Can home players end Birkdale drought?

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Henrik Stenson is trying to become the first player to retain the Claret Jug since Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale in 2008
2017 Open Championship on the BBC
Venue: Royal Birkdale Dates:20-23 July
Live: Listen to BBC Radio 5 live commentary and follow text updates – including in-play video clips – on BBC Sport website and mobile app. TV highlights on BBC Two. Click for full times.

Let’s set expectation levels early. No golfer from Great Britain or Northern Ireland has ever won The Open at Royal Birkdale.

In nine previous Open Championships on the Southport links, stretching back to 1954, there have been two Australian winners, five Americans and an Irishman.

And there are some fine champions among them. Australian Peter Thomson won the first and last of his five majors there, while Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Jonny Miller have all raised the Claret Jug at “arguably the best Open venue”.

Those are the words of Tommy Fleetwood, the local lad who lived five minutes up the road and “used to sneak on” when he was a boy. He may be a little biased of course but he’s a real contender to become the first Englishman to win The Open since Nick Faldo in 1992.

In fact, since Faldo won the last of his three Open Championships, only Scotland’s Paul Lawrie – at Carnoustie in 1999 – and Northern Irish duo Darren Clarke (2011) and Rory McIlroy (2014) from these shores have been crowned champion golfer of the year.

So, what hope a home winner this time?

The Fleetwood factor

Fleetwood’s parents still live in the Southport area, close to the course

Fleetwood is the name on everyone’s lips. The 26-year-old has risen to a career-high 14th in the world rankings, from 188th last September. Four top-10 finishes towards the end of last season began the journey and two victories this year, including the French Open a couple of weeks ago have catapulted him into the limelight.

He also finished fourth at the US Open in June, having being joint leader at halfway. So he is clearly in form.

Fleetwood “grew up on the local municipal” but admitted “I might have bunked on the odd time and hit the odd shot” at Birkdale.

“The fifth was the place that used to be a lot more open but it’s got fences and bushes there now. You can try [sneaking on]. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a lot tougher these days.”

His first Open experience was as a young spectator at Birkdale when Mark O’Meara won in 1998.

“That was the dream,” he continued. “I’d love to speak to my seven-year-old self and tell him what was going to happen in 20 years.

“To be talked about as having a chance to win The Open is something new to deal with but I’d rather have that than have nobody talk about it. To come back to your home and have a chance to win The Open is special.”

The home challenge

World number four Rory McIlroy has had a year hampered by rib and back problems and although he is now playing pain-free, he conceded: “It is something I am going to have to manage until the end of the year.”

He added: “I am just going to have a nice rest period when I don’t have to touch a club and let it heal. Then hopefully I’ll be 100% for next year.”

The 2014 champion heads to the north-west coast on the back of three missed cuts in his past four events.

The last of those was at the Scottish Open on Friday but the 28-year-old said: “If it gives me a couple of extra days to learn this golf course then I don’t really mind.

“I feel like my game is not far away and I can be ready to go on Thursday.”

McIlroy and Rose played together at the US Open at Erin Hills in June

Justin Rose has never bettered his tied-fourth finish as an amateur in his Open debut at Birkdale in 1998, when he chipped in from around 50 yards for a birdie on the last.

He is hoping to regain the “innocence” of that performance to “kind of close the book in a way on my Open Championship story”.

Rose, now 36, added the Olympic title in 2016 to his solitary major – the 2013 US Open – and is ranked 12th in the world, the best of the 12 Englishman in the top 100. Only Paul Casey (16) and Tyrrell Hatton (24) are in the top 25 though.

Ian Poulter,another Englishman to have gone close at Birkdale, finishing second to Padraig Harrington in 2008, was tied for the lead after three rounds of the Scottish Open before falling away in the final round.

If last week’s result is an indicator of form, keep an eye on Callum Shinkwin. The world number 405 would have won the title had he parred the 18th.

And can you ever count out Lee Westwood, teeing it up at his 78th major? Is 2017 finally his year after a record nine top-three finishes in majors without winning one?

Scottish hopes rest with Richie Ramsey, Martin Laird and Russell Knox. Ramsey fared the best in his home tournament at Dundonald Links, being the only one of the three to make the cut, having finished runner-up the week before at the Irish Open.

Laird is playing his first Open since 2013, while Knox is competing in his third.

Sandy Lyle, Open champion in 1985, returns to the scene of two of his less glorious days. He walked off the course midway through his opening round in 2008, having also failed to finish his second round in 1991.

The Spanish charge

Masters champion Sergio Garcia is getting married the weekend after The Open but insists his focus “is where it has to be” as he looks to continue a sparkling run of success for Spain.

Compatriots Jon Rahm and Rafael Cabrera Bello were victorious at the Irish and Scottish Opens respectively in the weeks preceding The Open.

And Garcia, 37, said: “Winning the Masters does give you a little bit of extra confidence and I’ve been having a very solid year.

“I am confident about my possibilities and after winning at Augusta I still want to push hard and get more majors.”

Jon Rahm scrambled well to win the Irish Open – whether the Birkdale rough will be quite as forgiving remains to be seen

Rahm, 22, only turned professional in June 2016 but he has won on both the PGA and European Tours, with his six-shot victory at Portstewart helping him to seventh in the world rankings.

The Basque-born golfer is the same age as his idol Seve Ballesteros was when he won his first Open, having shot to prominence three years earlier with a runner-up finish at Birkdale in 1976.

