Place your bets!
Carnoustie promises to be one of the most open Opens for years and yet such is the pedigree of the Championship links the smart money will tend to migrate towards the proven major winners in a sparkling field. Tiger Woods will be among the contenders, but there are more realistic bets and generous each-way placings to look for, writes Jeremy Chapman
By Jeremy Chapman
Long gone are the days when Tiger Woods strolled on to the 1st tee of an Open Championship as the 2-1 or 3-1 favourite, as he was for Carnoustie the last time that feared Scottish links had the honour of hosting golf’s greatest championship 11 years ago.
But it was easy enough to understand the bookmakers’ trepidation in 2007 because Woods arrived in that sleepy Angus holiday town chasing a third consecutive Claret Jug, having conquered St Andrews and Royal Liverpool (Hoylake to most of us) in the two previous years.
As it turned out, after opening with a respectable three-under par 69, Tiger couldn’t find another gear and – to the bookies’ delight – drifted to finish in 12th place, five adrift of Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia. The world No.1 ended the week battered and bruised by “Car-nasty” for a second time – he was seventh with a ten-over 294 in the carnage of 1999, famed for Jean van de Velde’s watery, shoes-off, almost-comical demise in and around the Barry Burn (the hapless Van de Velde running up a seven at the closing hole when a six or better would have made him France’s first winner since Arnaud Massy in 1907).
Woods still admires the course that allowed him only one birdie on that chaotic first Open visit, part of the supporting cast as local hero Paul Lawrie – fully 10 shots behind going into the last round and quoted at 150-1 – played the round of his life, a five-under-par 67, and continued his brilliance in the four-hole play-off with Van de Velde and Justin Leonard, polishing them off with a rare birdie at the 18th, arguably the hardest closing hole in golf.
Woods remembers: “1999 was brutal – it was just so tough but it’s all there in front of you. There are no tricks, there’s nothing hidden. It’s just ‘Come and get me’.”
There’s no pressure on Woods this time. At the time of writing he’s a 25-1 chance, a sentimental gamble. eighth favourite in the most open Open for years. The bookmakers still afford him maximum respect as you would expect for someone who has been a thorn in their side for 20 years. On what he’s achieved in his first 12 tournaments after such a long period out of the game, he’s more realistically a 50-1 chance but why offer 50 when the Tiger groupies are willing to accept half those odds?
These days it’s hard to find a favourite – Dustin Johnson holds sway at 12-1 at the moment but that could change if there’s the usual flood of Irish money for their darling Rory McIlroy. He’s a 14-1 chance, along with defending champion Jordan Spieth. Both have had serious putting problems and Spieth must be tearing his hair out trying to work out how the get the ball in the hole from five feet and less. What a state his nerves must be in!
DJ’s Open record since bungling his one big chance in Darren Clarke’s year at Royal St George’s is nothing to write home about, while the new enfants terribles, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm, have had two cracks apiece at the Claret Jug without remotely suggesting they were Open champions in waiting, JT 53rd on debut and missing the cut last year, JR 59th and 44th.
The next tranche of marquee names, at 20-1, brings in Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Tommy Fleetwood and for all the chances he’s had, Rose has yet to better the fourth place as a teenage amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998. For a player of his eminence, the Rose record is nothing to shout about, sixth place at St Andrews three years ago his lone top-ten as a pro. But he did share 12th position with Woods at the last Carnoustie outing in 2007.
Fowler has had two good Opens but keeps underperforming on Sundays, is yet to hook a major and doesn’t win nearly as often as he should.
The much-underrated Fleetwood, meanwhile, keeps proving himself time after time on the world stage. He is a very cool customer indeed and, unlike some, doesn’t flap or panic when approaching the opportunity to win.
The same can be said of the powerful American Brooks Koepka, now the winner of back-to-back US Opens, quite a feat. He’s been sixth and tenth in his two last Opens and has only played in four. Definitely one for the short list at 25-1. So, too, is García despite missing a shedload of cuts in a disappointing first half of the season. He was an agonising 10-foot putt away from winning outright at Carnoustie in 2007 and has performed admirably in many subsequent Opens, runner-up again when Rory won at Hoylake four years ago, fifth to McIlroy and sixth to Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon. We need to see a glimmer of Garcia’s Masters-winning form before plunging at 33-1 but if he can find some inspiration in the run-up his Open record stands close scrutiny.
Stenson will never play better golf that he did in that amazing shoot-out with Phil Mickelson but is a proven links wizard, having posted three top-three finishes between 2008-13 before bringing a Troon to its knees in 2016. At 28-1 and with bookies so desperate to get your cash that many dangle the carrot of fabulous each-way terms down to ninth and even tenth place, Stenson looks cast-iron value.
You wouldn’t put a counterfeit fiver on Paul Casey after he had tossed away a four-shot lead at River Highlands. It is by no means the first time he has done that and the same comment applies to Martin Kaymer who knifed his short second shot on the 71st hole in Germany, turning a probable birdie into a tournament-losing bogey. Punters have had quite enough of these two fainthearts, there are many with better nerves and worthier of your hard-earned cash.
Why Bubba Watson – who chased down Casey and won for the third time this year – is at 100-1 for the Open and Casey 60 points shorter is hard to fathom. It can only be Bubba’s Open record (never a top-20 in nine attempts). I can’t find it in me to back either – or Adam Scott, who had his chance, four ahead with four to play at Royal Lytham in 2012 – but I am prepared to wager on Branden Grace and Marc Leishman, who both have links pedigrees.
Grace’s game was honed at Fancourt Links back home in South Africa. He was third in the 2014 Open and knows how to win. Leishman, fifth that year, was pipped in a play-off at St Andrews 12 months later. At 50-1 and 45-1 respectively they have live chances at tempting odds.
Others to consider seriously are Masters champion Patrick Reed, Asian stars Hideki Matsuyama and Haotong Li (third last year) and European aces Alex Noren, Tyrrell Hatton (sixth in the US Open) and the revived Ian Poulter, a winner at last in the USA.
On the score of value, Stenson, Grace, Koepka, Leishman and Garcia look best. Make sure of putting your bets on with firms offering at least seven places in each-way stakes.
My first experience of Carnoustie in 1975 was a happy one as I backed Tom Watson at 33-1 before most golf fans in the UK had ever heard of him. It was his first visit and he beat Jack Newton in the last Open to play-off over 18 holes on the Monday. It was pretty quiet as most locals couldn’t take the day off at such short notice. That was the week we visited the Dundee Steak House only to be told by an apologetic proprietor that they had run out of steak – “but we could do ye some fush and chips, sir”.