HENRIK STENSON got the better of a fantastic tussle with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon last year, eventually capturing his first Major by three strokes, with a massive 11 shots back to the third. He had finished runner-up to Mickelson at Muirfield in 2013 and recorded top-three finishes in 2010 (St Andrews) and in 2008 (here at Royal Birkdale). The Swede, ranked eighth in the world, would be the first repeat winner since Padraig Harrington in 2008.
TOMMY FLEETWOOD used to play this course as a boy and the local hero has risen an astonishing 170 places in the world rankings in just under a year. Two titles have come his way in that time – the Abu Dhabi Championship and the Open de France – but he will have been most satisfied by his fourth place finish in the US Open, picking up a cheque for over half a million dollars in the process. The 26-year-old is now ranked 14th in the world and tied for a respectable tenth when 15 under par in his warm-up event – this month’s Irish Open. There has been some suggestion that the pressure of carrying local hopes will get to him, but I expect him to thrive on the occasion.
JON RAHM carded an impressive 24 under par when taking the Irish Open by six shots from Scotland’s Richie Ramsay, and the 22-year-old Spaniard is now ranked seventh in the world. He finished down the field in a tie for 59th place at Royal Troon in last year’s Open, but has improved enormously in the past 12 months. His three-quarter back-swing is often an asset when it comes to links golf.
RORY MCILROY won this event in 2014 when it was held at Royal Liverpool but he has struggled since aggravating a back injury when shooting an opening round 73 in the Players Championship at Sawgrass. He eventually finished a tied 35th in that tournament and has missed the cut in three of his four subsequent events, including in the Scottish Open last week. The world number four will no doubt bounce back to form sooner rather than later but is a risky betting proposition this week.
World number one DUSTIN JOHNSON is another who has struggled in his recent starts. He had form figures of 31112 going into the Players Championship, where he tied for 12th place. However, a slip on the stairs in his rental accommodation forced him to withdraw from the US Masters, and his three subsequent outings have resulted in a 13th place and two missed cuts. He’s at the head of the betting this week but could struggle again.
SERGIO GARCIA has followed his US Masters victory with a string of respectable efforts, including top-30 finishes in the Players Championship and US Open. He hasn’t played since late June – when he tied second to Andres Romero in the BMW International Open – but arrives here fresh. He has a decent Open pedigree, having finished second, sixth and fifth in the last three renewals. On the downside, he was only 51st back in 2008 when the Open was last held at Royal Birkdale.
RICKIE FOWLER, winner of the Honda Classic earlier this year, has been in decent form since missing the cut in the FedEx St. Jude Classic, finishing tied fifth in the US Open, tied third in the Loans National and tied ninth in Scotland at the weekend. He finished joint runner-up behind Rory McIlroy at Hoylake in 2014, and makes the shortlist.
PHIL MICHELSON posted 17 under par at Royal Troon last year, but still finished three shots behind Stenson. He won his first Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2013 and has enjoyed further top-three finishes in 2011 (Royal St George’s) and 2004 (Royal Troon). His previous Open efforts at Royal Birkdale have proved disappointing (73rd, 79th and 19th), but he can never be ruled out in this tournament.
JASON DUFFNER was tied 22nd at Royal Troon last year, by far his best Open effort, and the world number 31 was successful in the States last month. Missed cuts in the US Open and last week’s Scottish Open were hardly the ideal preparation, but he’s another who cannot be entirely ruled out.
ANDY SULLIVAN has turned in some good performances in the US this year, including 15th place in the Shell Houston open. The 31-year-old from Nuneaton has shown up well in both previous Open outings – making the top 30 at St Andrews two years ago and finishing tied 12th last year.
Winner: Tommy Fleetwood (25/1)