The Open Championship is maybe the toughest of the four majors to predict on an annual basis, especially right now. At the Masters and the U.S. Open, you have clear-cut favorites who have performed splendidly in recent years. Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson at Augusta National. Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka at the U.S. Open. Even the PGA Championship has Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas. But The Open is, as it probably should be, far more ambiguous.
With that in mind, let's try and sort through some recent trends as well as some recent history at Open Championship venues to find the 25 golfers most likely to win the third major of 2018.
1. Marc Leishman (Best finish — T2 in 2015): I legitimately had no idea who to put in this space (more on that in a minute). Leishman has rocked across the pond, though, where he has three top 10s in his last four Opens, including a playoff loss at St. Andrews in 2015. He also finished in the top 10 earlier this year at the Masters. So laugh now but thank me later when you win your fantasy pool.
2. Sergio Garcia (2nd in 2007): He also has three top-10 finishes in his last four outings at Opens, and he was the runner-up in 2007 at Carnoustie when Padraig Harrington won in a playoff. I can't believe I'm touting somebody who has a single 70th-place finish and five missed cuts in his last six PGA Tour events, but here we are. I'm also encouraged by multiple top 15s on the European Tour after the U.S. Open.
3. Rickie Fowler (T2 in 2014): Fowler has a lot of misnomers about his career thus far, but chief among them might be that he's been elite at Opens. He's been fine -- two top 10s in eight appearances -- but he has as many top 20s in the last three Opens as you do. Regardless, he's coming off a strong showing at the Scottish Open, and a wicked test at insurmountable Carnoustie feels like it has name written all over it (don't listen to me, though, I picked him for the first two majors of the year).
4. Brooks Koepka (T6 in 2017): The two-time U.S. Open champion has finished in the top 10 in each of his last two appearances at The Open. If anybody is going to stare into and flex on the North Sea, it's going to be Koepka. He's been nails at major championships in the past few years, too. Koepka has 12 top-20 finishes in his last 15 majors and hasn't missed a cut since 2013.
5. Tommy Fleetwood (T27 in 2017): Made his first cut last year at Birkdale, but he's seemingly made to contend at these events. All the ball flights plus an attitude perfect for winning either Open (he's been top five in each of the last two in the U.S) should play well at Carnoustie.
6. Rory McIlroy (Won in 2014): I did not see myself putting McIlroy, Garcia and Leishman in the top six of my rankings before doing the research, but it's not without a little punch behind it. McIlroy's average finish (average finish!) in the last five Opens (excluding missed cuts) is 3.3. He won in 2014 and has two other top-five finishes to go with a missed cut and a missed event (St. Andrews). "Toughest test in the Open rota" doesn't exactly scream "Rory McIlroy," but the data is the data. He was low amateur here in 2007.
7. Dustin Johnson (T2 in 2011): The Open might have to win him for Johnson to imbibe from the Claret Jug on Sunday. In my mind, D.J. has like 22 majors, but in reality he has just one. His closest call, technically, was in 2011 when he hit a ball out of bounds on the second nine on Sunday and Darren Clarke went on to win. The epitome of his Open experience, however, was in 2015 when he opened 65-69 at St. Andrews and led at the halfway point. Then he closed 75-75 and finished T49.
8. Jordan Spieth (Won in 2017): I don't know what to do with Spieth. He has two top-five finishes in his last three, including that dramatic victory last year. And yet I have more confidence in the press room going free of any "will Hideki win?" questions this week than I do in Spieth's putter. Still, he's an all-timer, and all-timers figure it out at some point. I just don't know if "at some point" will be at Carnoustie this week or in Hawaii in January 2019.
9. Justin Thomas (T53 in 2016): It's tough to have somebody in the top 10 who has never cracked the top 50 at an Open and only has two top 10s in majors ever, but Justin Thomas is not your typical somebody. If I'm putting this profile of player in my top 10, it's because I'm betting on talent, and he might have more of it than anyone in the game right now. He doesn't come in with a ton of momentum -- just one top 10 in his last seven PGA Tour events -- but he's still top 10 in strokes gained on approach shots, from tee to green and overall.
