By Derek Harper, Field Level Media
An unusually dry summer has Carnoustie playing hard, fast and highly unpredictable.
Players who have competed at the revered Scottish links course in a previous Open Championship — or two — arrived this week planning to hit few, if any, drivers. By midweek, a few of the world’s biggest hitters had changed their tune, saying they planned to let it rip as often as possible with the rough low and laying up fraught with its own perils.
The unpredictability — will Carnoustie live up to its “Car-nasty” reputation or yield abnormally low scores — leaves the 147th Open a wide-open affair entering Thursday’s opening round.
There have been 10 different winners over the past 12 major tournaments dating back to Zach Johnson’s victory at the 2015 Open. And we could see a repeat of the 1999 event at Carnoustie, when Paul Lawrie won his only major title in a playoff after Jean van de Velde triple-bogeyed the 72nd hole.
Which begs the question: Who are the five players most primed to make the Claret Jug their first major trophy come Sunday?
5. Rickie Fowler, United States: Most every conversation regarding the best player yet to win a major begins and ends with Fowler. He has two more chances to claim that elusive first major before he turns 30 in December, and The Open (2014) is one of three majors he already owns a runner-up finish at.
Fowler has shown good form of late, with a missed cut at The Players his only finish lower than a T-21 in his past eight events as he enters the week ranked No. 7. That includes a second-place finish at the Masters, T-8 at the Memorial, T-20 at the U.S. Open and a solo 12th at the Quicken Loans National before crossing the pond early to get acclimated to the U.K. and tying for sixth at last week’s Scottish Open.
Fowler is regularly in contention come Sunday at majors, but he has to prove he can put past failures to close behind him. And that means avoiding the big numbers that too often dot his card.
4. Francesco Molinari, Italy: Known as one of the world’s elite ball-strikers, the time is ripe for the 35-year-old Italian. He has never finished higher than a tie for ninth at The Open (2013) and rarely has been a factor on the weekend at majors. But there’s also no hotter golfer on the planet entering the week.
Molinari has two wins and two runner-up finishes in his past five worldwide starts. After missing the cut at The Players, Molinari won the BMW PGA Championship, finished second at the Italian Open, tied for 25th at Shinnecock Hills in the U.S. Open and dominated the Quicken Loans National with an eight-shot victory before tying for second at last week’s John Deere Classic.
3. Tommy Fleetwood, England: Fleetwood is a very popular pick to end the American run of five consecutive major title victories and become the first Englishman to claim a major since Danny Willett’s unlikely comeback victory at the 2016 Masters.
Fleetwood enters the week ranked No. 10 in the world and has become a fixture on Sundays at majors. He first made a worldwide name for himself by tying for fourth at the 2016 U.S. Open. He rallied to tie for 27th at Royal Birkdale in 2017 and tied for 17th at this year’s Masters before claiming solo second at last month’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, finishing one shot shy of Brooks Koepka.
Fleetwood insisted this week that he is more comfortable in the limelight than he was this time last year, when he was chasing his first major just outside of his hometown. While the course is playing vastly different this week, it is also worth noting that Fleetwood fired a 63 at Carnoustie during last year’s Dunhill Links.
2. Branden Grace, South Africa: He’s not the biggest hitter at 5-10 and 175 pounds, but that’s not required this week. Grace is a bulldog of a player who just also happens to be the only player in history to shoot a 62 in a major championship, which he did during the third round at Royal Birkdale last year.
Grace hasn’t teed it up since last month’s U.S. Open, where he tied for 25th. But he does tend to show up around the first page of the leaderboard in major championships, and especially on links-style courses. He was squarely in the hunt on the final nine holes of the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay before sailing a tee shot out of bounds, and finished tied for sixth at Royal Birkdale — his seventh consecutive time making the cut at The Open.
1. Tyrrell Hatton, England: The last Englishman to win The Open was Sir Nick Faldo in 1992. That’s somewhat baffling with the likes of Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood taking yearly aim at the Claret Jug.
Hatton isn’t a household name as a 100-1 shot, but he is a feisty player with a sharp all-around game and another who is well-versed in how to cope with the ever-changing conditions at The Open. The 26-year-old finished fifth at The Open two years ago, and he is the top-ranked player in the world in total putting.
Hatton is currently ranked No. 23 in the world, and after a string of three missed cuts, he quietly tied for sixth at Shinnecock Hills before returning to Europe and tying for 16th at the HNA Open de France before a T-9 in a strong field at the Scottish Open.
And if you’re looking for a true dark horse, countryman and 72nd-ranked Eddie Pepperell finished second in that event.
–Derek Harper, Field Level Media