Hyperbole is the engine that modern sports media runs on, and it runs hot. So it’s a rare and exciting day when it is actually difficult to overstate the historical gravitas of an upcoming event. Thus it is with giddy anticipation that we give you: the 150th Open Championship direct from the Old Course at St. Andrews. How old is the Old Course? Only the oldest course in the world. Located in the cantankerous (in weather terms) Fife region of Scotland, St. Andrews is Yankee Stadium multiplied by Churchill Downs times the Rose Bowl. It was established in 1552, five decades before William Shakespeare first staged Macbeth, and it’s remained largely unchanged since the mid–19th century—making Augusta National’s portentous claims on tradition seem pretty silly.
Jack Nicklaus, who won two of his three Open Championships there, famously said of the great links course: “If you’re going to be a player people will remember, you have to win the Open at St. Andrews.” This may sound like a Tom Watson subtweet, but he also has a point. Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, and Seve Ballesteros also won here, and those are the sort of names that ring out through history.
Inevitably, this year’s Open has become the latest flashpoint for the ongoing contretemps between the warring factions of the traditional golf establishment and the Saudi-backed startup LIV Tour. LIV players are allowed to participate, but the renegade outfit’s attention-hungry commissioner Greg Norman was disinvited from anniversary events despite being a two-time Open champion. Awkward. And then there is the presence of a certain big cat who’s used eight of his golfing lives but maybe has one last big score in him. Tiger Woods—the champion at St. Andrews in 2000 and 2005—skipped out on the U.S. Open in the hopes of getting healthy for this opportunity. As always, he’ll be the bulk of the story whether he washes out before the weekend or squeaks by and makes the cut. But on the off chance that he finds himself in contention on Sunday, don’t even worry about hyperbole. We’ll have to invent a new word. —Elizabeth Nelson
What Is So Magical About St. Andrews?
Nelson: The Old Course may be ancient and revered, but it remains ornery. Featuring wide fairways and massive greens, the 7,305-yard track can be overpowered in calm conditions. But when the winds kick up off the North Sea, it turns from a placid day at the museum into a genuine torture test in mere minutes. It is said that St. Andrews’s famously diabolical pot bunkers hum with the ghostly voices of those once stranded with a fried egg lie. Some of those golfers never escaped.
Seven par-4s measured under 400 yards sounds on its face like catnip for the bomb and gouge crowd. But the Old Course has a logic all its own. Randomly placed bunkers and sadistically tiered greens tend to make a mockery of long hitters unable to back up their arsenal with finesse. Wayward drives will take huge bounces into diabolical gorse. St. Andrews extracts its victims subtly. One minute you’re driving greens and swaggering around, and the next thing you know you’ve just shot 80.
Winning at St. Andrews is as much a cerebral challenge as it is a physical one. Approach shots off the hard ground reward distance control and problem-solving acumen. Excellent iron and wedge play are essential. Figuring out how to pull off a windy two-putt from 80 feet is not remotely uncommon. Patience, above all, is required. When things start going wrong they have a tendency to spiral rapidly. The winner will probably be pretty deep into red figures, but you’ll see some fine players miss the cut as well.
Finally, the finishing stretch of nos. 17 and 18—known respectively as the Road Hole and the Tom Morris—is the most thrilling in major championship golf. The blind tee shot on 17 requires you to buzz the occupants of the overlooking Old Course Hotel, only to then pray you avoid the 8-foot-deep Road Hole Bunker with your approach. The 18th green is protected by a deep depression awesomely called the Valley of Sin to the left and out of bounds to the right. With all due respect to the Waste Management Open, no golf event knows how to close a show better. The Open Championship is a treasure, and St. Andrews is a dream.
What Should We Expect From Tiger Woods?
Megan Schuster: Perhaps the most encouraging sign from Tiger Woods this week was his reaction when asked about the possibility of him retiring.
️ "Who me? Retire?! No!"— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) July 12, 2022
Tiger Woods tells Sky Sports he has no plans to retire at the moment but admits this may be his last chance to win an Open at St Andrews pic.twitter.com/vOsvuKIsBi
Widened eyes, shocked smile, and a voice that shot up multiple octaves all portrayed disbelief that he was even being asked the question, let alone that he’d entertain the possibility. This despite the fact that less than 18 months ago, doctors were unsure whether he’d be able to keep his lower right leg following a nasty car accident; and that at the PGA Championship in May, he recorded his first ever major championship withdrawal due to the pain and difficulty he faced walking the hilly course.
