Open Championship 2021: Jon Rahm’s ascension, Dustin Johnson’s redemption top storylines at Royal St. George’s
From Spieth’s fourth to Brooks’ fifth, what to watch for this week in England
Open Championship week may not have the most glitter or the most glamour (especially depending on the year), but it might be the best major of all, according to at least one of its former champions. After six majors in 11 months and a jam-packed calendar year of golf, it’s difficult to keep track of all the storylines going into this week’s event at Royal St. George’s.
There are a handful of golfers trying to add to their handful of majors and several more looking to pick up a second like Shane Lowry did last time this tournament was played back in 2019 (which feels like 20 years ago). We’ll take a look at a lot of those players as well as some of the other narratives percolating as the ultimate coffee golf week (at least here in the United States) begins in earnest in just three days.
Let’s start with maybe the hottest player on the planet.
1. Will Rahm double up? Remember the show “Supermarket Sweep” where contestants barreled down aisles with shopping carts just pouring products into their baskets? That’s what it feels like is going to happen with Jon Rahm over the next few months, replacing the grocery items with tournament trophies. Over his last three events — the Memorial, U.S. Open and Scottish Open — he’s been beaten by a total of six golfers (all at the Scottish Open last week, where he putted horribly). If you want to take it back another event, he’s been beaten by 13 in the last four. I’m not sure Rahm needed a confidence boost the U.S. Open win provides, but it’s possible that we could see him apply the weight that comes with being a major champion to a game that was already probably the most complete in the world. Translation: He’s going to be an absolute monster from here on out.
2. Back to England: The Open returns to England for the first time since Jordan Spieth won at Royal Birkdale in 2017. Royal St. George’s is also the first course the Open was ever played on outside of Scotland (John Henry Taylor took the 34th edition in 1894). Of the first four courses ever used in the Open rota, only St. Andrews and Royal St. George’s still remain, making the latter the second-oldest modern Open course. It has undergone plenty of changes, of course, and has been de-quirked (for lack of a better term) from the days of blind shots, massive dunes and flags that tell you which line to take based on your skillset. Still, there will be some interesting questions asked of players this week. I have one of my own: Will a course that — in the modern era — has produced five winners with a career total of just seven majors collect a legendary winner, or will it elevate another golfer raising his first major trophy?
3. D.J. returns to RSG: Darren Clarke was one of those single major winners when he took this event back in 2011 over Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Anthony Kim (!) and Dustin Johnson. D.J. will return to yet another site where he did something infamous, this one maybe less than a handful of others. The No. 1 player in the world played Sunday with Clarke and got within striking distance before hitting a ball out of bounds and making seven on the par-5 14th hole. It was tough to watch, just as much of D.J.’s 2021 campaign has been. Following an out-of-this-world fall, Johnson has just two top 10s on the PGA Tour this calendar year, neither of them close to contention. This is his last chance to salvage a bit of a lost year, especially considering how well he was playing at the end of 2020.
4. Koepka’s quiet success: Though it doesn’t get discussed frequently, Brooks Koepka has been terrific in Open Championships with three top 10s in his last four starts dating back to the Old Course at St. Andrews in 2015. He’s also somewhat quietly been incredible at the last two majors this year. Following a missed cut at the Masters in April shortly after his knee surgery, he’s been beaten by just four golfers at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. He won’t be the favorite this week because Rahm has been immense, but for him to not even be among the top three (Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau are both ahead of him) is probably a slight and definitely something he’ll take as an affront.
5. Rory’s story: It’s been nearly three years since we’ve seen Rory McIlroy play a weekend round at The Open, all the way back when he finished T2 at Carnoustie behind Francesco Molinari in 2018. He missed the cut at Royal Portrush before last year’s edition was canceled, and he doesn’t come into this year’s tournament with much momentum at all. After a weak Irish Open showing and a missed cut at the Scottish Open, confidence in McIlroy adding a fifth major to his collection is not high. However, he’s been arguably the best Open Championship golfer of the last decade with a win and five top 10s in nine appearances, which is the best percentage of anyone with at least three starts. It creates an interesting juxtaposition for the week ahead.
6. Bryson’s new caddie: Only in golf would the fellow who hauls the equipment around command this much attention, but in the world of Bryson DeChambeau, that fellow is also expected to be part-time statistician, meteorologist and (maybe especially) psychologist. The 2020 U.S. Open champion made a video last week of him jumping in the pool with his new caddie, Brian Zeigler. I don’t know if this is bizarre or fun or expected or all of the above, but I do know that if the last few weeks are any indication, DeChambeau’s new looper will receive more attention (and possibly criticism) than about half the players in this field.
7. Uneven field: There have been an unusual number of withdrawals this year. The primary reason is because of stricter-than-normal travel restrictions and a COVID-19 policy that states anyone contact traced entering the country is out of luck as it relates to the Open. The latter rule is what clipped Bubba Watson from competition, and Hideki Matsuyama, Matthew Wolff, Si Woo Kim and Sungjae Im (among others) have also withdrawn for a variety of reasons. Of those who have withdrawn, only Matsuyama had a strong chance to win, but this will still be a slightly weaker field than normal at Royal St. George’s.
8. Welcome back: The Open is almost always my favorite golf viewing experience of the year. Awake in the middle of the night here in the United States watching 56-year-old men who have absolutely no chance in the world at contending for the Claret Jug tee off and take on the course and the elements and themselves. There’s some magic about the oldest championship in any sport, even more so when it’s still considered an elite modern test. I missed it greatly when it was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m glad for what should be a zany, wonderful week of golf — all capped by this very best 72nd-hole walk in the sport — to end this crazy stretch of seven majors in 11 months with the Olympics and Ryder Cup still to come before the year is out.
9. Last chance to double up: Speaking of the last 11 months, we discussed how somebody could make a career over the next year. Nobody has done that yet. We’ve had six different major winners, and four of them — Collin Morikawa, DeChambeau, Matsuyama and Rahm — were first-timers. There’s still an opportunity for somebody (maybe Rahm?) to close out the back part of the most consolidated stretch in professional golf history, but I’m mildly surprised that everything has been so evenly distributed.
10. Spieth at Opens: A tournament where battling mentally matters more than maybe any other week of the year? Venues where elite iron play is at a premium but it’s normally fine if you’re a bit wild with driver as long as you’re one of the best in the world at hitting recovery shots? Courses where you have to be more creative than you are precise and more persistent than you are prodigious? Special, historic tracks that don’t always make a ton of sense if you slice up their individual parts but where, invariably, the whole always seems to equal more than the sum of its parts? This tournament was made for Jordan Spieth to star as a contender and potential winner. If he does so, that’s four majors before turning 28, even with his long drought.
Rick Gehman is joined by Greg DuCharme and Sia Nejad to offer up a first look at the 2021 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.