Every year, when we reach the fourth major, there are at least three golfers sitting pretty. To win one of the first three crowning events means you're playing with house money the rest of the season, and that's the position Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland find themselves in this week. Would they like another major? Of course! Who wouldn't? But if they fail to get it done, it doesn't really matter—they've had terrific years already, and they'll fly home happy.
For the rest of those teeing it up at Royal Portrush, that is not the case. To adapt an old PGA Championship slogan, this is glory's last shot, but some players need that glory a little more than others. A win by one of the stars or near-stars could be career-altering, to greater and lesser degrees. A more negative way to put the title of this piece would have been: "Who will lose the most by losing the Open?"
So let's count it down from 10 as we examine the players who most "need" the claret jug this week, and the ones whose legacies would be transformed the most by a win.
10. Jason Day — Remember Jason Day? We haven't heard his name a lot lately, but he's still in the mix, still playing intermittently solid golf, and still logging top-10s. But it's been a while since the former World No. 1 has been in the spotlight, and if you know anything about his roller-coaster career, it's only a matter of time before he's playing elite golf again. But to let 2019 pass without a major, or at least a close call, would be a minor blow on his journey back to the rarefied heights.
9. Francesco Molinari — Hear me out: Molinari has had, by any measure, an incredible 365 days. Not only did he win the Open in 2018, but he put together what I'm willing to call the greatest Ryder Cup performance in the event's history and then came within a hair's breadth of winning the Masters. That's a terrific, superlative stretch, but if he wins the Open this year? Then, suddenly, we have to start talking about him as one of the greatest golfers of his generation. Imagine how unlikely that seemed just one year ago.
8. Hideki Matsuyama — The 27-year-old Japanese star has missed exactly zero cuts in 16 tries this season, but it occurred to me when his name came up in conversation recently that he's almost disappeared from the discourse. Have we already stopped believing he can win, though he's already put up seven top-10 major finishes? He can change our minds and make history as the first Japanese major winner this weekend.
7. Ian Poulter/Matt Kuchar/Paul Casey — It's not Last Chance Saloon for any of them, but nor do these major-less 40-somethings have endless chances ahead of them. Many golf fans have already accepted that they'll never win a big one, and a victory this weekend would act like a defibrillator on their solid, but somewhat moribund legacies.
6. Bryson DeChambeau/Jon Rahm — Call these the "breakout threats." The young guns are on fire, and it's precisely because nobody quite expects them to break through yet that a win would stop the metaphorical presses and usher them immediately to a higher plateau of stardom.
5. Tommy Fleetwood — The Ryder Cup hero, at age 28, finds himself at a crossroads. Will he, like so many English golfers before him (Westwood, Donald, Poulter, Casey, even Rose, before his breakthrough), struggle to win a major while excelling by every other metric? Or will he break the mold and become his generation's Faldo and return England to consistent major glory? Until he wins a big one, the questions linger, and this weekend is a serious opportunity.
4. Dustin Johnson — DJ is at the top of the "wow, he only has one major?" club. He's always close, he's always on form, and outside of the majors, he's always winning. Not only that, but he's made a habit of coming agonizingly close at the majors he hasn't won. A claret jug would be the cherry on top of a great career, and put the underachievement questions to bed.
3. Justin Rose — Rose is in the same position as Johnson, but with an added twist: Unlike DJ, he's never won his home Open, and along with all the other facts mentioned above—great player, world No. 1, terrific form, only one major—he could transform his legacy and become a national hero by winning the major where he made his first big splash as an amateur 21 years ago.
2. Rickie Fowler — You don't need me to explain. Rickie is the reigning "best young player to never win a major," and with each passing year, the title grows more pronounced. Which means that the pressure mounts, and you can bet Rickie doesn't want to celebrate his 31st birthday this December with another major-less year in his rearview mirror.
1. Rory McIlroy — Normally, Rickie would be no. 1 on a list like this, but the x-factor this year is that the Open is being held in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951. Rory has always had a complicated relationship with his home country, but the fact is that the narrative sets up perfectly for a dramatic home win. And that expectation can be a burden, as we've seen each year when he tries to complete the career slam at Augusta. To add to that burden, Rory has had a resurgence this season, and his marquee win at the Players Championship certainly seemed to pave the way for a return to major glory. To finish the year empty-handed on that front, and to let a chance to win in Northern Ireland go begging, would inevitably be a disappointment. It's not fair, but Rory has the most to lose at Royal Portrush.