Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Fantasy Golf: The British Open Preview

OK, so maybe his fetish is
not entirely "inexplicable."
We're going with a slightly more serious tone this week (as you can tell from the photo to your right) because this is The Open Championship dammit. I mean did you see the start of The Greatest Game Ever Played when the creepy dudes marched onto Harry Vardon's property and told him they were building a golf course on it? This is some serious black cape and top hat shit.

Over the last fifty years, there have been two British Open venues that have consistently produced hall of fame caliber champions. Not surprisingly, one of them is St. Andrews where Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have each won twice to go along with individual wins by Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Tony Lema.* The only outliers are John Daly who still has two majors during his hot mess of a career and Louis Oostuizen who should have two and may have at least that many before all is said and done if he ever gets his inexplicable John Deere tractor fetish under control and starts hitting some fairways.

The other venue that has consistently delivered is Muirfield (hey wait a minute, that's the course they're playing this year) where the last seven winners are Ernie Els, Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player (don't worry, there will be no Gary Player pictures as we've all seen more of him lately than most of us are probably comfortable with**). Throw-in the fact that Walter Hagen and Harry Vardon also won the Open at Muirfield and you may have the greatest major championship course in history when it comes to delivering "A" list winners.

And not only does Muirfield put big names on the Claret Jug, it also delivers the drama as the last three Opens played there were decided by one stroke or less with the 2002 tournament providing a dramatic four hole playoff that featured Els, Steve Elkington, Stuart Appleby and Thomas Levet who came to the 18th tee on the fourth hole of the playoff with the lead and likely needing a par to secure the win. Everyone else hit irons or fairway woods off that tee in the playoff but Levet is French so he of course hit driver into the shizzle and made bogey. When he played the hole for the second time in the playoff in sudden death between him and Els, he of course hit driver into the fairway bunker, made bogey and lost by a stroke. In the words of Gigi, "I don't understand the Parisians."*** If you add that to the Jean van de Velde meltdown at the '99 Open, it makes three times over a four year span where a Frenchman hit an ill-advised driver off the 18th tee at a British Open and it cost him the title. Nine years later, Levet would win the 2011 French Open, jump in a pond and break his leg. I don't have a joke here. Don't need one.

"That would be 'Deux.' As in two drivers and
'duh' I just jumped into two feet of water."
So aside from the fact that we will not be picking any Frenchmen, where does that leave us? Let's make a few assumptions based on the history at Muirfield. Assumption No.1: The winner will be remembered as one of the top players of his era; No. 2: The winner will be a player who has had or we can expect to have much success at British Opens over the course of his career; No. 3: The winner will be a player who can close the deal on Sunday with at least one other top player breathing down his neck.

Let's start with Assumption No. 1 (seems logical). We have three players who already make the "top player of his era" grade in Tiger, Phil and Ernie. Let's throw Rory McIlroy in that mix because he's only 24 years old and already has two major wins under his belt. That list of Muirfield winners since Player in 1959 has won an average of ten majors each with no one winning less than four. Let's therefore add a sub-assumption to Assumption No. 1 and say that this year's British Open will be at least someone's second major. Based on that, we'll introduce Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, Keegan Bradley, Padraig Harrington and Oosthuizen into the equation.

"Thank you reader. You may
help yourself to pie and
cake and ice cream now."
Moving on to Assumption No. 2, take a look at the list of Muirfield winners again and what do you see? That's right, everyone of them has won at least two British Opens (you're smarter than you look). Let's add Scott and McDowell to the former Open winners on our list based on their strong finishes last year and the fact that they just have the British Open look (Scott endorses Burberry and McDowell looks like he could get a sunburn from a flashlight). None of those other major winners have really made any recent noise at the Open and, other than Rose, none of them are playing particularly well this year so let's add Rose and go searching elsewhere for the rest.

