What to watch for at the British Open

Jul 10, 2015, 9:13 PM

When it comes to a summer of major championships in golf, it’s out with the new and back to the old.

Last month it was the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, a golf course that had been open to the public for only eight years when Jordan Spieth beat the best on a course where the grass was brown and dying quickly. Now it’s on to St. Andrews for the British Open, where golf first was played before Columbus reached America.

There’s a reason it’s called the Old Course.

St. Andrews is expected to be green from recent rain. The rest test is from the wind. Without it, Rory McIlroy shot 63 in the first round in 2010 at St. Andrews to tie a major championship record. Caught in a gale the next day, he shot 80.

McIlroy won’t be at St. Andrews to defend his title after injuring his left ankle playing soccer. Even healthy, he would have been playing a supporting role to Spieth, the Masters and U.S. Open champion in rare pursuit of a Grand Slam.

Here’s what to anticipate when the 144th British Open returns to St. Andrews for the 29th time starting on Thursday:

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THE SPIETH SLAM

To appreciate what Spieth has done so far this year is to look at the company he is keeping. Only two other players in the last 43 years have reached the halfway point of the Grand Slam. One was Jack Nicklaus. The other was Tiger Woods.

Spieth won the Masters in a runaway. He won the U.S. Open in a nail-biter. He chose to play the John Deere Classic in the heartland of America before heading over to the old country to play St. Andrews. He is the betting favorite to win the claret jug, though odds are against again. Nicklaus and Woods failed to get the third leg of the slam. Neither did Arnold Palmer in 1960.

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NO DEFENDING CHAMP

For the first time in 61 years, the British Open will not have its defending champion in the field. And for the second straight year, a major championship will be played without the No. 1 player in golf. McIlroy ruptured a ligament in his left ankle while playing soccer. It was bad enough that he withdrew eight days before the Open was to start. He’ll have to watch this one on TV. And that might be as painful as his ankle.

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TALE OF THE TIGER

One headline referred to Woods taking some momentum with him to St. Andrews — momentum in this case meant he didn’t miss the cut. Woods is a two-time champion at St. Andrews, and considers it among his favorite courses in the world. Will that be enough to carry him at the Open? It can’t hurt. Woods is coming up on the two-year anniversary of his last win, and he’s had only one reasonable chance at winning on the PGA Tour since then.

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CHANGES

The R&A has slightly altered nine holes since the last Open in 2010, though the official yardage has been reduced by 8 yards. A few pot bunkers have been moved closer to the greens or further down the fairway. The famous Road Hole bunker on the 17th has been slightly widened. By the end of the week, it might be deeper.

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TOM’S FAREWELL

Tom Watson is playing his 41st and final British Open, and his adoration on Scottish soil ranks up there with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He is the only player in 155 years of the British Open to have won on five links courses. Oddly enough, four of his victories were in Scotland — but never at St. Andrews. Watson will cross that Swilcan Bridge on the 18th hole one last time. The only question is whether it will be Friday or Sunday. Watson is 65. But remember, it was just six years ago that he was an 8-foot putt away from winning at Turnberry. You never know.

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THE CLARET JUG

One of the great traditions at golf’s oldest tournament is when the engraver starts to etch the name of the winner into the base of the claret jug. The last three times at St. Andrews he could get started early. Woods won by eight shots in 2000 and by five shots in 2005, while Louis Oosthuizen won by seven shots in 2010. Of course, it would help to have a name shorter than Oosthuizen. The shortest name in the field is Kevin Na. The longest belongs to Oliver Schniederjans.

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