PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — There are 52 groups, or games as the R&A calls them, in the first two rounds of the Open Championship at Royal Portrush. Not all of them are created equally, though — some are more compelling than others. For example, Phil Mickelson doesn’t make the list for saying that he doesn’t have a chance to win, while Brooks Koepka, winner of four of the last nine majors, isn’t on here either because he sounded a bit too zen in his press conference the other day (and I want to test this whole perceived slights notion). Here’s a look at the nine most interesting groups for Thursday and Friday.
(Times in ET)
9:14 a.m./2:15 p.m.: Henrik Stenson, Xander Schauffele, Graeme McDowell
Stenson has been on a run of good form lately with three straight top 10s, which included a tie for fourth at last week’s Scottish Open. He also set the aggregate scoring record on his way to winning the Open in 2016 at Royal Troon, where rain was also a factor during the week. Schauffele, meanwhile, has finished sixth or better in five of the 10 career majors he has played, which included a runner-up at last year’s Open at Carnoustie. McDowell? He's the sentimental favorite for the home crowd after getting into the tournament at the 11th hour.
9:58 a.m./2:59 p.m.: Francesco Molinari, Bryson DeChambeau, Adam Scott
Molinari is the defending champ, has a win this year (at Bay Hill) and was in contention deep into the final round of the Masters before tying for fifth. Scott is a popular betting favorite and for good reason — he hasn’t finished outside the top 12 in his last five starts, spent nearly a full week at Portrush ahead of the tournament and picked the brain of the town’s other favorite son, Darren Clarke, who grew up here and owns a house overlooking the course.
10:09 a.m./3:10 p.m.: Rory McIlroy, Gary Woodland, Paul Casey
In case you hadn’t heard, McIlroy owns the course record, having shot 61 at Portrush as a 16-year-old (!), and he grew up in nearby Holywood. He has also won twice this year and finished outside the top 10 just three times in 14 starts. McIlroy says he’s trying to treat this week like any other major, but good luck with that. Between all the family and friends in the crowd and the weight of expectation, there will be enormous pressure on him to play well and end a five-year major drought. Woodland comes in having won his first career major at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last month, while Englishman Casey is still searching for his first major at a tournament he has just two career top 10s at.
11:36 a.m./6:35 a.m.: Tom Lehman, Joaquin Niemann, Miguel Angel Jimenez
What did Niemann do to deserve being stuck with these guys? The 20-year-old Chilean has been hot lately with top 10s in three of his last four starts. The former top-ranked amateur’s reward: Getting paired with a couple of AARP members — 60-year-old Lehman and 55-year-old Angel Jimenez.
12:42 p.m./7:41 a.m.: Tyrrell Hatton, Keith Mitchell, Thomas Pieters
I’ll be looking for odds at the local William Hill on which guy will break a club first, Hatton or Pieters. Both are notorious hotheads. Mitchell should be in for a treat!
1:26 p.m./8:25 a.m.: Jordan Spieth, Marc Leishman, Danny Willett
What do Spieth and Willett have in common? Aside from each having won the Masters, both have endured major slumps after major success, albeit for different reasons. Willett went winless for two-plus years after his triumph at Augusta National in 2016, while Spieth’s last victory came in this event two years ago at Royal Birkdale. Leishman doesn’t have a major but he is always a popular dark horse choice at the Open for his abilities in the wind, so much so that it has become cliche.
2:59 p.m./9:58 a.m.: Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Keegan Bradley
Best of luck to Bradley keeping up with these two off the tee, though he can at least rest assured that Portrush isn’t a bomber’s paradise. Johnson and Day have each been in contention for a claret jug before but both are inexplicably stuck on just one career major (a U.S. Open and PGA, respectively). At least one of them should be in the mix this week.
3:10 p.m./10:09 a.m.: Tiger Woods, Matt Wallace, Patrick Reed
Tiger frickin’ Woods. Enough said. Since his victory at the Masters, he has reignited the chase for more majors, and the Open on more than a few occasions has been friendly to players in their 40s and beyond. The biggest questions are how his body will hold up in the chilly, wet weather; and what type of shape will his game be in after a month off.
3:21 p.m./10:20 a.m.: Jon Rahm, Patrick Cantlay, Matt Kuchar
Kuchar is having one of the best years of his career despite a litany of controversies (of which he seems/pretends to be oblivious to). He also finished second at the Open in 2017 and played well last year. Rahm comes in off a win at the Irish Open two weeks ago and finished second and third in his two starts (Andalucia Masters and U.S. Open) prior to that.