For the last time in the foreseeable future, The Open Championship will be played as the third major of the season. Starting next year at Royal Portrush, this event will mark the end of the major season because the PGA Championship is moving to May. Ending the major season with a tournament literally called "The Open" feels proper, and I'm excited about that, but we need to take a look at a few stories heading into its last iteration in slot No. 3 on the year.
There doesn't seem to be as much fervor over this week's major as there was over the Masters and U.S. Open. The reason for that is probably because we're entering what qualifies as the dog days of golf season, where every tournament seems like a slog and the end of the season feels eons away.
However, The Open is almost always either my favorite or second favorite major of the year, and we've gotten some absolute gems in the last five years. From Rory McIlroy's rout at Royal Liverpool to that insane Open at St. Andrews to an all-timer between Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson to last year's Jordan Spieth-Matt Kuchar duel, this tournament almost always delivers in ways its colleagues sometimes haven't recently.
Many of the golfers I just mentioned make up the lion's share of our storylines heading into the festivities this week. Let's take a gander at all of those and more in front of the 147th Open Championship.
1. Open's toughest test: Since World War II, two of the four toughest Opens have been played at Carnoustie. Here's a look at the highest winning scores in the modern era. No other winning scores have touched 288 or worse. To take that a step further, that 1999 Open was arguably the hardest ever played with average scores reaching nearly six strokes over par. And yes, it made Sergio Garcia cry.
- Royal Liverpool in 1947 -- 293
- Carnoustie in 1999 -- 290
- St. Andrews in 1946 -- 290
- Carnoustie in 1968 -- 289
2. What to expect from Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson: Two of the best to ever tee it up have been in the news a lot recently but not necessarily because of their play. Mickelson has had all manner of rules snafus and both are apparently trying to piece together. All of that is fine (and fun for those of us who create content for a living), but what are we going to get at one of the four biggest and most important tournaments of the year?
Since Mickelson won in 2013 and Woods finished in the top 10, the pair has combined for just one top 10 (albeit a great one from Mickelson in 2016), and neither finished in the top 25 at either of the first two majors. They aren't done, certainly, but there's a mild fear that this could become about everything except the actual golf over the next decade.
3. Jordan Spieth, 12 months later: Since Spieth stomped on Matt Kuchar's soul at Royal Birkdale, he's gone winless. That's an 0-for-23 streak with multiple runner-up finishes that is certainly no cause for concern, but for somebody like Spieth that's a pretty lengthy amount of time. Opens are special, and I could easily see Spieth recapturing some of the magic he blew all over northwest England over the final six holes 52 weeks ago. His finish this week will be dissected because he's held at least one PGA Tour trophy every day of every year since March 2015, and if he doesn't win this week that streak will be over.
4. Rickie Fowler's breakthrough: It's never seemed closer, has it? He closed the U.S. Open with a 65, which followed a runner-up finish at Augusta, and all of that was capped by a wonderful showing at last week's Scottish Open. I can't pick him because I picked him for the first two majors of the year and whiffed. I want to pick him, though. I really do.
5. Rory McIlroy's (other) big chance: I wrote this before the U.S. Open, but it holds true this week as well. McIlroy adding a jewel of a course like Shinnecock Hills or Carnoustie (or Augusta National) to his already-absurd collection of four major championships at the age of 29 would push him from surefire hall-of-fame golfer to possibly the greatest European golfer of all time (though I still think he needs one at Augusta to grab that belt). In his 20s. Majors at important courses like Carnoustie don't count for more, but bagging this track would do wonders for McIlroy's confidence as well as his still-sterling resume.
6. Cook, Scotland, cook: Speaking of Carnoustie, it looks like it endured a small to medium-sized brushfire in the past few weeks. The place is bone dry (to the point that Brandt Snedeker is hitting 400-yard drives!), and 2013 champ Phil Mickelson told the AP that he's likely to hit that low punishing fade that everyone on golf Twitter was weeping tears over the other day.
"I'm either going to carry a driver or that hot 3-wood, but there's only two or three holes -- there's actually only two holes I plan on using it, both par 5s. I have a low 1-iron that I've been putting in the bag and ... it's very low," Mickelson said. "Gets on the ground quick. I'll hit that on probably the last ten holes, almost every hole."
7. Patrick Reed's ... dominance? You know who has three straight top 10s at majors, including a win at Augusta National? Really, you know who? That's right ... this guy.
The "rocks in Ryder Cups and plays the part of Captain America better than anyone else in the world" narrative makes sense to me. I'm not sure the "is a menace at every major championship no matter the venue and looks like he's going to win a handful of them over the course of his career" does as much. But ... that doesn't mean it's not a reality.
8. Brooks Koepka's consistency: As good as Reed has been, you could argue that Koepka has been better for longer. He doesn't get the attention he deserves for it, either. Koepka goes into this year's Open having won two of the last five majors and having finished inside the top 15 (!) in each of the last seven (!). Those are astounding numbers that would grind websites like this one to a halt if they were being posted by Spieth or McIlroy. It might be time to start talking about Koepka as the (much, much) better version of Angel Cabrera.
9. England's big drought: This comes up every year at some point, but I hadn't thought about it until my editor Adam Silverstein brought it up the other day. England, despite its string of really, really strong golfers, hasn't had someone raise the Claret Jug since Nick Faldo did so in 1992 at Muirfield. Since then, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Scotland and South Africa can all claim more Claret Jugs than England. That's fairly astonishing considering there are currently three Englishmen inside the top 12 in the world, and that's not a deviation from what has historically been true. My pick for best chance to end the drought? Not No. 3 Justin Rose. How about No. 10 Tommy Fleetwood?
10. Ryder Cup narratives: Maybe it's just me, but everything that happens this year can fairly easily be seen through Ryder Cup lenses. The U.S. has won five straight majors dating back to Koepka's win at Erin Hills, and they no doubt would love the trash talk associated with making it seven in a row heading into the matches in Paris come September. Rose (and the rest of Europe's squad) know this. "It's definitely been pretty one-sided, and the Americans are dominating," Rose told the AP. "So it would be lovely to turn that around next week."