With four golfers in the places it was another good week but with the way Zach Johnson and Ryan Fox finished their rounds it was a little annoying to have their place returns diluted. Ultimately it was another profitable week though and keeps confidence high ahead of arguably the highlight of the golf year, The Open Championship.
2017 pts advised =322 pts
2017 pts returned = 240.36pts
ROI = -25.36%
In case you missed it, to celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the blog I’m running a competition this week for the grand prize of £10! To enter simply retweet the preview and reply with a guess of how many players will finish the tournament under par. Please add a winning score as a potential tie-breaker.
This is the third time that I have previewed The Open and on both the previous occasions I anticipated the usual Open weather resulting in a proper test of links golf. Despite two brilliant tournaments, that didn’t really materialise at either St. Andrews or Troon. The players were taken off the course during the only strong winds at St. Andrews while Stenson and Mickelson exchanged weekend blows on a sun-drenched yet rain-softened Ayrshire coast last year. With everything we have seen before at Royal Birkdale however, the traditional Open enthusiasts should get their wish this week.
While not being a classic out and in links course, every other aspect of a traditional links course is present at Royal Birkdale. Fairways sculpted into the dunes with rugged fescue all around, strategic pot bunkers in the fairways, large green complexes with swales and run-offs and more often than not a stern breeze whistling through it. While there are some undulations it is one of the flatter courses on rotation and 2008 champion Harrington claims it to be a very strong but very fair course that isn’t tricked up at all. What you see is what you get with the course and the majority of tee-shots are elevated meaning a clear view of where the drives are going. That is in complete contrast with the U.S. Open at Erin Hills where the players were faced with several blind tee-shots and aspects of a course like this can be key for many. Some golfers will be far more relaxed with this week’s driving lines and we may see the likes of Johnson, Rahm and Pieters in a better light here. Although it is worth noting that Birkdale has been claimed to be one of the toughest driving courses on the rotation. The fairways are narrow enough and the bunkers are as penal as you will see. Unlike some shorter links courses the bunkers can’t just be flown so strategy will be required off the tee.
In 2008 the field scrambled at just 42.6% which is the 3rd lowest in the last 15 years. The greens were also very hard to hit as the field managed just 53.7% which is actually the lowest total in the last 15. It may sound like I’m stating the obvious but you really only want to consider players this week that can continue to hit greens in difficult conditions and also scramble well around tightly mown links run-offs when they do miss the greens. That is what I focussed on but there are also some other key elements to Royal Birkdale from a historical point of view.
Key trends from the previous 9 Royal Birkdale Opens;
7/9 were already Major champions prior to Birkdale win
6/9 were or would go on to be a multiple major winner (the 9 have 34 majors between them now!)
5/9 were from the U.S.A (13 of the last 22 Open winners too)
3/9 were already Open winners (another 3 would go on to win The Open again)
The finishing position of the 9 Birkdale winners in the previous year’s Open;
1954 Peter Thomson – 2nd in 1953
1961 Arnold Palmer – 2nd in 1960
1965 – Peter Thomson – 24th in 1964 (already won at Birkdale in 1954)
1971 – Lee Trevino – 3rd in 1970
1976 – Johnnie Lee Miller – 3rd in 1975
1983 – Tom Watson – 1st in 1982
1991 – Iain Baker-Finch – 6th in 1990
1998 – Mark O’Meara – 38th in 1997 (was 3rd at Birkdale in 1998 and also won the Lawrence Batley International there in 1987)
2008 – Padraig Harrington – 1st in 2007
Essentially all these just tell us that this week’s Open will be won by a classy golfer who is already a major winner (or expected to become a multiple winner) and has a very strong bank of Open form already. Where does that leave us then?
I have thought Rickie Fowler was going to win The Open every year since his impressive showing at Sandwich in 2011 in dire conditions when he finished 5th to Darren Clarke. Indeed I have bet on him every year since and therefore I can forgive anyone who dismisses my main tip this year on grounds of me becoming obsessive! But this looks like the most traditional combination of both course and weather that we have seen since 2011. Birkdale looks absolutely perfect for Fowler and it has also come at a time when he is in brilliant form.
Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that he is the best active player without a major, nobody can deny that he has paid his dues already at the relatively young age of 28. Yet until his final round at Augusta I had personally never seen him do much wrong in contention for one of the Majors. That Sunday round alongside Spieth was a concern but he flew out of the blocks at Erin Hills in a fashion that suggested he had already forgotten about it. The fact that he finished 5th that week was actually testament to his grinding skills. He clearly wasn’t playing his best from Friday onwards yet he managed to just about hang around most of the tournament when Koepka, Fleetwood and Harman were playing their very best golf. He has held his form nicely since with a 3rd place finish at the Quicken Loans before crossing the Atlantic for his links warm up at the Scottish Open.
