Talking points and contenders as top players prepare for final major of year

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Shane Lowry will defend the title he won in 2019 when the 149th Open Championship belatedly takes place at Royal St George’s from July 15-18.

Here, are five of the main talking points ahead of the year’s final major.

Can Rory McIlroy end his major drought?

Rory McIlroy won the Open in 2014 and the last of his four major titles in the US PGA later that year (David Davies/PA)

The answer to that question now is considerably different than it was just a few months ago, when a dispirited McIlroy missed the cut in the Players Championship and the Masters and looked to coach Pete Cowen in a bid to turn his game around. Cowen duly worked his magic and McIlroy returned to action by winning the Wells Fargo Championship, and although he was never a factor in the US PGA, the four-time major winner held a share of the lead early in the final round of the US Open before finishing seventh. Much will depend on replicating the good start he enjoyed at Torrey Pines.

Will Royal St George’s produce another surprise winner?

Ben Curtis won the 2003 Open at Royal St George’s (Andrew Parsons/PA)

Ben Curtis was playing his first major and ranked 396th in the world when he lifted the Claret Jug at Sandwich in 2003, while Darren Clarke was 111th when he claimed victory in 2011. After Keegan Bradley won the US PGA a month later ranked 108th, the next 36 majors were won by players inside the world’s top 50, a run only broken by Phil Mickelson – ranked 115th at the time – winning the US PGA at Kiawah Island earlier this year.

It remains to be seen whether Jon Rahm’s US Open victory marks the start of another streak of majors being dominated by the game’s biggest names.

Can Rahm win back-to-back major titles?

It is easy to forget that Rahm has played in just four Open Championships, starting with a tie for 59th in 2016 in what was just his third event as a professional. Rahm was 44th in 2017 and missed the cut the following year, but finished 11th at Royal Portrush in 2019 and is a two-time winner of the Irish Open on links courses. 

His US Open win came just 15 days after he had been forced to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament after testing positive for Covid-19, the Spaniard receiving the news on the 18th green after establishing a six-shot lead after 54 holes.

Will Covid-19 cause problems?

The strict coronavirus protocols in place for players have caused mutterings of discontent – mostly from those used to far looser restrictions across the Atlantic on the PGA Tour – and could even trigger a number of withdrawals.

As Britain’s Johanna Konta discovered ahead of Wimbledon, coming into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19 could also force players out of the championship and the 156-man field will have to be exceedingly careful to avoid suffering the same fate.

Can Louis Oosthuizen finally double his major tally?

South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the 2010 Open at St Andrews (Lynne Cameron/PA)

Oosthuizen had already completed the unwanted “runners-up slam” before recording his sixth second place in majors in last month’s US Open, Rahm making birdies on the 17th and 18th to deny the South African. A runaway winner at St Andrews in 2010, Oosthuizen came close to another victory over the Old Course five years later, losing out in a play-off with eventual champion Zach Johnson and Marc Leishman.

Since then his Open record is nothing special, although he was 20th at Royal Portrush in 2019.

So who will comes out on top when all is said and done? Here are five of the top contenders to lift the Claret Jug by winning the final major of the season.

Brooks Koepka 

Koepka has made no secret of the fact that he finds it much easier to focus in major championships than in regular PGA Tour events, a fact borne out by his four victories and 11 other top-10 finishes since the start of 2014. Three of those top 10s have come in the Open – in 2015, 2017 and 2019 – and he shared the lead after the first round at Birkdale four years ago.

After missing the cut in this year’s Masters, Koepka finished second to Phil Mickelson in the US PGA and fourth in the US Open.

Dustin Johnson

Johnson lost his status as world number one when Jon Rahm won the US Open at Torrey Pines and has been below his best in the majors since storming to a record-breaking victory in the 2020 Masters, which was held in November due to Covid-19.

Johnson surprisingly missed the cut in his title defence at Augusta National in April and also in the US PGA, but was 19th in the US Open and tied for second the last time Royal St George’s hosted the Open in 2011.

Shane Lowry

Following a top-10 finish in 2014, Lowry surprisingly missed the cut in the Open for the next four years in succession before powering to victory at Royal Portrush in 2019, winning by six shots from Tommy Fleetwood. 

The 34-year-old will finally return the Claret Jug to the R&A at Sandwich but will be hoping it is only a temporary measure and played well enough when finishing fourth in the US PGA to suggest he could follow close friend Padraig Harrington in winning back to back titles.

Louis Oosthuizen

A runaway winner at St Andrews in 2010, Oosthuizen came close to another victory over the Old Course five years later, losing out in a play-off with eventual champion Zach Johnson and Marc Leishman.

Since then his Open record is nothing special, but the South African has finished runner-up in both the US PGA and US Open this year and his play-off loss to Bubba Watson in the 2012 Masters means he has completed the unwanted “runners-up slam” in the majors.

Jon Rahm

Rahm had always looked a major winner in waiting and got over the line in style with a birdie-birdie finish to break Oosthuizen’s heart at Torrey Pines.

That came just 15 days after he had been forced to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament after testing positive for Covid-19, the Spaniard receiving the news on the 18th green after establishing a six-shot lead after 54 holes. A tie for 11th in 2019 is Rahm’s best Open finish to date, but he is a two-time winner of the Irish Open on links courses.

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