win. The weather typically controls the scoring and it'll be somewhere in the middle this week. The last two winners, Mark O'Meara and Padraig Harrington, finished at even par and +3, respectively. The conditions won't be as treacherous this week, so expect to see scores slightly under par for the tournament.