Forelinx Fantasy Golf Preview ⏤ The Open Championship

Fantasy Golf

Royal St Georges03A

After a long two-year delay, the Open Championship finally returns to the PGA TOUR schedule this week with its 149th playing at the Royal St. George's Golf Club in Kent, England. Shane Lowry will finally defend the Champion Golfer of the Year title that he claimed in his home country of Ireland at Royal Portrush back in 2019. The 2020 edition of this event was the only major championship that was fully cancelled due to COVID-19, so in many ways the return of a capacity crowd of 32,000 per day to this year's Open Championship marks the emergence of professional golf from the dark days of the pandemic.

While the famous Open Championship grandstands will be full, the effect of COVID-19 can still be felt on this year's event through the list of absences of a few big name players from the field. Perhaps the biggest of them all is the Masters Champion Hideki Matsuyama, as he was forced to withdraw both from this event and the Rocket Mortgage Classic after repeated positive COVID tests. There was some hope that he might be able to clear enough negative test results in time to make the field, but his withdrawal was made official on Monday and he will miss out on a chance to win his second major championship of the year.

Matsuyama's withdrawal joins a list of nearly a dozen players who have pulled out of the Open for various reasons. Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim both opted out of the Open Championship to focus on preparation for the upcoming Olympic Games where the pair will represent South Korea in Tokyo. Zach Johnson was sidelined by a positive COVID test, while Bubba Watson's campaign to win the Open fell victim to COVID contact tracing that merely showed his presence in the company of an infected individual. Rather than risking the entire charter flight on which he was scheduled to make the journey to England, Bubba opted instead to withdraw and not put his fellow players and their traveling parties at risk. Kevin Na, Matthew Wolff and Ryan Moore also elected not to make the trip to England and will miss out both on valuable Ryder Cup points as well as the opportunity to win their first major championship.

The Field and the Favorites

Now that we've covered the players who won't be at Royal St. George's this week, let's take a look at the stacked field of players who will be participating this week. Unsurprisingly, the group is led by Jon Rahm who opens the week as the betting favorite priced at +850 in the wake of his clutch performance to win his first major championship in last month's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. While the price is certainly a little rich (he's the first sub +1000 favorite in a major championship this year), there is plenty of just cause for his placement atop the board. 

Rahm's last four events include that win at Torrey Pines, a top-ten finish at the PGA Championship, a dominant three rounds at the Memorial Tournament (where he was forced to withdraw with a six-shot lead after 54 holes due to a positive COVID test) and a top-ten finish last week at the Scottish Open. While Rahm is yet to post a top-ten finish in the Open Championship, the potentially softer conditions the players may face this week might play into the hands of those competitors like Rahm who might be less comfortable with the Open Championship's usual firm conditions.

Brooks Koepka is an equally unsurprising second-favorite as he enters the week with odds to win at +1500. He's quietly had a very solid year with a win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and top-five finishes at both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open Championship. He's coming into the event on form as that near-miss at the U.S. Open and T5 finish at the Travelers Championship represent his two most recent starts. He's had slightly more success than Rahm at the Open Championship, with top-ten finishes at St. Andrews in 2015, Royal Birkdale in 2017 and Royal Portrush in 2019. 

The only concern entering into this week has been Koepka's attitude about Royal St. Georges as he has made it clear that he's not the venue's biggest fan. Koepka said in his pre-tournament press conference that the host site was "not (his) favorite that he has played" and added that the course has "quite a few blind tee shots, kind of hitting to nothing. Fairways are quite undulating." He summed up his thoughts by saying "I don’t know, it’s not my favorite of the rotation, I'll put it that way.”

The First Tee at Royal St. Georges
The First Tee at Royal St. George's

The biggest surprise of the week is that Xander Schauffele comes into the week as the third-favorite at +1700. This represents the highest position that Schauffele has held among the favorites for a major championship and the consensus among both bettors and golf writers alike is that he remains the leading contender for the next player to win his maiden major championship. He comes into the week in fine form as he's logged a stretch of three straight top-ten finishes at the Memorial, the U.S. Open and the Scottish Open. He's also had some success in Opens past (he finished T2 at Carnoustie behind Francesco Molinari) and the abandonment of the arm-lock putting experiment and a return to his natural putting method should be a good sign for his chances going into the week.

Another surprise is that Justin Thomas (+2000), Rory McIlroy (+2200), and Dustin Johnson (+2500) all trail Jordan Spieth (+1800) on the list of betting favorites. It was less than a year ago that DJ was absolutely dominating the game with a run of golf that was absolutely Tiger-esque. From his runner-up finish in the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park to his dominant win at Augusta in the fall Masters Tournament, Johnson finished no worse than sixth (at the U.S. Open) while racking up three wins and three runner-up finishes in seven tournaments. However, the current world #1 player has now played in nine events since February without managing a single top-ten finish. He may have finished T2 in the last Open at Royal St. George's in 2011, but we think he's definitely a fade this week.

Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy are both intriguing choices given their relatively low price as compared to historical norms. Neither player has played a high volume of great golf, but both have still managed wins this year (including a PLAYERS Championship for JT) and both have shown some cause for optimism in the last month. Rory managed a top-ten finish at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and was among the contenders to win until late mistakes at the 11th and 12th holes on Sunday pushed him too far back of the leaders. Thomas hadn't managed a top-twenty finish since April until a T19 finish at the U.S. Open. He followed that effort with his first top ten in months last week at the Scottish Open. Both players seem like absolutely plausible winners, but we urge punters to approach them with caution as poor results have been more the norm than the exception for both this year.

If you're looking for players a little farther down the board, we've got our eye on a few of the darker horses going into the week. While we doubt he can defend, Shane Lowry (+4000) might deliver value in individual round bets and we think Louis Oosthuizen (+3000) is destined for yet another top-ten finish in a major this week. Ian Poulter (+7500) is a fun long shot to win option and just came off a top-four finish last week in the Scottish Open. He's had past success in the Open Championship (2nd alone at Birkdale in 2008 and T3 at Muirfield in 2013) and if scores around par have a chance to win this week he might be able to sneak into the mix.

The Golf Course

The Royal St. Georges Golf Club is considered to be among the trickiest of the links upon which the Open Championship is contested. Koepka correctly identifies the frequency with which the player is playing a blind or semi-blind tee shot and the fairways roll up and down a myriad of humps and hollows that introduce a lot of randomness off the tee. The firmer the course plays the more these gyrations of the fairways will influence the final resting place of player's tee shots, so expect to see more fairways missed as the course conditions firm up later in the week. The roughs are healthy and border on hay in some spots, while the fairway bunkers similarly can result in forced pitch outs back to the fairway. These tee-shot features all combine to create an added emphasis on the player's ability to put the ball in the fairway.

We don't expect length to be a particularly prized asset at Royal St. George's as previous winners here do not suggest a need to hit the ball a long way. While Greg Norman (the 1993 Champion here) was certainly a long hitter, what separated Norman off the tee from his peers was his ability to drive it both long and straight. Sandy Lyle (the 1985 Champion at St. George's) was never known as a particularly long hitter. Ben Curtis (the 2003 champion) wasn't among the top 100 in driving distance at any point in his career and even Darren Clarke hardly dominated the course with length when he won here in the last playing at Sandwich in 2011.

Nevertheless, there are holes where the ability to carry the ball a long way will certainly help. Perhaps chief among them will be the tee shot at the 416-yard par-four fifth hole. The top right fairway cuts off abruptly at 260 yards from the championship tee and is defended on the left by pot bunkers and long by large mounds covered in fescue. Players will have to decide between trying to make a 330 yard carry over the dunes to a lower fairway (with the potential to drive the green) or playing a more lofted club to the upper fairway and accepting the more difficult second shot.

The Fifth Green
The longest hitters may be able to drive the fifth green.

Length may well be a factor on a couple of the three-par holes as each side at Royal St. George's has at least one monster one-shot hole. In the case of the front nine, the third hole measures out at 239 yards and will require a long iron to a thin, two-tiered putting surface surrounded by fescue-covered dunes. Hole locations on the back shelf of the putting surface will likely require a deftly played shot that lands on the bottom level and scoots up the ridge to the top section of the green. Misses to either side will likely result in explosion shots played out of the fescue and near-certain bogies.

In the case of the back nine, the eleventh hole (at 242 yards) will likely present the sternest test on the second side. Players will have to play another long iron from a somewhat elevated (and thus exposed) teeing ground that faces out towards Sandwich Bay. Wind will likely wreck havoc with the player's approach, so the favorite methodology of attacking the hole in 2011 seemed to be a knockdown shot that lands short of the putting surface and runs up the semi-false edge that protects the front part of the green. Phil Mickelson likely cost himself the championship here in 2011 with an ill-timed three-putt bogey after a quality long iron to the proper level of the green. He had fired an opening nine of 30 (5-under) to get himself back in the mix, but after this mistake at 11 he would never get any closer to Darren Clarke than the one shot behind he was standing on this green.

The eleventh at Royal St. George's
The view from the eleventh tee at Royal St. George's.

The weather and setup are something of a curiosity this week as all reports seem to indicate that it has been an extremely wet summer on the western coast of England. Players have reported somewhat softer fairways than usual and the fire we frequently see in Open Championship golf courses appears to be missing from the famed links at Sandwich at least early in the week. There was some concern that there would be additional rain in the forecast for the early half of the championship, but as time has gone on the forecast for the event has continually improved. The expectation is for temperatures that hover around 70 degrees and plenty of sunshine, with winds in the neighborhood of a consistent 10-20 mph until Sunday where the breeze is expected to trail off a bit. The hope is certainly that these ideal conditions should help dry out the golf course over the course of the week and present a proper Open Championship come the weekend.