10. Zach Johnson (Won in 2015): Three top 10s in his last six tries at this event, and he has -- I can't believe this is a real stat! -- as many Claret Jugs as he does John Deere Classic victories. Average finish over his last five is 16.0. Only Garcia, McIlroy and Phil Mickelson have been better.
11. Jon Rahm (T44 in 2017): He's already proven he can win anywhere in the world. I think (I think) it's better for him if the weather whistles all week because he has all the shots, but I'm concerned about his mindset if he feels he's gotten the poor side of the draw.
12. Patrick Reed (T12 in 2016): I wanted to put Reed ahead of Day, I really did, but I just couldn't do it. Captain America swiping the jug and drinking the most American liquid fathomable -- Fireball, I presume -- from it before parading it around the streets of Paris in his green jacket in September in a Ryder Cup year is the kind of scenario I'm here for. Reed has top-five finishes in each of the last three majors, but no top 10s at the Open. It's difficult for me to reconcile Patrick Reed, elite major championship golfer, but it has kind of happened.
13. Justin Rose (T4 in 1998): He has (maybe surprisingly) not had the greatest career at this event. Rose has just two top 10s historically, and one of them came as an amateur in 1998 at Royal Birkdale. He did finish T12 here in 2007, though. Eyeball emoji.
14. Tiger Woods (Won in 2000, 2005, 2006): The three-time winner will benefit from driver being taken out of his hands. However, I'm not sure his game is sharp enough to win any of the biggest tournaments right now. Shinnecock took away my confidence.
15. Phil Mickelson (Won in 2013): May shoot 12 under to win by seven. May try to part the North Sea with one of his 3-irons. May just drop the filthiest cut shots humanity has ever seen and not worry about his score. Who knows.
16. Jason Day (T4 in 2015): Only one top 10 here in his career. He'll hit that 2-iron for days, though, on the baked out fairways upon which Brandt Sndeker (!) hit a 400-yard drive.
17. Henrik Stenson (Won in 2016): Backed his victory in 2016 with a T11 last year, and I would definitely have Stenson in my top 10 if not for an injury that caused him to pull out of the Scottish Open last week. I'm concerned enough to drop him this far. If he's fully healthy, though, he's in my top 10.
18. Adam Scott (2nd in 2012): Ended his run of four straight top 10s from 2012-15 with a pair of finishes outside the top 20 in the last two seasons. He hasn't missed a cut here since 2009, but he only has one top-10 finish in 15 starts on the PGA Tour so far this year. He's one of just four golfers (McIlroy, Garcia, Leishman) with at least three top 10s in the last five Opens.
19. Louis Oosthuizen (Won in 2010): He's had a curious history here. Two top twos (including a win at St. Andrews in 2010), but he's missed the last two cuts at Royal Troon and Royal Birkdale. Only one top 10 in his last 11 major championships, but I can't quit the swing.
20. Hideki Matsuyama (T6 in 2013): Not his best major, certainly, but he seems to be finding form with three straight top 20s on the PGA Tour after struggling with injury at the beginning of the season. No top 10s in his last four starts at The Open.
21. Rafael Cabrera-Bello (T4 in 2017): Speaking of top 10s, it feels like this guy has about five of them at this event. The reality, though, is that he has one, and it came last year at Royal Birkdale. He's kind of a poor man's Adam Scott (which, in reality, is not a very poor man).
22. Paul Casey (T3 in 2010): Casey is another guy it seems should have more top 10s at this event than he actually does. Currently No. 4 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained overall and is arguably having one of his better years maybe ever.
23. Alex Noren (T6 in 2017): Here for it. He's coming off a top 10 last year as well as a monstrous French Open victory, which is, I believe what the kids call trending.
24. Francesco Molinari (T9 in 2013): This isn't hard.
Francesco Molinari's scoring average over his last 8 rounds?— Sean Martin (@PGATOURSMartin) July 15, 2018
25. Ian Poulter (2nd in 2008): Only two made cuts in his last five Opens, but his average finish at those was 8.5. I know a lot of folks probably don't want Poulter to win a major. I want it more than maybe anything other than a Tiger-Phil playoff. Four top 20s in a row on the European Tour.