Tiger Woods is back! He stinks! He's back! He missed the cut! Remember last year, when Woods was either A) not playing because of injury, or B) not playing particularly well? That was at least easier to keep track of than this year, when Woods has been everywhere from dominant to indistinguishable from the rest of the competition. Although he's won a tour-best three times, Woods has been a combined 14-over in the two majors this year, and his most recent tournament was a missed cut at the Greenbrier Classic. We expect better at the Open, although given his early reaction to the Lytham setup, it appears he's not a fan.
Is there any rhyme or reason to who wins majors anymore?
Nine-straight majors have been claimed by first-time winners, prompting Yahoo's Jay Busbee (@jaybusbee) to tweet: "Golf's championship run now looks like an Oprah audience. 'You get a major! And you get a major! And YOU get a major!'" Which is great if you're one of those players, but maybe not-so-great when you're trying to handicap it all. While Lytham has produced an impressive array of champions, they all came before this era of unprecedented parity. In other words, don't be surprised if the guy holding the claret jug Sunday night is a guy you never gave much thought to before this week.
Who does Lytham favor?
Lytham will forever be defined by one shot in particular -- Seve Ballesteros' bold approach out of the parking lot on the 16th hole on Sunday of the 1979 Open, setting up a birdie and an eventual three-shot win. The moment was quinetessential Ballesteros, but it also spoke to the premium Lytham places on creative shotmaking (even if the wet English summer has made the rough unusually dense). As John Barton wrote in the July issue of Golf Digest, "Look for a leading player with a spark of genius and a supernatural short game. . . . This tight, heavily defended course is less a place for regulation pars than for astonishing recoveries and audacious birdies."
Who will be this major's Webb Simpson?
We know it won't be Simpson, who is missing this Open because of the impending birth of his second child. But if form holds, we're sure some unlikely contender will be thrust upon us at some point in this tournament. We could point to trendy picks like Matt Kuchar or Jason Dufner, but seeing how both are now established entities, neither would qualify as a surprise. Same goes for someone like Bo Van Pelt, who seems to be in contention every week. We're thinking more about someone like Fredrik Jacobson, the Swede with the tight-fitting clothes and funky swing who has lurked enough on major leader boards (four top 20s the last two years) to finally break through and win one.
Is it "go time" for Rickie Fowler?
Fowler has a similar energy as Seve Ballesteros, who captured his first major here at age 22 in 1979. Like Seve, the 23-year-old Fowler has a distinctive style, boundless potential, and a flair for the dramatic. With his first PGA Tour win earlier this year and a T-5 finish in last year's Open, he could be ready to take his biggest step yet. If Fowler hasn't done much of note of late, big deal: we were saying the same thing about Webb Simpson before Olympic Club.
Was Phil Mickelson's near-win at Royal St George's last year a fluke?
Well, let's put it this way: we'd be surprised to see Phil in a similar spot this year. Mickelson's T-2 finish behind Darren Clarke marked only the second time he's cracked the top 10 in the Open, where his high ball flight has always been a hindrance in the wind. More pressing, though, is that after a quick start to this season, Mickelson hasn't made much noise at all, finishing well back at Olympic, and missing the cut at the Greenbrier. We commend him for working through some kinks last week at the Scottish Open -- Mickelson pieced together two hot rounds before fading on Sunday -- but we're skeptical we'll see him in contention late at Lytham.
Can Royal Lytham continue its streak of producing worthy winners?
Despite all we've said about major championship golf these days having as much reason as a game of roulette, Royal Lytham & St. Annes has had a track record of separating the elite from the pack. From Bobby Jones (1926) and Peter Thomson (1958), straight on through to Ballesteros (1979 and 1988), Tom Lehman (1996) and David Duval (2001), Lytham's array of winners have all been at or near the height of their sport when they won. For an elite champion like Woods or even Rory McIlroy to prevail, especially given the current landscape in major, it would solidify this venue as one of the finest tests in the Open rota.
Will the English tabloids finally have something nice to say?
It wouldn't be an Open without the British media trumpeting the chances of the likes of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, then savaging those players when they come up short -- as they have in every major to date. It's been 20 years since an Englishman won an Open, and it's not like there's been a lack of decent candidates. Donald and Westwood sit first and third, respectively, in the world ranking, but neither have delivered on the biggest stage yet (at least Westwood has come close; Donald has been a consistent non-factor). It would be a great story should either break through at Lytham, but as is usually the case, the pressure on both might be too much to handle.
Where have you gone, Rory McIlroy?
Sandwiched between Donald and Westwood in the world ranking is Rory McIlroy, whose win in the 2011 U.S. Open seemed to signal a new era in golf. McIlroy kept the story line afloat when he ascended to the top of the ranking earlier this season, but the summer has been an alarming one for the 23-year-old Ulsterman. At one point he missed four of five cuts and has bristled at criticism that his romance with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki was a distraction. And then there's the fact that McIlroy admitted last year to not particularly enjoying Opens in which weather conditions are an overriding factor. McIlroy has since backed off those comments, and said he's fully capable of playing in adverse conditions. For his sake this week, he better be right. . . .
Will the weather cooperate?
It depends on your definition of "cooperate." If your ideal version of the Open comes with cool temperatures, rain and wind, well, you're in luck. Rain is in the forecast in the Lancashire area throughout the week, and temperatures aren't expected to budge much beyond 60 degrees. If you're making the trip, no need to go overboard with the sunblock.