While Royal Portrush will be uncharted territory for the majority of the field at the 148th Open Championship, there is a strong sense of familiarity for Rory McIlroy.
The four-time major champion set a course-record 61 at one of the toughest links venues – which has not held The Open since 1951 – as a 16-year-old in 2005.
A lot has changed in the 14 years since but McIlroy’s knowledge of Portrush, coupled with the fervent backing of a partisan home crowd in Northern Ireland, should aid his cause.
But there is a star-studded cast – led by world number one and four-time major victor Brooks Koepka – who will all be desperate to deny McIlroy a dream home coming.
Here, three Omnisport writers pick out their players to watch in the battle for the Claret Jug.
Watch @McilroyRory relive his incredible 61 a Royal Portrush when he was just 16
— The Open (@TheOpen) June 2, 2019
Favourite: Brooks Koepka
Koepka’s phenomenal record in major tournaments includes a couple of top-10 placings at The Open. A year ago, Koepka was a distant 39th at Carnoustie, but that was sandwiched by triumphs at the U.S. Open and US PGA Championship. He secured another PGA title in May, and only a wonderful four days from Gary Woodland denied him a third consecutive U.S. success. Koepka often feels he does not receive the acclaim he deserves but the fact the attention will be focused on McIlroy should play into his hands at Portrush.
Likely challengers: Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele and Tommy Fleetwood
Rahm’s three attempts to win The Open have hardly been a success story – a tie for 44th two years ago his best result. But the passionate Spaniard has two top-10 major finishes in 2019 and won the Irish Open this month, so will be feeling confident at Portrush. For a while now it has appeared a matter of when not if Schauffele becomes a major champion. Respective finishes of second and third at the Masters and U.S. Open further enhanced his major pedigree and he proved his ability to contend on tricky Open courses when ending as runner-up at Carnoustie a year ago. Fleetwood’s form in recent months has been patchy, but the amiable Englishman has the sort of clutch-scoring ability that should suit Portrush.
Outside bet: Graeme McDowell
The halcyon days of winning the U.S. Open in 2010 may seem like a distant memory for the former world number four, who last year was ranked as low as 239. But ‘G Mac’ has shown signs of improvements this year, recording top-10 finishes at the Texas Open and Canadian Open, while he flirted with contention at last month’s U.S. Open before finishing 16th. And do not discount the power of local knowledge. While the majority of the focus will undoubtedly fall McIlroy’s way, Portrush native McDowell will be desperate to impress in front of home support.
My favourite: Francesco Molinari
When Molinari lifted the Claret Jug in 2018, he did so to little fanfare. On that Sunday at Carnoustie, his name was not the most illustrious of the contenders. Rory McIlroy was up there, as was Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and, of course, Tiger Woods. What separated this quiet, unassuming Italian from that star-studded field was his immense calmness under pressure. He went bogey-free in a two-under par 69 in tricky conditions that will likely be replicated at Portrush. When the going gets tough, this guy will get going.
Likely challengers: Koepka, Spieth and Fleetwood
Because since when does Koepka not challenge at a major? It is what he does. Time and time again. How Spieth would yearn for that kind of consistency now, but he did make a decent fist of retaining his title last year and it can never be declared a surprise to see him in the mix. Fleetwood was the focus of much of the pre-tournament attention when Spieth triumphed, with Royal Birkdale his home course. He may not have the same intimate knowledge of this track, but how poetic it would be to see the Claret Jug passed from one half of the Ryder Cup ‘Moliwood’ partnership to the other.
Outside bet: Matt Kuchar
Kuchar came mighty close to glory two years ago, but Spieth’s stunning revival from his 13th-hole woes kept his compatriot at arm’s length. Back then, Spieth said Kuchar would win a major one day. This could be his year.
Links golf at its finest – Royal Portrush Who will overcome the elements next month? pic.twitter.com/cXiDhICTQc
— The Open (@TheOpen) June 28, 2019
My favourite: Fleetwood
Fleetwood is without a win in 2019 but has recorded four top-10 finishes. He is likely to enjoy the conditions at Portrush. The links course on the upper tip of Northern Ireland is defended primarily by the wind which could play into the hands of a man brought up on the blowy north west coast of England. Fleetwood is overdue a major breakthrough and will enjoy considerable support.
Likely challengers: McIlroy, Koepka and Spieth
No real surprises here. McIlroy holds the course record at Portrush. Expectation could be an issue in his home country but he has the tools to dominate. Spieth won the Open in 2017 and was tied for the 54-hole lead 12 months ago before falling away. He hasn’t won since his Birkdale triumph but seems to thrive in UK conditions. And Koepka because, well, it’s Koepka.
Outside bet: Adam Scott
Scott, like Spieth, is very much at home at the Open. Four consecutive top-10 finishes from 2012-2015 – he should have claimed the Claret Jug in 2012 but bogeyed the last four holes to finish second to Ernie Els by a shot – show a pedigree on this type of layout. The swing has never been a problem and his putting is, very belatedly, not proving a hindrance.