St. Andrews, Scotland — Amid the chaos lies the winner of the 150th Open. The concoction of contenders at the top of the leaderboard combines players at different stages of their careers, and with mixed expectations and urgency.
There are those looking to end a long wait without a major, or for the world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler — who’s in a blockbuster pairing with Dustin Johnson on Saturday — he’s chasing a further feat in an already remarkable season. Then there are the home hopes, the first-timers and the group of LIV golfers looking to crash the 150th Open celebrations.
In short — predicting a winner of The Open has rarely been this difficult, or this is exciting.
St. Andrews has seen some fine battles over the years — and there are reminders everywhere from tales of yesteryear on this famous course of the narrow margins between golfing ecstasy with a spot among the greats and those infamous near-misses.
With the greatest respect, no one wants to be grouped with a Doug Sanders or a Costantino Rocca come Sunday — those were the poor players who saw victory ebb away at the vital moment when they had one hand on the Claret Jug.
Before the tournament started, Rory McIlroy said it would be “better for the game” if the winner was not from the LIV breakaway series. The CEO of the R&A, Martin Slumbers, tried to stay diplomatic in his pre-tournament news conference Wednesday when asked whether he agreed it’d better if he wasn’t handing the Claret Jug to someone from that group of players, saying: “Whoever wins on Sunday is going to have their name carved in history. And I’ll welcome them onto the 18th green. This is a golf tournament.”
But this closely followed him earlier saying LIV was “harming the perception of the sport.”
Of the 24 LIV players here, two are near the top of the board. Talor Gooch — who is 6 shots off the lead — said the criticism has galvanized them as a group.
“Everybody, it feels like, is against us, and that’s OK,” Gooch said. “Like you said, it’s kind of banded us together, I think.”
Johnson, in fifth place and just 4 strokes behind, was less committal.
“I wouldn’t know what you were saying or if there was anything negative being said,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to it.”
It would be fascinating to see how the sport reacts if the man holding the Claret Jug come Sunday is from that batch of players.
But those in the R&A clubhouse may be keeping their fingers crossed that the winner will be someone not involved in LIV. There are plenty of contenders, such as Cameron Smith and Patrick Cantlay, who won’t want to be known as among golf’s nearly men.
It’s been 29 years since there was an Australian winner of The Open. Ironically, that was Greg Norman, who also happens to be the CEO of LIV Golf and who was not invited to this week’s celebrations despite having won this event twice. Still, you wouldn’t know there’s any pressure on Smith’s shoulders, despite him setting an Open record at 13 under after two rounds (beating the previous mark of 12 under by Nick Faldo, Norman and Louis Oosthuizen). He’s far more eager to talk about bingeing through “Peaky Blinders” or trying to catch up with how his Maroons are doing in the rugby league’s State of Origin.
But there’s an expectation around him after his triumph at the Players Championship, and his entire game is perfectly tuned to dance around the 112 bunkers on the Old Course.
“I think being off late [Saturday] afternoon it’s obviously going to be a bit firmer … so I would say it’s going to be pretty brutal out there,” Smith said. “I think there’s going to be a few more gnarly pins, and I think being smart out there is definitely going to be the key to staying at the top of the leaderboard.”
Smith says he’s playing the best golf of his life this year. Cantlay is coming off the best year of his. He’s ranked fourth in the Overall World Golf Ranking and has added a win to the three he scooped a year ago when he took the FedEx Cup and PGA Tour Player of the Year honors. In his own understated way, he says he’s in a “good spot” ahead of the weekend and says he will continue “playing off trouble” over the next two days.
You can also add Viktor Hovland — who’ll play alongside McIlroy on Saturday — to those looking to end their wait for a first major, with the Norwegian in the mix at 10 under after his second-round 66, which included a spectacular eagle on the 15th.