It’s no secret that Woods loves St. Andrews: He’s said multiple times that the Old Course is his favorite in the world. He’s won two major championships there, including one that led to his “Tiger Slam” between the 2000 and 2001 seasons, and its links layout allows him to geek out about golf to his heart’s content. As Rory McIlroy, who played with Woods in a practice round this week, told CBS Sports, “The way he sees shots, the way he gets lost in the detail of how to play golf. Whenever you’re talking about that and he’s explaining it, it goes back to what I said about loving the game. He doesn’t just love golf, but he loves the details of how to play certain shots and get better. … Twenty-five years into his career, he still loves that part of the game.”
It’s not fair to expect Tiger to win this week. But it’s not fair to expect fans to keep their hopes for him realistic, either. Sure, as recently as last week he was using a golf cart to get around during practice rounds. And sure, he had to skip the U.S. Open last month to even be in shape to play this event. But there’s magic in the Old Course’s 18 holes. And no one can harness it like Tiger.
Can Matt Fitzpatrick Keep It Going?
Matt Dollinger: As stunning as Fizpatrick’s breakthrough win at last month’s U.S. Open might have been, a top-10 finish at St. Andrews feels downright predictable. Fitzpatrick’s game and confidence couldn’t be running hotter as he enters a major he’s seemingly tailor-made to win.
The links golf master finished tied for sixth at last week’s Scottish Open and has had success at St. Andrews in the past, winning the 2008 Boys’ Open as a 13-year-old. With his low ball flight, shot-making ability, and silky short game, Fitzpatrick seems as likely to win as anyone this week. And with the added confidence of now being a major winner, there’s likely little to no doubt running through his head. His caddie, the inimitable Billy Foster, says he thinks it might take 18-under to win this week—something Fitzpatrick says he’s ready to make a run at.
“I think with it being firm and par-4s more gettable,” Fitzpatrick said this week, “it could be a low one as well, weather permitting.”
No one will mistake St. Andrews for a grueling U.S. Open layout. It can be overpowered. But more importantly, it can be mastered. Experience and positioning will likely play more of a factor than driving distance. And while Fitzpatrick has caught up with the rest of the PGA Tour off the tee, it’s the muscle memory and previous trips to St. Andrews that make him so dangerous this week. With the confidence and the game to win, Fitzpatrick’s days of being overlooked are likely over.
Who’ll Be the Low LIV Tour Golfer?
Dollinger: The sun is setting quickly on Brooks Koepka’s relevancy. It’s one thing to cruise throughout the year and then show up for majors, as Koepka used to do. It’s another thing when you’ve gone three-plus years since winning a major and turned your back on the competitive game. In the three majors this year, Brooks has missed a cut (the Masters) and finished in 55th place (PGA Championship and the U.S. Open) in the other two. So why would his fortunes change at St. Andrews?
Well, the guy appears to be fueled by doubters, and he’s got a record number of them right now. Thanks to a combination of injuries and indifference, Brooks hasn’t been such an afterthought at a major in a long time. But there’s a hell of a golfer buried beneath all that muscle and machismo. He finished T6 and T4 in his last two Open Championships and finished T10 at St. Andrews the last time it hosted the major in 2015. If Koepka can tune out the noise—almost all of it self-inflicted—he could turn in a desperately needed strong showing. Maybe more importantly, this could be the last time we’re talking about LIV golfers playing in an Open, period. If there were ever a major to show up for, it’s this one.
Schuster: Koepka is my pick as well, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s really no one else to pick. In Phil Mickelson’s only major of the year, last month’s U.S. Open, he finished plus-11. Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau aren’t exactly in prime form. And who else from LIV is even worth mentioning in this context: Patrick Reed?
Then there’s the fact that, in DP World and PGA Tour events since 2015, Brooks is second only to Jordan Spieth as far as strokes gained on British Isles seaside courses. He’s no slouch on the links—and though his game isn’t where it once was, that muscle memory should be good enough to outlast the rest of this not-so-LIVely group.
Nelson: This requires me to check who is playing well on the LIV Tour, which I never, ever would have done otherwise. So: Louis Oosthuizen. He knows this place.
Is It Time to Go All in on Jordan Spieth, or Get Out While You Still Can?