Over the weekend in Scotland Fowler cut the figure of someone who was merely sharpening their game ahead of the real tournament. I got the impression that he wasn’t overly worried about being off the pace and was happy to avoid the mental strain that comes with being in contention. With regards to trying to peak for this week, I believe his 9th place finish was ideal preparation. His 2017 has not only been succesful from a results point of view but his stats are excellent yet again this year. Fowler ranks 9th in scrambling, 3rd in total driving, 8th in strokes gained: approaches and 3rd in strokes gained: putting. It is no coincidence that he has contended at both this year’s majors as his whole game is as good as it has ever been.
For me, Rickie is ready and I believe this is his time if he is to go on to be the outstanding links player of his generation that I think he can be. He has already won around Gullane and finished 6th at Royal Aberdeen which are two visually similar courses to Birkdale.
The recent trend of experienced Open winners is certainly relevant but at the same time the nine Birkdale winners were an average of 31 yrs old when they won. Given Fowler came on the scene so early he is probably as experienced at 28 as the average golfer at 31 as this is his 8th Open already. Indeed the last three Birkdale winners played in their 8th Open respectively at 31, 34 and 31. I’m going to have 3pts ew at 14/1 with Skybet’s 10 places offer and a further 2pts win at Betfair’s 18.0
I’m going to take three more proven links players as back up to Rickie Fowler. Firstly the reigning Champion Golfer of The Year, Henrik Stenson. I was gutted not be on last year after making him my main tip at St. Andrews the year before. I can’t even remember why I left him out now, possibly as I hadn’t forgiven him for an average showing the year before. This year he hasn’t been playing his best but things have picked up a little and his stats have improved over the last few weeks. Despite finishing down the field in 26th, he was 1st in the all-round ranking last week, let down only by his putter as he ranked 1st in fairways and 12th in GIR. But not making birdies won’t be too detrimental this week as the bulk of the field struggle their way to par. His slow start to the year means we can still get roughly the same price as last year. If we consider the relatively poor form of many of the world’s top players and that he is now a major winner, this looks to me like some value. Stenson was also tied 3rd here in 2008 as he shot the best round in the field on the windiest day we have seen for years at an Open. He also has a very strong record at Opens where scrambling is tough. In the last 10 years his finishes when the field got up and down less than 50% were as follows; 2nd-68th-3rd-13th-3rd (the 68th coming during his slump year of 2011). He is expected to put up a strong defence this week.
I badly wanted to include Justin Rose again but I still can’t get over his missed cut at Erin Hills so instead I’m going to include his good friend Ian Poulter. Poulter was runner-up here in 2008 as he handled the brutal winds better than everyone bar Harrington. His recent up-turn in form ahead of his return to the scene of his best Open performance is timely and it means he looks a shade of value, especially after faltering a little on Sunday to ease his price again. Despite the many that condescend to Poulter by criticising his sometimes average ball-striking, make no mistake that there are very few in the game who have maximised their talent quite like Poulter. He has had a similar career to Darren Clarke and I wouldn’t put it past Poulter to stick a cherry on top at the age of 41 much like his Ryder Cup captain did 7 years ago.
Regaining his PGA Tour card for this year when he thought he had lost it has given him a new lease of life and will have realigned his perspective. Playing without too much pressure he has managed a 2nd at the Players Championship and just last week his whole game was in excellent shape as he finished 9th at the Scottish Open on a proper links course in very typical Open weather. Some will be quick to point out how poorly he played in that final round but this was the first tournament in a while where he would have expected to win going into the final round. The refresher course can only have helped him with regards to next time he is in the final group and his record in contention in general is a good one. He ranked 9th in fairways at Dundonald and 20th in greens so that level of accuracy will help him at Birkdale. Skybet’s 60/1 doesn’t give us much juice on the win portion but again the 12/1 for a top 10 finish looks very nice given he has made the top 10 in three of his last eight Open appearances.
Steve Stricker fits the profile of a Birkdale winner absolutely perfectly, so much so that I’m going to get involved in several markets with the 50yr old Wisconsinite. The Open didn’t used to mean that much to Sticker and he has skipped it in the past. But now in his Senior years he relishes any chance to still play in a major and that has shown in his results. Amazingly he hasn’t missed a major cut since 2009’s US PGA Championship. That is 24 consecutive cuts which returned 13 Top 20 finishes. He was tied 16th at both this year’s Masters and Erin Hills so my main bet will be in the Top 20 market but I think there are plenty reasons to think he can go even better.
Stricker was 4th in last year’s Open at Troon as he minimised mistakes over the weekend and slowly crept up the leaderboard. But he was also 7th in 2008 when Harrington won and both those results align perfectly with previous Birkdale winners. If we also consider that the last 6 Open winners have been aged 40-39-25-43-42-41 then we can see that it isn’t just a myth that experienced players fare well in The Open. Stricker seems to tick so many boxes that I can’t believe the 230.0 that was available on Friday on Betfair. Hopefully some of you might have noticed my tweet and got on board but I still think the 170 is a good price and I also like Sky Bet’s 100/1 with 10 places on offer. That gives us 20/1 about a top 10 which seems like an absolute gift from a value point of view even if the win portion is probably about right. I’m advising 1pt win on the Exchange at 170, 1pt ew with Sky Bet @ 100/1 and also 2.5pts Top 20 @ 7/2. At the very worst we get the chance to cheer on one of the good guys in golf knowing that he should at least make the cut given his current streak of 24 not out. From there his experience and temperament could see him out stay plenty over a tough looking weekend.
