Nick Rodger: So much has changed but return of Open should provide fascinating, fluctuating and fickle fare

A lot has happened since Shane Lowry lifted the Claret Jug two years ago. If you’d mentioned the word ‘Covid-19’ to somebody back then, for instance, they probably would’ve thought it was one of the robotic contraptions in NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.

We didn’t know on that July Sunday in 2019 that the world would subsequently be turned on its head, thousands would lose livelihoods, lives and loved ones and routine pleasures and habits we took for granted would be obliterated.

Everything has changed but, as The Open Championship returns after last year’s cancellation amid the pandemic, there are little things that remain the same, namely the traditional stab in the dark of predicting the unpredictable. Just who will win the Claret Jug?

You name it, they’ll try it. Experts, analysts, pundits, punters, commentators, bookmakers, doyens, past players, current players, swing gurus, soothsayers, religious zealots. Even the golf writers have a go.

With a field made up of superstars, tried and tested thoroughbreds and more dark horses than Zorro’s stable, the 149th Open should provide fascinating, fluctuating and fickle fare.

READ MORE: The Open Championship: Our betting guide to picking a winner

“I have to admit we are relieved, thrilled, and a little bit emotional about being able to get to stage The Open once again,” admitted the R&A’s chief executive Martin Slumbers of the championship’s return.

Its re-emergence on the summer sporting schedule has not been plain-sailing. Some 13 players withdrew in the weeks and days leading up to the event for various covid-related issues, with Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, Bubba Watson and the 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson among those to test positive.

Major championships can be mind-mangling experiences of skill and nerve and the examination provided by Royal St George’s will be a compelling test of mental fortitude and golfing guile. “There’s a lot of shots where you don’t see the ball land,” added Slumbers. “You’ve just got to know what line you’re going to hit it on and be confident that it’s going to be there when you get there. I think that plays with your mind … and I think it’s wonderful.”

St George’s has certainly teased and tormented the best. In 2003, it was the scene of the first lost golf ball of Tiger Woods’ professional career as he opened the championship with a seven. In 1981, meanwhile, Jack Nicklaus toiled to an 83, the worst score he had ever posted as a pro.

By plenty of accounts, Royal St George’s is not universally popular. It never has been. “The Open courses get worse the further you go south,” remarked Nicklaus back in the day. At least Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond, loved St George’s and based the golfing tussle in Goldfinger here, although he renamed it Royal St Marks.

Rather like 007, being able to keep the heid while others around you are losing theirs remains a precious commodity on this daunting stretch of linksland.

“It can drive a golfer mad as you can hit a ball straight down the middle and you don’t know which rough to walk to, right or left,” observed Darren Clarke, who negotiated his way to Open glory over the humps and bumps of Sandwich a decade ago. In that same Open, Justin Rose described it like “playing on the surface of the moon.”

There will be plenty hoping to make that one giant leap for major glory this week over a course that will firm up in the breezy and increasingly warm temperatures that are being forecast.

Jon Rahm, the world No 2 and reigning US Open champion, is a strong favourite to become the first man to win back-to-back majors since Jordan Spieth in 2015.

Spieth himself has clambered his way back to a meaningful presence on leaderboards again while Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, veered off the rails on the back nine here 10 years ago when flirting with glory. “I’m a different player now,” he warned.

Rory McIlroy, without a major win in seven years, has spoken buoyantly of “finding something” in his swing while Brooks Koepka, not particularly enamoured by St George’s, always seems to find that something in the majors. Lowry should put up a stout defence, Louis Oosthuizen has been second in his last two majors and England still expects a first Open winner since 1992.

St George’s would be a fitting place for that barren run to end. But, as Clarke and Ben Curtis proved here in 2011 and 2003, expect the unexpected.

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