“If I could do a quarter of whatever he did, I’d probably be satisfied with my career,” said Rahm. “To whoever compares me to him, I’m never going to be Seve. Seve was so unique, so special.”

He is taking part in his fourth major, having missed the cut at last month’s US Open and finishing tied for 59th on his Open debut last year.

The champion

Stenson returned the Claret Jug to R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers earlier this week

Padraig Harrington was the last man to defend the title successfully, winning his second Open at Birkdale in 2008.

And the Irishman is not lacking in confidence this week. “I think I’m a credible contender on any golf course, but bring me to a links golf course and it gives me an advantage for sure,” he said.

However, the past seven majors have all been won by a different name, starting with Jason Day’s victory at the 2015 US PGA Championship.

And Sweden’s Henrik Stenson has admitted that his current unconvincing form means he is only “living in hope” that he can emulate Harrington.

“Looking at my record, it’s always been the Open Championship and the US PGA I’ve performed best in,” said the champion golfer of 2016. “Those are the two we have left this year, so we better get at it.”

The US challenge

World number one Dustin Johnson has three top-10 finishes in his past six Opens, perhaps laying to rest the notion that he does not have the patience to plot his way round a links golf course.

He remains favourite with the bookmakers but, like McIlroy, his season has been dogged by injury. He pulled out of the Masters in April on the first tee and missed the cut at the US Open, the scene of his solitary major win in 2016.

Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth were among six US players sharing a ‘frat house’ at the 2016 Open

Jordan Spieth had a sensational 2015, winning the first two majors of the year and finishing tied fourth at The Open and second at the US PGA Championship. However, the Texan has failed to reach those heights again since letting slip a five-shot lead at the 2016 Masters.

A victory at last month’s Travelers Championship saw him match Tiger Woods in reaching 10 PGA Tour wins at the age of 23 and the world number three says he feels “fresh and ready to go” after taking “a few weeks’ break”.

Unusually for an American, US Open champion Brooks Koepka began his career on the European Tour, winning his card during the 2013 season before giving it up in 2015. The 27-year-old has a best finish of tied 10th in his three previous Opens.

After finishing in the top five in all four majors in 2014, including tied second at The Open, Rickie Fowler failed to post another top-five until this year’s US Open. He was well placed at both Erin Hills, and Augusta at the Masters, but poor final rounds proved costly.

The 28-year-old has proved he can play links golf, with victory at the 2015 Scottish Open.

And don’t count out last year’s runner-up Phil Mickelson. Winner in 2013, the left-hander had an enthralling battle with Stenson at Troon but ended up second for the 11th time at a major.

He made his Open debut at Birkdale in 1991 and was denied the Silver Medal for being low amateur by Lincolnshire’s Jim Payne, who shot a level-par 70 in the company of Jack Nicklaus.

The global challenge

Hideki Matsuyama is trying to become the first Japanese golfer to win a major

Hideki Matsuyama is the form man of the year, having won five titles in the past 12 months to become the first Japanese player to reach number two in the world rankings.

His record in majors over the past year is also excellent. He was joint second at the US Open, having finished 11th at the Masters and fourth at last year’s US PGA Championship, and has one top-10 in four Opens.

Adam Scott and Jason Day are both major winners and the Australians have also contested at Opens, with the former having an excellent run of three top-five finishes from 2011, while the latter was tied fourth a couple of years ago.

South Korea’s Kim Si-woo is ranked 32nd in the world and making his Open debut. In May he became the youngest winner of the Players Championship at the age of 21. He followed that with a decent US Open, only falling away in the final round to finish joint 13th.

The course

Five-time Open champion JH Taylor was instrumental in the layout, which sees the fairways following the valleys between the sand dunes and affords great views for spectators.

The 7,150-yard track plays as a par 70 and first staged The Open in 1954, having originally been scheduled to host in 1940 when the championship was cancelled because of World War Two.

Birkdale was afforded ‘Royal’ status in 1951 and twice hosted the Ryder Cup in the 1960s, the second time being the one at which Jack Nicklaus famously conceded a putt to Tony Jacklin that saw the contest end tied.

Key holes

The par-three seventh is the shortest hole but the ‘upturned saucer’ green is well protected

6 – 499 yards, par four

The left-to-right dog-leg was the hardest hole during each of the past two Opens at Birkdale.

Even a decent drive, avoiding the bunkers protecting the fairway, will leave an approach of around 200 yards into a green that sits above the fairway, angles from left to right and is guarded by three bunkers.

12 – 183 yards, par three

The first short hole on the back nine features a green built into a sand dune which is well protected by deep bunkers and banks of rough grass. If the wind blows, finding the green will be tough.

16 – 438 yards, par four

A long, straight drive is required to find a narrow fairway. Another elevated green awaits, protected by five bunkers. The hole is famous for a shot played by the late Arnold Palmer from a bush on the right side of the fairway on the way to winning his first Open in 1961.

17 – 567 yards, par five

One of only two par fives on the course, the 17th played as the easiest hole in 2008 and is a good birdie opportunity. Harrington eagled the hole twice, including in the final round, as he won his second Claret Jug nine years ago.

The weather

The BBC weather forecast suggests there will be fine, if breezy, conditions on day one in Southport

Of course, the weather is a huge factor at any Open Championship. High winds and storms have wrecked many a card over the years.

The BBC forecast suggests a breezy but sunny Thursday, followed by a dry Friday morning, with showers in the afternoon. Saturday and Sunday looks set for a mixture of showers and sunshine.

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