Schuster: The eternal question. On the one hand, Spieth holds the best scoring average at the Open since 2015, beating out the likes of Koepka, McIlroy, and Xander Schauffele. He’s won this major once, in 2017, just missed out on a playoff, in 2015, and finished second last year. And he comes into the week having just earned a top-10 at the Scottish Open, the traditional warmup for this major.
On the other hand, he’s Jordan Spieth: equal parts golden boy, snake-bitten mess, and head case. When it’s all working together there is perhaps only one golfer in the world more captivating to watch; when it’s not working, well, the same is probably true. But if you’re going to set sail away from Spieth Island, Open week is not the time to do it. Buffeting winds, burned-out holes, and the threat of deep pot bunkers only make his game more fascinating. And watching him think his way around St. Andrews—where he almost won this championship back in 2015—will be worth the price of admission alone.
Who Has the Better Shot This Week: Rory McIlroy or Collin Morikawa?
Dollinger: It’s been only a year since Morikawa awed the golf world with his stunning Sunday charge to win the 149th Open at Royal St. George’s, but it sure feels like five. Since then, Scottie Scheffler became the no. 1 golfer in the world, Justin Thomas and McIlroy both experienced career resurgences, some guy named Tiger Woods started playing golf again, and a handful of Morikawa’s peers gave up the PGA Tour for good to take nine figures from the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund and play 54-hole tournaments in purgatory.
So if Morikawa’s second major win isn’t still fresh in your memory, it’s easy to understand. What’s less easy is predicting which version of him we’ll see this week. He’s the reigning Open champion who has notched top-five finishes in two of the three majors since. He also missed the cut at the Scottish Open and has gone CUT, T40, T55, T29, and T26 in his five other most recent non-major entries.
When Morikawa is on, it’s hard to ever imagine him turning off. He’s one of the best iron players in the world (fourth on the PGA Tour this season in shots gained on approaches) and he’s 11th on Tour in scoring average. But he’s been plagued by putting inconsistencies this season, ranking tied for 85th in shots gained on the green. If the flat stick is working, chances are we’ll see Morikawa’s name high up on the leaderboard this weekend.
But the chances are even greater that we’ll see McIlroy’s name somewhere above his. It might not be that revelatory to say the hottest golfer in the world will play well on a course he’s been playing most of his life, but the stars seem to be aligning for another Rory coronation. He won last month at the RBC Canadian Open and has finished in the top 10 in each of this year’s three majors (second at Masters, eighth at PGA, T5 at the U.S. Open). In fact, he hasn’t finished outside the top 20 in a tournament since the first week of April.
For years, McIlroy has had the best swing and highest ceiling of any player on Tour. What we’re seeing now is a realization of his potential combined with the calmness of someone who is fully aware that he’s in a groove. As impressive as Rory has been on the course, what he’s said off the course in recent weeks—about his game, the Game, LIV, and everything else—has been just as encouraging about his overall state of mind. We’re in the midst of watching Prime Rory do his thing, and it shouldn’t be lost on us. There’s a reason he got to play a practice round this week with Woods and Nicklaus at St. Andrews. When he’s on, he is “the One.” And I’m not picking against him.
Who Will Win?
Dollinger: Rory McIlroy. I can’t wax poetic about Rory and then not pick him, so I’m going with the betting favorite this week (a truly courageous prediction, I know). That said, I am not sleeping on Tiger’s chances to finish inside the top 10. One of the most determined athletes in sports history wants to win the 150th Open Championship with every morsel of his injury-ravaged body. He knows every shot at St. Andrews, and he’ll think his way around the course much like he did at Augusta in 2019. With the course burned out and rolling hard, distance shouldn’t be an issue. And after taking an extended break in the lead-up to the tournament, here’s hoping Tiger’s surgically repaired knee isn’t a major hindrance on the relatively flat grounds.
Nelson: Cam Smith. The Old Course sets up well for the Australian, who is exquisite with his short irons and putter and should be able to work around whatever problems he creates for himself off the tee. He missed the cut at Brookline last month, but finished tied for third at Augusta in April and has been hanging around major leaderboards for years. This is the week he breaks through.
Schuster: Justin Thomas. As much as my heart wants me to pick Spieth or Tommy Fleetwood, this is a chance for JT to show off his creativity and ball-striking ability, prove that he can win a non-PGA Championship major, and get back at Tiger for his cruel barb during a practice round this week. It’s time.