LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – He who finds the fewest bunkers wins.
At least, that’s what most of this week’s Open Championship competitors would have us believe. There are 205 total bunkers at Royal Lytham & St. Annes which range from “hazardous” to “like hitting one out of bounds.”
With that in mind, driving accuracy will certainly be a key component to the makeup of this week’s leaderboard, but it’s hardly the only factor. From an ability to shape shots to being creative around the greens to a propensity for holing clutch putts, the course should stand as a stern test throughout the week.
But who will win? As always, the prediction game is an inexact science – and on a venue with so many twists and turns, where a good bounce results in a green light to the flagstick and a bad bounce means a death sentence in a bunker, there’s a lot more “inexact” than “science” at play this week.
With that in mind, here is my predicted order of finish for the top 25:
1. Justin Rose: Fits the mold of recent major champions. Rose is a major talent without a major win. An excellent driver off the tee, he could make it 10 straight first-time major winners.
2. Tiger Woods: Looking relaxed and confident in the days entering this tournament, the 14-time major champion says, “I’ll win major championships” once again.
3. Lee Westwood: If the stars are aligned, this could finally be his week. The Open serves as Westwood’s best chance at a major and his driving prowess should keep him out of too much trouble.
4. Graeme McDowell: His failure to capture a second U.S. Open remains an open wound, but McDowell has proven himself worthy of consideration for any major championship title.
5. Adam Scott: With a major record that is finally starting to look respectable, Scott just turned 32 – prime age for players to start winning these things.
6. Charl Schwartzel: Mark these words: The best player nobody ever talks about will win another major to go along with his Masters title – and it may come sooner rather than later.
7. Rafael Cabrera-Bello: Looking for a serious dark horse who could seriously contend? Look no further, as RCB owns four top-three results on the Euro Tour already this season.
8. Rickie Fowler: Youngster has performed well in what he calls his favorite tournament, with a T-14 and T-5 in his first two appearances.
9. Padraig Harrington: When he’s pessimistic, he plays his best golf. But the two-time champion is optimistic this week. What does it mean? Well, not necessarily the opposite.
10. Jim Furyk: Anytime accuracy is at a premium, expect Furyk to finagle his way onto the leaderboard. Should add to his six career top-10s in 17 starts at this event.
11. Francesco Molinari: Obviously disappointed by last week’s Scottish Open playoff loss, Molinari should still enter this week with plenty of confidence.
12. Jason Dufner: Time to stop thinking of the world’s seventh-ranked player as an underdog. Dufner owns top-five finishes in three of the last six majors.
13. Ian Poulter: Since finishing runner-up in 2008, he has followed up MC-60-MC the past three years. Simply put, Poulter is too good for that trend to continue.
14. Rory McIlroy: Tough to know which Rory will show up: The one who can dominate tournaments or the one who has appeared complacent at times? If he’s on, he has as much talent as anyone.
15. K.J. Choi: This could be one of those “slow and steady wins the race” type of weeks. If so, keep a close eye on Choi, who can tread water with the best of ‘em.
16. Ernie Els: He isn’t among the best in total driving on the PGA Tour, but leads the Euro circuit, which portends big things with the big stick for the Big Easy this week.
17. Zach Johnson: Fresh off his John Deere Classic victory, the two-time winner this year is obviously in great form and should be comfortable on a course that seems to suit him.
18. Luke Donald: With accuracy so important at this venue, the world’s No. 1-ranked player may struggle to put himself in the right position off the tee every time.
19. Martin Kaymer: The game’s Human Disappearing Act seems like he may be on the verge of reappearing, finishing in the top 30 in four of his last six starts.
20. Hunter Mahan: Would be sweet justice if he could return to the U.K. and avenge that duffed chip at the 2010 Ryder Cup which haunted him for so long afterward.
21. Keegan Bradley: When asked about there being 15 straight different major champs, Bubba Watson said, “We're going to change that this week. Keegan Bradley, he's going to win.”
22. Richie Ramsay: Consider this one a bit of a flier, as the former U.S. Amateur champion doesn’t have a very strong recent results table, but he could sneak his way onto the leaderboard come Sunday.
23. Aaron Baddeley: Another guy who fits the recent major champion profile. Just a good, solid player who may be waiting for his moment in the spotlight.
24. Ben Curtis: Currently third on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, Curtis won’t be able to sneak up on people the way he did nine years ago – but it would still be close.
25. Tom Lehman: Call it a sentimental choice, but elder statesmen have shown a propensity for playing well at the Open and none know this course better than Lehman, who won here in 1996.