The 2019 British Open enters uncharted territory in more ways than one, as Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland will serve as tournament host for the first time since 1951.
The course was the first outside England or Scotland to host golf’s oldest championship, but the event has not returned to Northern Ireland for almost 70 years due to the internal strife within the country that raged for several decades.
Once the Troubles dissipated, the course again was able to host international events, with the Senior British Open played at Portrush six times between 1995 and 2004. Gary Player was among the six winners, with the last champion an obscure American named Pete Oakley.
The lack of sufficient infrastructure to host an event as heavily attended as the British Open kept the event away from what is considered one of the great courses of the British Isles. Years of work have evidently solved that issue in time for Northern Ireland to host one of golf’s four majors before any problems stemming from the uncertain future resulting from Brexit can arise.
Politics and infrastructure aside, the game’s top players will gather at a course known only to a handful of Northern Irish natives who grew up playing Royal Portrush, most notably local native Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, who set the course record of 61 when he was 16 years old.
The course has changed since then, with two dramatic holes absorbed from a neighboring sister course replacing a relatively bland pair that served as the two finishing holes. The new holes are now the seventh and eighth on the course, with the order of the remaining 10 the same and the change resulting in what is now an exceptional closing trio.
This is the first time a major has been held on a mostly unfamiliar venue since the USGA selected Chambers Bay and Erin Hills for the 2015 and ’17 U.S. Opens. Both courses were new, but had hosted the U.S. Amateur several years before the U.S. Open. There were problems at Chambers Bay and questions about Erin Hills’ worthiness to be hosts, but there is little question within the golf community about the fitness of Royal Portrush, at least from a golf standpoint.
With no track record of how the game’s best have handled the challenge of Royal Portrush, making pre-tournament assessments are virtually impossible, especially after the unexpected victory by Gary Woodland in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Off his play in majors the last three years, Brooks Koepka is one of the obvious favorites, and has a pair of top 10s in the British Open, along with experience playing both the European Tour and Challenge Tour. The other is McIlroy, who will enter the event with a staggering amount of pressure on him due to his Northern Ireland roots.
As usual, much of the attention will be focused on Tiger Woods, who won the British Open three times between 2000 and ’06 and has three finishes of sixth or better in his last five starts in the championship, most recently last year when he gave up the lead on the final nine. Barring some un-British Open like moderate weather, a challenge by Woods is unlikely, but that’s what some of us thought leading into the Masters.
There will be 11 golfers with ties to Georgia among the 156-player field, with four of them rating as possible darkhorse contenders considering their recent record in the British Open.
Matt Kuchar (Georgia Tech/St. Simons resident) has been No. 1 on the FedExCup points list for most of the 2018-19 schedule, collecting two wins early on and runner-up finishes in the Match Play Championship and at Hilton Head. He finished 12-8-16 in the first three majors of 2019, and had the 2017 British Open stolen from him by Jordan Spieth, one of his three career top 10s in the event. Kuchar is 10th in fairways hit and fourth in greens in regulation, and if Royal Portrush turns out to a layout that doesn’t favor the bombers, Kuchar should be in the mix.
Zach Johnson (St. Simons) scored a surprise win at St. Andrews in 2015 and has an excellent record in the championship over the last eight years. However, he is suffering through his worst season since joining the PGA Tour in 2004, standing 138th on the points list. He is 191 in GIR and outside the top 100 in putting and will hope to find his game the week before the British in the John Deere Classic, one of his two home games on the PGA Tour where he has won once and finished second three times.
Patrick Reed (Augusta State) has also suffered through a down season, but scored his first top 10 of 2019 in Detroit, tying for fifth on an established course hosting its first PGA Tour event in decades. Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, has a respectable British Open record, but did little in the three majors this year and his only strong stat is his play around the greens, which may not be applicable on a British Open course.
Kevin Kisner (UGA) held a share of the lead last year at Carnoustie before shooting 74 and tying for second, two behind Francesco Molinari, who won after playing the John Deere the week before. Kisner has shown up on the leader board of several majors on Sunday, but not in 2019, where his only decent showing was a T21 in Augusta. Kisner is 17th in the FedExCup standings thanks to his win over Kuchar in the Match Play finals, and his accuracy (11th in fairways hit) should be an asset, while his short game weakness may not be a serious concern if Portrush is set up to allow putting from off the green.
Charles Howell (Augusta native) has enjoyed an excellent season beginning with his win late in 2018 at Sea Island GC, whose original designer (Harry Colt) was also the architect for Royal Portrush. Howell stands 14th on the points list following his usual summer lull, and has zero record of success in the British, missing six of 10 cuts with a best ever finish of 28th. He has continued on his career path of not contending in majors, placing 32-41-52 this year, but will hope his always solid ball striking will enable him to improve on that in Northern Ireland.
Bubba Watson (UGA) has never finished better than 23rd in the British Open and has missed as many cuts as he’s made. He is 76th in the FedExCup standings thanks to ties for fourth in Phoenix and Tampa, but has been pretty much invisible since a T12 in the Masters, missing the cut in the next two majors. His only hope is that his driving prowess (2nd in distance) is a good fit for the course, and the slower British Open greens are more amenable to his shaky putting.
Keith Mitchell (UGA/St. Simons) had never appeared in a major until this year, and after finishing T43 in the Masters, missed the cut in both the PGA and U.S. Open. Mitchell, a second year PGA Tour member, scored his first win in 2019 in the Honda Classic, and has strong showings in Orlando and Charlotte, none of which bear any resemblance to Northern Ireland. Like Watson, Mitchell hopes Royal Portrush will agree with his power game, which has lifted him to 32nd on the points list with hopes of making it to the Tour Championship.
Luke List (Augusta resident) is also from the bomber school, ranking third in distance and 192nd in fairways hit. He tied for 39th in his British Open debut last year at Carnoustie, and enjoyed his best week of 2019 in the PGA at Bethpage Black, finishing sixth after playing the next to last pairing on Sunday. It’s been an up-and-down season for List, who has missed his last three cuts after his strong showing in the PGA and is 75th on the points list.
Patton Kizzire (St. Simons) has dropped to 109th on the points list after narrowly qualifying for the Tour Championship last year, with a tie for 18th in Augusta his lone highlight in 2019. He’s missed his last seven cuts since making it to the weekend at Hilton Head, but managed to make the cut in the first of his two British Open starts. Other than putting, his stats are pretty dismal.
Stewart Cink (Georgia Tech/Duluth) won the 2009 British Open at Turnberry, which is now off the rota since it was acquired by Donald Trump in 2014. Cink has played respectably in the British the past decade with four top-30 finishes in his last eight starts, but his career took a distinctly downward turn since his lone major title, which was also the last of his six career PGA Tour victories. This has been a rough season for Cink, who missed five straight cuts in March and April before sitting out the next two months with a bad back. He shot 65 last week in Detroit in his return, but did not break par again the rest of the tournament and finished 70th out of 71 players who made the cut. He is 179th in the FedExCup standings.
David Duval (Georgia Tech) won the British Open in 2001 before his 30th birthday, but his career was all but over after that. He has not been a full time player since 2011, and his last made cut came in the 2015 British. He has become a thoughtful analyst for the Golf Channel, and will likely be doing double duty that week if he elects to play.