The 150th Open takes place this week, at St Andrews, the “Home of Golf”. We look at some of the main talking points ahead of tee-off on the Old Course on Thursday.
Can Tiger Woods complete an unlikely hat-trick?
He couldn’t, could he? Well, Woods certainly has form on the Old Course having captured two of his three Claret Jugs there. The only thing is, the first was in 2000, when arguably golf’s greatest ever was at his absolute peak; his eight-shot victory back then sealed the career Grand Slam.
Woods was still bestriding the game’s summit upon his other win at St Andrews, prevailing by five in 2005. However, the former world No 1 has, by his own admission, still not fully recovered from a car accident early last year that almost lead to his right leg being amputated.
This marks Woods’ third competitive appearance since; he finished 47th at the Masters in April, then withdrew from the US PGA Championship in May after the third round – such was the discomfort.
The Old Course, though, is a much, much friendlier walk, and Woods says he is significantly stronger even after playing last week’s JP McManus Pro-Am in Ireland. The 15-time major champion, now 46, has been on site since Saturday, and knows the track better than most in the field. That said, perhaps top 20 would represent success this week.
Will the Old Course stand up to the modern-day pro?
It has become a common theme every time the Open lands on the game’s birthplace, typically at five-year intervals (this edition, set for 2020, was delayed because of the pandemic).
In the age of the athlete and the continued advancements in technology, the fear is the Old Course could eventually be rendered obsolete. Ross Fisher holds the course record, when he shot 61 in the Dunhill Links in 2017.
Measuring 7,313 yards – meagre by today’s standards – there are concerns of a 59 this week and maybe concrete evidence of the track's inability to keep pace with change, especially given the wind is not expected to blow too hard.
Yet, for the traditionalists praying for a tough test, the course is playing fast and firm, meaning balls will roll and roll, both on fairways and greens. Subsequently, that brings more trouble into play. Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington anticipates drama.
Execution will therefore be key, coupled with tempering expectation. Also, the R & could tuck pins away in trying places, deepening the difficulty and picking players’ brains that little more. Most probably, the finest strategists will excel this week.
Can McIlroy make up for lost time to end major wait?
For the four-time major champion, it’s been a longer wait than most. Famously, McIlroy missed the 2015 Open at St Andrews when he injured his ankle during a kickabout with mates in Northern Ireland (and hasn’t played football since).
The timing could not have been worse: not only was it the week before the Open, but McIlroy had won back-to-back majors the previous summer, then finished fourth at the Masters and made a decent run at the US Open. He appeared poised to successfully defend at St Andrews. As is well documented, McIlroy hasn’t snaffled another major until now.
Yet he comes into this week as favourite. Back at world No 2, the Northern Irishman was runner-up at the Masters, eighth at the PGA Championship and tied-5th at last month’s US Open. A week before, he triumphed at the Canadian Open.
Clearly, McIlroy is in form, but he needs to put together four strong rounds – something often beyond him at the majors of late. In 2010, he opened with a 63 at St Andrews, then was blown away in the wind the following round before regrouping to finish tied-3rd. For many, it feels McIlroy's time this week.
Does St Andrews provide the perfect antidote to golf’s big divide?
The year’s dominant storyline has centred on what’s widely considered the game’s great threat: LIV Golf. The breakaway circuit has been the talk of the range, inside the corridors of power and now the courtroom, with the lead tours coming down hard on players who have made the switch.
Last month, the R&A confirmed LIV Golf members, suspended by the PGA Tour, could play this week. So the new circuit is represented at St Andrews by 24 players, including 2013 Open champion Phil Mickelson.
Predictably, LIV Golf has still been part of the discourse this week – Woods spoke stridently on Tuesday – but, if there’s something to distract from the sport’s current rift, it’s an Open at St Andrews. Quite possibly, it doesn’t get any better in pro golf, at least in the individual game. Genuine history is everywhere.
That’s why Woods rocked up in town on Saturday night and headed straight for the Old Course. He walked the fairways past 10:30pm. Jack Nicklaus has been a notable visitor, celebrated as a past champion and now an honorary citizen of St Andrews. The Home of Golf. The Road Hole. Swilcan Bridge. The R & Clubhouse. The 150th anniversary. It should be some week.