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Seven Questions Ahead of the 2021 Open Championship

After a year away, golf’s oldest major returns and promises an exciting weekend of feuds, stingers, and mayhem. Can Rory McIlroy get back to his winning ways? Will Bryson DeChambeau find his form? And who will win? That and more in our Open Championship preview.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Of golf’s four majors, the Open Championship is both the oldest and the only one to sacrifice its 2020 event to the vagaries of COVID-19. Its outright cancellation might have looked like a lack of nerve in the moment—what with the Masters, PGA Championship, and U.S. Open all going off at rescheduled dates in the late summer and fall—but recent developments have made it seem more like the wisdom of the ages. This year, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, 2015 Open victor Zach Johnson, and two-time major winner Bubba Watson have been forced to withdraw over COVID-related concerns, with more developments possible to occur before the first tee on Thursday.

Maybe we’d have been better off just junking the entire thing until, you know, the pandemic ended. But time’s march is inexorable, and two straight years without an official champion does seem fully improper. So we bring you this preview, with the heartiest hopes for a safe and satisfying return to the land of Tony Jacklin and Old Tom Morris. God save the Queen. We mean it. —Elizabeth Nelson

What should we expect from Royal St. George?

Nelson: Want to know how old the Open Championship is? Royal St. George first played host to the event in 1894, when even Phil Mickelson was too young to be in the field. (Love you, Lefty!) The 7,189-yard links course is located in the delightfully-named Sandwich, England, and has been the venue for the Open 14 previous times, yielding all-time great champions like Sandy Lyle and Greg Norman, as well as relative unknowns like Ben Curtis and Bill Rogers.

Like many classic links courses, the difference between a straightforward test of skills and an anything-goes miasma of prayer and happenstance will depend upon the weather. Royal St. George is known for its hillside lies, haphazard bounces, and severely penal pot bunkers. As likely as not, one serious contender will see his tournament hopes dashed by one of those subterranean hellscapes. If conditions remain calm, stalwart ball strikers like Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka could make mastering Royal St. George look as simple as ordering a sandwich. If the wind whips up, though—and let’s hope it does—the winning score might be over par.

How will the Bryson DeChambeau melodrama be received in England?

Schuster: Maybe I’m naive, or maybe I’m just delusional, but I’m having a hard time foreseeing Bryson DeChambeau being a major factor this weekend. I don’t mean that as a dig—there are plenty of other avenues where we could more easily needle Bryson, as evidenced by his Tuesday press conference. I just mean that he’s going through a period of erraticism on and off the course, and the Open is no place to bring that kind of energy. Case in point: Bryson will have a new caddie, Brian Zeigler, on the bag this weekend after he and longtime caddie Tim Tucker parted ways recently (either amicably or un-amicably, depending on who you ask). Then there’s the fact that Bryson is coming into the weekend having missed the cut at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and having been carried to a victory in The Match IV by Aaron Rodgers, who professed to have barely played golf at all over the past year. (Yes, The Match is The Match, but not being able to find the fairway is an issue that transcends location and stage.)

DeChambeau also has a tough history at the Open: He’s played it only three times, and his best result came in 2018 when he finished tied for 51st. At a Royal St. George’s course that has been described as “almost like playing on the surface of the moon,” having fairways that the Royal Air Force could have used for bombing runs, and “the world’s largest pinball machine,” there’s just no room for error. And Bryson often needs those margins to find success.

Is Jon Rahm the new Seve?

Nelson: When the beefy, brilliant Spaniard Jon Rahm broke through with his first major victory at last month’s U.S. Open, no one in the golf world was surprised. Rahm’s remarkable combination of power-game bona fides and greenside finesse always marked him as someone with many trophies in his future. But for me, it was especially thrilling to hear him dedicate his victory to the late Seve Ballesteros, a fellow Spaniard who is my all-time favorite player and uncoincidentally always wore his emotions on his sleeve.

Rahm enters this weekend as a popular bettor’s choice who may well be the best player in the world at the moment. He is also damned fiery, the same individual who expressed his frustrations in the 2017 U.S. Open by throwing several clubs and a sand rake. And a sand rake! That’s some Seve shit right there. Don’t ever stop being you, Jon Rahm.

Does Brooks Koepka still have his intimidation factor?

Schuster: In a world where superstars have largely either been conditioned or explicitly taught to give bland answers to media questions, Brooks Koepka press conferences have become something of a tell. The spicier his comments, it seems, the more likely he is to come out of the gate strong at the following tournament and compete.

For many athletes, it’s the opposite: If they get too sucked into a news cycle before a big event, it can become a distraction; an added pressure that takes away from their performance. But Brooks feeds off the attention—the “putting his money where his mouth is”—so when he looks and sounds as confident as he did in pre-Open pressers this week, you almost have to take him at his word that he will indeed be close to the final group on Sunday.

Where have Rory McIlroy’s results gone?

Nelson: Things always seem to be in a bit of disarray with Rory McIlroy, a phenomenon that reared its head again this past week when a fan at the Scottish Open walked up to McIlroy’s bag on the 10th tee, removed the pro’s 6-iron, and then made a series of practice swings before security detained him. The 32-year-old Northern Irishman missed the cut after that (rather understandably—I would have promptly walked off the course and built a bomb shelter) but still enters this week as the betting favorite to bag his first major since 2014. It is a testament to just how great Rory is tee-to-green that he continues to be the choice of so many despite the fact that his putter often seems to abandon him in big moments. If he can conquer his streakiness on the greens and stave off any area stragglers looking to borrow his clubs, he could potentially bury the field. Seeing him bag his fifth major would be a wildly popular outcome, but it won’t happen with multiple three-putts over the course of four days.

How will the young Yanks fare across the pond?

Schuster: I had planned to use this space to talk about Will Zalatoris, the 24-year-old beanpole who has had a wild majors run over the past year with a T-6 finish in the 2020 U.S. Open, a second-place finish at the 2021 Masters, and a T-8 result at the PGA Championship in May. And Xander Schauffele, who comes into the week with 16-to-1 odds and is a threat to win his first major any time he steps up to the tee. But then this video of Scottie Scheffler hitting a stinger crossed my timeline and, much like a Men in Black neuralyzer, erased all other thoughts in my head.

It’s beauty; it’s grace; it’s a ball that could reasonably be expected to trim down any fairway grass in its path. And it’s got me really excited to see what the 25-year-old Scheffler can do with it at Royal St. George.

Who will win?

Nelson: The 48-year-old Lee Westwood is a sentimental choice to be certain, but not an irrational one. The Englishman will be playing in his 88th major this week without ever having won one—this despite being in contention on a seemingly yearly basis dating back two decades. His recent form has been promising and he has had success on this course before. Becoming the first Englishman to win the Open Championship since Nick Faldo in 1992 would be a crowd-pleasing story to rival Mickelson’s PGA Championship in May. Fingers and toes crossed for Lee—but he’s got a real shot at this, too.

Schuster: The heart wants what it wants, and my heart is demanding that I choose Jordan Spieth. Watching Spieth on a links course is one of the greatest joys in golf—the ball-striking, the magicianship, the internal monologues that become external almost involuntarily. His head-in-the-clouds moment at Royal Birkdale in 2017 is legendary, and I for one am ready for a repeat.