It’s Open Championship week for the men, their final major and last shot at individual glory. (It’s a Ryder Cup year!) On Thursday — or late, late Wednesday night for those on the west coast — The British Open tees off with several different storylines in play. Some revolve around who will be playing, but mostly who won’t be playing. Among others, we’ve seen the likes of Hideki Matsuyama, Zach Johnson, and Bubba Watson withdraw due to COVID protocols, slimming the field’s quality (albeit fractionally), and providing a slightly brighter glimmer of hope for those not necessarily expected to contend.
The Open is at Royal St. George’s, which is important for a couple different reasons. First and foremost, it’s a tricky and extremely difficult golf course not widely loved by tour players. And, more pertinent to this article, the last two Opens held at RSG have produced rather unlikely champions: Darren Clarke in 2011 and Ben Curtis in 2003. For the purposes of this article, I want to key in on that theme, showcasing five golfers who I believe are sleepers to take home the coveted Claret Jug.
Okay, so he’s a household name but his chances of grasping a major grow slimmer as time goes on. Yet, reasons for optimism still run high in my eyes. The 45-year-old Englishman’s change in demeanor on and off the golf course has been widely covered in the last year or so. For most of his career he’s been labelled “one of the best players to have not won a major,” something that to his own admission has played on his mind and affected his attitude.
These days, he appears to be more relaxed and at ease with his game and what he has accomplished, a mindset that can oftentimes yield positive results. Westwood has played solid golf this season, if not a touch underwhelming. He had back-to-back runner-up finishes at The Players and The Arnold Palmer Invite. While nothing immediately jumps out at you about his season, as ever, it just feels like he’s due to win a major, The Open Championship seemingly being the most probable.
Min Woo Lee
One of my favorite traditions in leading up to The Open Championship is watching The Scottish Open, usually held the week prior. There tends to be a lot of unknown names in the field mixed in with a few well-known names looking to sharpen their games for the links golf they face in the days ahead at The Open. In this year’s Scottish Open, Min Woo Lee claimed the victory after a 3-hole playoff finishing at -18. The 22-year-old Australian came into the week fresh off a t17 finish at The Irish Open (another links-style tournament), so clearly, the kid is well prepped for all of what RGS will have to offer.
File his inclusion under the “Surely He’s Due to Win One?!” tag along with Lee Westwood. More than that though, when you look at Poulter’s 2021 season, he’s also playing some good stuff! He’s made 11 out of 14 cuts on the PGA Tour with his best finish a t3 at the Charles Schwab Invitational in June. As ever with Poulter, it comes down to putting. His ball striking is considered among one of the best in the world — if he finds fire on the greens this week, look for his name to be at the top of the leaderboard. Maybe, just maybe, his long awaited major championship triumph will come to fruition.
The second Australian to make the list: meet Lucas Herbert. Arguably playing the best golf of his career, Lucas comes to RGS having finished t4 at the Scottish Open and winning the Irish Open the week prior to that. Not to mention, two nice top 20 finishes on the PGA tour at The Travelers and The Memorial. If that isn’t enough for you, how’s this for a stat: Lucas hasn’t shot par or worse in his last eight consecutive rounds (all played on links golf courses). The 25-year-old comes into the week as hot as anyone else in the field looking to become just the second Australian to win The Open Championship.
Last, but certainly not least, arguably my favorite pick of the bunch — South African (LEFTY!) Branden Grace. A little known fact I learned in researching for this piece: Six of the last seven golfers to win The Open won at least once on the PGA TOUR or European Tour in the same year. His win in Puerto Rico in February is a qualifier for this trend.
Other notable performances from the year include 4th at Memorial and a T7 at the U.S. Open. In his last nine Open Championship starts, he’s made it to Sunday eight out of nine times, with a t6 finish in 2017. Branden is comfortable in this setting and is coming into the week with momentum from recent tournament performances. He’s also paired with Bryson Dechambeau and Jordan Spieth in Round 1 which could provide some inspired play from the 33-year-old.
What do these five picks have in common? None of them have won a major championship heading into this week. That is my prediction: the 2021 Champion Golfer of The Year will be a first time major winner!