I had been eyeing up a top 20 bet on Paul Waring for a few weeks so when he shot a 78 on Saturday I was a little bit miffed. But he closed with a 69 and I think he has the right sort of combination of steady tee-to-green game, solid putting stroke and a liking for tough conditions. Waring was 19th at Birkdale in 2008 but he is a far better player now and is enjoying his best year on Tour. I think he looks a solid bet for another Birkdale Top 20 at a general 10/1.
My last top 20 bet is quite a speculative one at the price but Paul Broadhurst perhaps shouldn’t be 33/1 for a top 20 considering he qualified for this by winning last year’s Senior Open at Carnoustie. Obviously it is a huge jump in class but Broadhurst was always a fine links player such was the quality of his short game. He is 51 yrs old now but we all remember how close Greg Norman and Tom Watson came to winning this so I see no reason why he can’t make the cut and if the wind gets up he should enjoy the test more than most.
Others who came close were Haas, Leishman and Snedeker but they haven’t repaid the faith shown in them over the last two years so instead I will monitor their progress and perhaps get on in-play if they start well.
First Round Leader
As well as winning The Open in 2015, Zach Johnson has built himself quite the Open record and he has made the last 10 cuts in a row dating back to 2006. I couldn’t say for sure but I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t the only player to have done that. His results in that time have been increasingly impressive too; 20-51-47-76-16-9-47-1-12. While his return to form at the John Deere Classic was interesting, I don’t think one performance on his favourite course is enough to suggest he has fully turned the corner, however, it will mean that he arrives at Birkdale full of confidence. It could be that he flies out of the blocks and continues where he left off so I was considering him for 1st round leader even before I looked at his recent Thursday knocks at The Open.
Starting with his most recent, Johnson’s run of ten consecutive Open weekends opened up with rounds of 67-66-71-66-65-72-72-70-73-73. The last five in particular are impressive but just two of those were over par in 10 years and he would have given some sort of each way returns in the first round leader market in four of the last five years. He looks a great each way bet to start well again even if his poor 2017 suggests he might fall away as he struggles to put four solid rounds together.
In most of the last 10 Opens we have seen an old head flirt with the leaderboard throughout the tournament but even on the occasions where they fell away quicker than Greg Norman or Tom Watson did, there has always been someone fighting the good fight for the older generation on day one. From last time at Birkdale in 2008 there has been an over 40 in the first five every year; Norman, Watson, Daly, Jimenez, Lawrie, O’Meara, Furyk, Goosen and last year both Stricker and Mickelson. So it looks perfectly fair to expect some senior representation again this year.
I’m not going to dive into another market with Steve Stricker although hopefully he can start well. Instead I am going to add Paul Broadhurst in the 1st round leader market too. He might not manage the physical exertions of 4 rounds at this level but he has an early tee-time and hopefully he can start strong.
Lastly I’m going to include Jason Dufner for no more reason than I have a feeling he could start well this week flying in completely under the radar. Dufner has missed his last two cuts since winning at Memorial but we can forgive that and prior to those his previous opening rounds read 74-69-73-69-68-71-68-68-70-71-71-65-68. He will enjoy the accuracy test off the tee and has a nice early tee time. With the weather forecast changing every hour I have stuck with the morning starters who will at least see the greens at their best.
For one last bet I’m going to have a double on what are for me the two outstanding candidates in the remaining majors, Fowler, as already covered, and Jon Rahm for the US PGA. His win in Ireland was excellent and he just keeps getting better. The Quail Hollow course will be set up perfectly for him and I think he will be the man to beat. The 20/1 currently available looks generous.
Summary of Bets
Rickie Fowler – 3pts ew @ 14/1 (Skybet 10 places at 1/5 odds) and a further 2pts win @ 18.0 on Betfair.
Henrik Stenson – 1pt ew @ 25/1 (Skybet)
Ian Poulter – 1pt ew 60/1 (Skybet)
Steve Stricker – 1pt win @ 170 on Betfair Exchange, 1pt ew @ 100/1 (Skybet) and 2.5pts Top 20 @ 7/2
Paul Waring – 1pt Top 20 @ 10/1
Paul Broadhurst – 0.5pt Top 20 @ 33/1
Zach Johnson – 1pt ew @ 80/1 – 1st Round Leader
Paul Broadhurst – 0.25pt ew @ 300/1 – 1st Round Leader
Jason Dufner – 0.5pt ew @ 125/1 – 1st Round Leader
0.5pt ew double Rickie Fowler to win The Open and Jon Rahm to win US PGA @ 356/1 (10 places and 5 places with Sky Bet)
Weekly pts advised = 23.5pts
2017 pts advised = 342pts