Punch Shot: Burning questions for the 146th Open

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SOUTHPORT, England – He were are, on the eve of the 146th Open and each of the last seven major winners have been first-timers. Will that trend continue? Who will contend this week that we may not expect to contend? What will the magic score be to capture the claret jug? Our team at Royal Birkdale answers all of the above.

Will the trend of first-time major winners continue this week?

REX HOGGARD: YES. Not only is it likely that the trend of first-time major winners will continue, but it seems inevitable at this juncture considering that many of the game’s current major champions – Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, etc. – have been slowed by an assortment of issues this season.

RYAN LAVNER: YES. Would it really surprise anyone if Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm or Hideki Matsuyama hoisted the claret jug on Sunday? Fourteen of the top 25 players in the world haven’t won a major. Any of ’em could win this one.  

WILL GRAY: NO. Royal Birkdale has a history of rewarding experience and pedigree. Seven of the nine prior times it hosted The Open, the claret jug went to a player who had already won a major.

The current trend came because there were a number of deserving players still without a major. Now that that particular crowd has thinned, expect a familiar face in the winner’s circle come Sunday.

JAY COFFIN: YES. It makes me chuckle that this has become such a big deal. Were Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka surprise winners? No. And there are still too many stud candidates who continue to fit this bill – Hideki Matsuyama, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas to name a few. The trend will continue (leaning toward Fowler) and it will continue to not be a shock.


Pick someone flying under the radar who can contend.

HOGGARD: BRIAN HARMAN. Despite two PGA Tour victories, he is often overlooked, but the southpaw has two advantages this week starting with a course that mitigates the power advantage enjoyed by some players. The other is a need for dogged determination, which Harman has plenty of.

LAVNER: PETER UIHLEIN. Following Brooks Koepka’s lead, perhaps it’s the former No. 1-ranked amateur’s time to shine. Uihlein has toiled in Europe for the past few years and is beginning to come into his own, now ranked inside the top 100 in the world. This year he has five top-10s, including a runner-up a few weeks ago in France and another top-15 in Ireland. He shouldn’t be flustered by the difficult conditions.

GRAY: WEBB SIMPSON. Don’t be surprised if he works his way onto the big yellow leaderboards. Simpson hasn’t cracked the top 10 in a major since his surprise win at Olympic, but he has made the cut in four of five Open appearances including a T-16 in his 2011 debut. He’s beginning to turn things around with five finishes of T-16 or better in his last eight starts.

COFFIN: ZACH JOHNSON. I know, it’s nuts. He’s not played well at all this year. But I’m looking at how well he played last week at the John Deere Classic (like he always does) and I’m looking at his Open record (four top-12 finishes in the last five years and hasn’t missed a cut since 2006) and I think he can easily record a top finish this week.


Predict the winning score.

HOGGARD: 2 UNDER. In 2008 Padraig Harrington won at Royal Birkdale with a 3-over total in tough conditions. A similar forecast this week would suggest something close to that.

LAVNER: 7 UNDER. Much depends on the weather, of course, but with a gettable closing stretch (two par 5s in the last four holes) there should be a few decent numbers out there if the guys can hang on early. Sure, if the wind howls to 35 mph, all bets are off, but it’s not unreasonable to think that the players in the best form can shoot somewhere around par all four days.

GRAY: 4 UNDER. This is not a course where fans can expect the eye-popping scores Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson put up last year and 3 over and even have won each of the last two Opens at Royal Birkdale. The 272 aggregate posted by Ian Baker-Finch in 1991 remains the lowest four-round total here. Weather will inevitably play a factor, and par will often be acceptable on a layout where players won’t see a par-5 until No. 15.

COFFIN: 6 UNDER. It’s impossible to know precisely what sort of weather will unfold but so far it hasn’t been anywhere near as nasty as it was predicted. Best guess is that it’ll be difficult but not crazy impossible over four days and that the winner will be able to get it around in under par each day.