Applying Assumption No.3, we need three players who have shown the mental toughness to hit pressure shots late on Sunday at a major. That rules out Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Brandt Snedeker, Hunter Mahan and Jason Dufner which means we've either accounted for or excluded every player in the FGR Rankings Top 20 except for Matt Kuchar, Ian Poulter, Jason Day and Peter Hanson (who is doubtful with a back injury). So Peter's loss is our gain and I'm also booting Day based on his spotty British Open record. Oostuizen and Harrington are out too because they're each having a lousy year. Oh yeah, Poulter's out as well. I'm starting to see him as the prototypical European Ryder Cup star who never wins a major a la Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia. I also want to leave myself room for two wild card picks and he was overcrowding my top ten.

I want a couple of young guys who don't fit into any of the above criteria because it's my website and that's what I want. Also because there is a handful of players who I think could show-up and make this their first major win. The first one is Nicolas Colsaerts who just finished 10th at Merion and finished 7th at last year's British Open. The man just hits the piss out of the ball and looks like a guy who is going to win a major and, if a Belgian is going to win one, it's going to probably be a this one. Not to mention, the weather is supposed to be benign which should favor the guys who bomb it high and long. My second guy is Branden Grace who's best British Open finish was a tie for 43rd in 2009 and his best finish in any major was a tie for 18th at this year's Masters. However, he had four European Tour wins last year and held-off players like Els, Colsaerts and Thorbjorn Olesen*** to get them. He also finished second at last week's Scottish Open.

Now that we have our ten, we need to put them in order. We're not going to put Ernie at the top because I just can't believe he is going to repeat last year's win at the same course where he won in 2002. Too many boring story lines there. I'm not writing Tiger off but I'm worried about him coming back from an elbow injury to a course where he's going to have to take some swings in waist-high grass. Phil is an intriguing pick after his win at the Scottish Open last week but I'm just not feeling a Phil week. My theory is that Phil wins a British Open in about ten years and there is much weeping with joy as he will just be coming off and unbelievable 11th heartbreaking second place finish in the 2023 U.S. Open (probably to Jordan Spieth).

The guys in the black capes and top hats are telling me that's enough analysis and it's time to get on with it. I'm going for the redemption pick after Graeme McDowell let me down at the U.S. Open. I will admit that there is a part of me that wants to see an Ulsterman win the British Open on the heels of Andy Murray winning Wimbledon to give the English another hollow feeling of glory as they glom onto their second consecutive "British" champion who is not really one of their own (I could have sworn Andy Murray showed a little Ivan Drago after his win - "I fight for me!"). Anyway, here's the rest of the list and a picture of a pretty British lady on the beach next to Muirfield.

Well you don't know she's not
at Murifield. Oh behave.
1. Graeme McDowell
2. Nicolas Colsaerts
3. Phil Mickelson
4. Tiger Woods
5. Matt Kuchar
6. Justin Rose
7. Branden Grace
8. Adam Scott
9. Ernie Els
10. Rory McIlroy  

Endnotes

* I had to acknowledge the accomplishments of a guy who's nickname was "Champagne" Tony even if the 1964 British Open win was his only major. Unfortunately, he died in a plane crash two years later but only after he had racked-up eight top tens in majors over a five year span so, if nothing else, "Champagne" Tony at least put together a better resume than "Michelob" Maltbie.

** Player was recently featured in ESPN Magazine's "Body Issue" where athletes are photographed naked without revealing their naughty parts (think Austin Powers). Player, who is a very fit 77 years old, decided to take it one step further by appearing in an ESPN television feature on his photo shoot. I saw it this weekend on a golf trip with seven other guys and half of us were sitting around in our underwear waiting for the rain to stop (wait, that didn't come out right). Suffice it to say that watching Player pose nude was getting a little awkward until we switched the channel to 2-Headed Shark Attack on the Syfy Channel (apparently it's the prequel to Sharknado).
"Does anyone smell tuna?"

*** And there you have it. I just quoted a 1958 musical staring Maurice Chevalier. The end of the FGR is clearly in sight.

**** I know you've never heard of Olesen but he's really good and should probably be one of my wild card picks. If he wins now, I will drown myself in a vat of relish.

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