Given the fact that shooting 64 at Royal St. George’s seems easier than buying a vowel on “Wheel of Fortune,” the number of players realistically in contention in the 149th Open Championship is just about anyone who made the cut.
The 10-shot rule in majors has been legislated out of existence, but it’s alive and well in the final major of year. Granted, the group that made the cut at one-over 141 would have to play wildly well and get wildly lucky, but stranger things have happened, including 22 years ago at Carnoustie, when Scotland’s Paul Lawrie made up 10 shots in one gloriously wacky day.
But let’s put aside that notion and look at candidates who have a more realistic opportunity to reel in Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, who just submitted the lowest opening 36-hole score, 11-under 129, in the tournament’s history. Oosthuizen has been a front-runner before in this championship, leading by five after 36 holes at St. Andrews and easily closing the deal.
His two closest pursuers, first-timer Collin Morikawa (two shots behind) and 2017 champion Jordan Spieth (three back), are obviously more than capable of staying with Oosthuizen and have shown the kind of form to make you think they could separate from the pack and make this a three-man sprint to the finish line.
But there are plenty of other candidates for the claret jug, and looking down the board, here are some of the more dangerous contenders with compelling storylines riding on their shoulders.
Start with Dustin Johnson, who, hard to fathom, didn’t receive a great deal of attention prior to the championship. And when he began with a sort of ho-hum 68, there was a sense that his struggles in majors this year, including missed cuts in his Masters defense and at the PGA Championship, still were a nagging concern. Then he produced a 65 on Friday and is just four back, along with Scottie Scheffler and Dylan Fritelli, the last man to get into the field. Johnson again is No. 1 in the world after being bumped briefly by Jon Rahm, and 10 years ago in Sandwich he was joint second behind winner Darren Clarke. He has an opportunity to avenge that disappointment and win the third leg of the career grand slam.
Two names stand out in the crowd at six-under 134, and that doesn’t include Emiliano Grillo—one of the players who shot 64 on Friday and is the best player from Argentina to come along in years who is not currently incarcerated.
The first is Daniel Van Tonder, another South African who at age 30 is making his Open debut. A Sunshine Tour player, he won the Kenya Savannah Classic earlier this year on the European Tour. He’s your Ben Curtis wannabe this week. Then there is Marcel Siem, a 41-year-old German who already has locked up Low Man Bun. He qualified for St. George’s on Sunday by capturing the Le Vaudreuil Golf Challenge on the Challenge Tour, where he said he’s used to playing in front of galleries swelling to 15 or even 20 people. Pretty sure no one has completed the Challenge Tour-Claret Jug double before.
Now for the proverbial Murderer’s Row at 135 that includes Rahm, No. 2 in the world and U.S. Open champion, Brooks Koepka, who is just such a different guy in majors than in regular events that you’d swear there were two of him, and Paul Casey, an Englishman with a penchant for strong play in big events but is running out of time to get over the majors hump.
Bobby Jones in 1926 was the first player to win both the U.S. Open and the British Open in the same year. Tiger Woods, in 2000, was the last. In between were guys named Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. Need we say more about the company Rahm could join if he were to rally for the claret jug? His had-to-have-it 64 on Friday shows he’s still got it, form-wise, and we know he has the mentality to keep piling up birdies.
Winner of back-to-back U.S. Open titles in 2017-18 and consecutive PGA Championships in 2018-19, Koepka nonetheless has a little something to prove after coming up short of late with good chances in the only events in which he appears more than mildly interested. In 2019 he was second in the Masters and the U.S. Open, the latter while going for three wins in a row. Last year in the PGA, he trailed Johnson by two strokes after 54 holes and closed with an uncharacteristic 74 to fall to T-29. More recently, Koepka got outflanked by Phil Mickelson at the PGA while in the final pairing and came up wanting in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines when the putter took an earlier flight home to Florida. Granted, he hasn’t been 100 percent for much of this year after knee surgery, but this guy has a bad-ass reputation to protect, and he can’t do that verbally beating up on Bryson DeChambeau all the time (though that can be fun to watch).
Casey only has two top-10 finishes in the Open, with his best a tie for third in 2010 when Oosthuizen was running away with the thing, but at age 43 he is ranked 21st in the world and has shown a penchant for contending in majors. In fact, in four of the last six he has been 17th or better with three top-10s. His best chance was the 2020 PGA at Harding Park, where he shot a final-round 66 while paired with eventual winner Morikawa, author of a 64. Tony Jacklin was the last player from England to win the championship on English soil, capturing the claret jug in 1969 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Nick Faldo was the last Englishman to win the championship anywhere, in 1992 at Muirfield, Scotland. A victory this week would be every bit as poetic as Shane Lowry’s two years ago in his native Ireland at Royal Portrush.
Danny Willett and Justin Rose, former major winners, also could bring England a glorious finish, but at four under and three under, respectively, they would need something magical.
If there is one player farther back than six shots who has the firepower to make a concerted run, Tony Finau should not be overlooked. Yes, he has stumbled to the finish line in majors and non-majors as he seeks his second career win, but his Open record is rather strong, including a third-place finish two years ago at Portrush. He’s made the cut now in all five of his appearances, and while he came into the week off consecutive missed cuts, he tends to bring a higher standard of play in majors, where he has top-10 finishes in three of the last five contested.
Other than Oosthuizen, second in the previous two majors, Finau perhaps has more to prove than anyone that he is more than just a cash machine. Considering that St. George’s has a history of granting favor to those without a major title – like Clarke, Curtis, Sandy Lyle, Bobby Locke and Sir Henry Cotton – Finau fits the profile. Then again, so does Casey.
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