British Open talking points: Jon Rahm on a roll and race for the Ryder Cup

We pick out the potential big storylines ahead of this week's major at Royal St George's in England

The British Open returns this week after a 24-month hiatus, as the golf’s oldest major plays out at Royal St George’s on the southeast coast of England. Here are some of the main talking points heading into Thursday’s first round in Sandwich, Kent.

Can Rahm, still the top dog, go back-to-back?

Granted, the vagaries of the world rankings mean Jon Rahm was relegated on Monday to No 2 in the standings – Dustin Johnson returned to top spot – but the hugely talented Spaniard remains without doubt the man to beat this week.

Rahm responded incredibly to his positive Covid-19 test at the Memorial last month, when he was seemingly cruising to victory, by a memorable victory on his following start at the US Open, no less. He reeled off brilliant birdies on 17 and 18 at Torrey Pines to prevail by one shot and become a major champion for the first time.

Subsequently, he arrived in Sandwich seeking a second major on the bounce - and did so in fine fettle having finished seventh at the Scottish Open on Sunday. Rahm enters the Open as an overwhelming favourite and could conclude the event as the first man since Tiger Woods in 2000 to capture the US Open and the Claret Jug in the same year.

This represents Rahm’s fifth Open, his best result being his most recent appearance in the tournament - 11th at Royal Portrush in 2019. In form and supremely gifted, he seems certain to at least improve on that.

Which McIlroy will show in Sandwich?

Rory McIlroy’s preparation has been far from perfect. The world No 11 landed in Ireland a couple of weeks ago to get ready for the Open, but returned a tied-59th at the Irish Open and then a missed cut at the Scottish.

Out in the first two rounds with Rahm and Justin Thomas, McIlroy concluded the halfway mark 10 shots and seven shots, respectively, behind his playing partners. So, hardly the best of form as he bids to break a seven-year major drought.

There are reasons for McIlroy’s inconsistency: the four-time major winner in still in the early stages of working with renowned swing coach Pete Cowan and, although he has since won the Wells Fargo Championship – his first victory in 18 months – he remains a work in progress.

Still, seven years without a major is far too long with someone of McIlroy’s calibre. But beware: according to lead golf stats-man Justin Ray, in eight of the past nine times McIlroy has missed a cut, he’s responded with a top-20 finish. In three of those instances, he won the next week.

Taking that into account, and considering his almost-unparalleled talent, the 2014 Open champion cannot be ruled out.

Will Royal St George’s produce another shock winner?

So, the 2003 champion in Sandwich? Step forward rank-outsider Ben Curtis. The American did not figure high on nearly anyone’s list to walk away with the Claret Jug 18 years ago, since he sat 396th in the world standings. What’s more, Curtis was contesting his first major, and had never before played British links golf.

However, it soon morphed into his first victory on any main tour. Then, in 2011 – the last time the Open took place at Royal St George’s – Darren Clarke triumphed, ending his long search for a major crown.

His hunt had halted at the 54th attempt. Aged 42, Clarke began the week ranked 111th in the global standings. It remains his last success on either of golf’s lead circuits.

All that considered, will we get another surprise victor this week? The stats since don’t really support that: from later in 2011 to this year, every major was won by a player sitting inside the top 50 until Phil Mickelson (No 115) secured the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island this May.

Sure, normal service was restored by Rahm at the US Open, but Royal St George’s has proved it can conjure the unexpected.

Who will boost their Ryder Cup credentials?

It seems barely believable, but the Ryder Cup is only 10 weeks away. Postponed last year as the coronavirus pandemic took grip, the biennial battle between Europe and the United States will be staged, finally, at Whistling Straits from September 24-26.

This week therefore marks the last major chance for those on the fringe to make a strong case for inclusion. For the Europeans, cup veterans such as Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson are well outside the automatic qualification spots – captain Padraig Harrington has three wild-card picks – while Shane Lowry, the defending Open champion, might need to eventually lean on his close friendship with the skipper.

Europe, remember, hold the trophy. On the American side, where only six qualify automatically, there’s a cabal of contenders clamouring for points to negate the need for a captain’s pick from Steve Stricker.

Among those are previous stalwarts Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Phil Mickelson and Webb Simpson. Not to mention a new generation of talented players – Patrick Cantlay and Scottie Scheffler, for example - breathing down their necks. Therefore, victory this week, in the season’s closing major, could render redundant a wild-card pick on either side.

Could Covid-19 take bigger toll on the field?

Considering where we are in the world, this year’s Open is like no other. While the PGA Tour continues to work back towards life pre-Covid, the European Tour has stuck steadfast to its stricter regulations in relation to the pandemic.

It has led to some discontent among players, but safety is patently paramount. The R&A, taking their cue from the UK government, have determined that anyone who comes into contact with a positive Covid-19 case will have to sit out the tournament. And, during tournament week, the players must remain in what organisers hope to be a tight “bubble”.

Already, several high-profile names have withdrawn from the event. Reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama is out, as too is 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson, after both returned positive tests.

Bubba Watson, two-time winner of the Masters, cannot play also since he was identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive.

In all, 17 players who qualified to compete for the Claret Jug won’t be in the field. The Open is, for many, the game’s lead tournament – the Masters its only true rival – so it’s strange to hear of so many pull-outs. The hope is that number this week stays capped at 17.

Updated: July 14th 2021, 4:11 AM