PORTRUSH, NORTHERN IRELAND | The beginning of the end of major championship season arrives Thursday at Royal Portrush, where a long-awaited Open Championship comes to life on the edge of the Irish Sea.
This is when the backstory of returning this championship to Northern Ireland fades and it becomes about the here and now.
It’s about the Open Championship itself, the potential for wind and wet, and about the men chasing the Claret Jug.
It is, as any tournament tends to be, a collection of questions awaiting answers both big and small.
Q: Is it possible Rory McIlroy could complete a story that dreamers have envisioned for years, winning the Open in his homeland?
A: It’s more than possible given how McIlroy has played this year and the sense of comfort he has despite the immense expectations surrounding his competitive return to the place he shot 61 as a 16-year-old.
Listening to McIlroy on the eve of the championship, he sounded like a man who’s found a calm in the supportive storm around him.
“This is bigger than me,” he said.
But it’s not too big for him.
Q: If Brooks Koepka wins this week, where would his major championship season rank all time?
A: Even if Koepka doesn’t win, he’s had one of the great major seasons ever, finishing T2-1-2 so far. A victory at Portrush would put him behind Tiger Woods’ 2000 season (three wins and a fifth-place finish) and Ben Hogan’s 3-for-3 season in 1953 but, otherwise, that’s it. Jordan Spieth’s 2015 (two wins, a second and a T4) is right there, too.
Koepka raised pre-tournament eyebrows when he said he doesn’t practice in advance of regular PGA Tour events, limiting his grinding to the weeks that matter most, citing a 10-day break between his final shot in the Travelers Championship and the next time he swung a club the day of the 3M Open pro-am.
He radiates indifference but don’t be fooled by that. His is the name on the leaderboard that strikes a rare fear into the field.
Q: What’s up with Phil Mickelson?
A: He is a master of reinvention because, it seems, that’s what he needs to fully focus himself.
A six-day fast that included just water and a coffee blend he believes has transformative powers dropped his weight by 15 pounds and signaled what he’s calling a lifestyle change intended to improve his lagging play.
Whatever you say, Phil.
There are 10 courses in the rota, all of them true links, and Portrush figures to rocket up the list of favorite sites among players and everyone else.
Q: Does the Guinness really taste better here?
A: Too soon to say though early research suggests the answer is yes.
Q: How much does it matter that the Open Championship is the final major of the year rather than in its more traditional third spot?
A: The Open Championship has stand-alone gravitas and, other than signaling an earlier-than-usual conclusion to majors season, there is no downside.
“I think it’s added an additional nuance this week,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, who saw nothing but positives for the championship when the schedule change was proposed.
Q: Wait a moment, how have we gotten this far without a Tiger Woods question?
A: It happens.
Q: So, what about Tiger?
A: Well, it wouldn’t be a shock if Tiger is in contention on the weekend. His comeback gained full traction when he took the lead briefly in the final round of last year’s Open at Carnoustie.
The unquantifiable element is what his flat performance in three starts since his Masters victory in April means. He’s been as close to invisible as Tiger Woods can be on a golf course.
The worrisome thing this week is what he said on Tuesday when asked about the state of his game. “It’s not quite as sharp as I’d like to have it,” Woods said.
Q: Is Jon Rahm the new king of links golf?
A: He’s maybe more like Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor – technically in line for the throne but a lot will have to happen.
Rahm has won two Irish Opens in the past three years, first at nearby Portstewart in 2017 and most recently at Lahinch two Sundays ago. However, he’s played three Open Championships with one missed cut and a best finish of T44, which is decidedly un-royal.
As pre-tournament picks go, he’s a good one.
Q: In the Open rota, where will Portrush fit after this week?
A: There are 10 courses in the rota, all of them true links, and Portrush figures to rocket up the list of favorite sites among players and everyone else. It’s not tricky and it’s not unfair, which are two strong selling points. Like any links, the wind determines how it will play but Portrush may ultimately be more popular than chocolate chip cookies.
Q: If it’s the Open Championship, the weather must be a factor. What’s the forecast?
A: Too bad they didn’t begin last Saturday, which started a four-day run that felt more like Pinehurst in springtime than Portrush. The usual weather arrived Wednesday and the forecast calls for “changeable” conditions through the tournament (code for the weather forecasters not having any certainty about what’s going to happen).
Assume there will be a little of everything.
Rory McIlroy makes his way down the sixth fairway during Wednesday’s practice round. Photo: Ramsey Cardy, Sportsfile via Getty Images
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