But lurking at 8 under is the world’s best player and the reigning Masters champion. A triumph here for Scheffler would add his name to the elite club of those who have scooped two majors in a year. That would also make it five tournament wins and there is still time left on the golf calendar. If he’s at the top of the leaderboard come Sunday, he’d become just the fifth to achieve that feat, joining Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. For someone who reckons he’s not “perceived” as the world No. 1 — that would be some going for the man who spent the buildup to this tournament watching YouTube videos of former winners to glean any little hints on how best to tame the Old Course.
Britain’s Matt Fitzpatrick is also chasing his second major this season, having taken the U.S. Open last month. He is 6 under after the first two rounds, having been level after the first, and is certainly improving as the week goes on. He was playing alongside Woods on Thursday and Friday. Amid the frenzy around their grouping, Fitzpatrick flourished on Friday.
“I feel different,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to the confidence that comes with just having won a major. “I can compete, and I can win. [Winning a major] doesn’t hold me back. It’s not something I’m nervous about. I’ve got to show myself a bit more. Yeah, it’s just given me that extra confidence.”
His fellow countryman Tyrrell Hatton doesn’t lack for confidence either. Though he’s kept a lid on his rambunctiousness this week — there have been no club-bending antics, though he did throw a ball into the burn Thursday — he sits at 8 under and firmly in the mix.
But the main hope for many in the crowd is McIlroy.
Sheila Walker, Old Tom Morris’ great-great granddaughter, is hoping for a British winner this week. It’s been a 22-year wait since they had one here at St. Andrews in The Open, harking back to Faldo’s triumph in 1990. And many fancied McIlroy to be the man to end that wait. After his impressive, judicious 6-under 66 on Thursday, he posted 68 on Friday to sit neatly in third.
“I felt pretty much in control of everything,” McIlroy said.
It’s been eight years since McIlroy won a major. He came here playing some wonderful golf. How he’d love to end the wait here and exorcise those demons from seven years back when he missed coming to St. Andrews as the defending Open champion after having injured himself playing football in the buildup.
“I just need to go out and play my game and play my golf over the next two days and that’s all I can do,” McIlroy said. “Cam Smith goes out and shoots another two rounds like he did the first two days, I’m going to have a really hard time to win the tournament. So I’ve just got to go out and do the best I can and worry about myself. Hopefully that’s good enough.”
When it comes to long waits, Adam Scott is in the same boat here, having last won a major in 2013, but he too is in the mix at 7 under. He also wants to lay to rest some previous pain, having dropped a 4-shot lead with four holes remaining in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“Anytime I think about letting one slip through my hands, it hurts,” Scott said Friday. “And it would be exciting if I shot a really great round [on Saturday] to tee off with a legitimate feeling that I’m in contention, not only for the fact that I haven’t really been in that position for a major for a little while, but also for the fact that I’ve had one on this jug, I feel like, and I’d like to put two on.”
As ever, there are those who were at slightly longer odds heading into The Open. This competition has a fine record of surprise winners, so Cameron Young and Sahith Theegala both have a chance. Young is alone in second, two shots back and playing alongside Smith in the final pairing on Saturday. Theegala is tied for eighth and six shots back.
“It’s obviously a special place for golfers, especially competitive golfers playing one of our greatest championships on one of our oldest, greatest golf courses is a lot of fun,” Young said. “But I’ll be head down, trying to just do my job the next few days.”
One of the local takeaway shops here has a “Munch Box” — it’s basically a mixture of everything in one, ideal for those who have a hard time deciding what to go for. And this weekend’s leaderboard is of Munch Box proportions.
St. Andrews is a place of golfing fairy tales. Some of the world’s best have waved goodbye to the championship on the Swilcan Bridge. There are those who had their careers made here. Some have suffered the sort of heartbreak from which their careers never recover.
Whoever tops that leaderboard Sunday will have kept their nerve and navigated each of the Old Course’s championship-ending dangers. As it says above the grandstand on the 18th, “Everything has led to this.” But the sheer unpredictability of this championship means no one truly knows exactly where this story will lead and what the outcome will be by Sunday evening.