British Open Champions Confidential: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Ernie Els and Mark Calcavecchia join our roundtable
In honor of the Open Championship we convened a special Claret Jug Confidential roundtable of former British Open champions to talk about this year's tournament, make predictions and reveal their best tip for links golf. Special thanks to these gracious champions for their time. We hope you enjoy it.
1. Who would be your pick to win the British Open and why?
Ernie Els, 2002 and 2012 Champion: Can I pick myself? This is my favorite tournament in the world, and links golf suits my game. You don’t have to bomb it to win. You need to play smart, use your head and know how to play all the different shots that links golf demands of you. Honestly, I feel like I have a great chance every time I play the Open and that I can be competitive here for at least another 10 years. Look at what Tom Watson did. If you keep fit and stay flexible, you could even win this thing in your 50s. Why not?
Gary Player, 1959, 1968 and 1974 Champion: Rory McIlroy is in top form right now and I would love to see him be victorious at Hoylake. You would be hard-pressed to find a better swing than Rory’s. I also think that Rory seems to be in the right mindset and is playing with great poise and determination. It would be wonderful to see him add the Open to his U.S. Open and PGA Championship titles. In addition to Rory, I think certainly Adam Scott who finished in the top 10 at the 2006 Open Championship at Hoylake, Martin Kaymer, or Justin Rose could also lift the Claret Jug come Sunday.
Arnold Palmer, 1961 and 1962 Champion: No one guy. Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Graeme McDowell. No particular reasons. They’re all very good players. McDowell’s coming off a strong win at the French Open.
Mark Calcavecchia, 1989 Champion: I'm going with Sergio Garcia. He's due to win a major. He's contented several times at the Open and I just think his tee-to-green game is so solid. Plus he's putting much better!
2. Who is a dark horse whose game fits Hoylake and has a chance to contend at the British Open?
Palmer: Dark horse? Sergio Garcia.
Els: Obviously there are a lot of talented young guys out there looking to step up and win their first major, but also we’ve seen these past four years that the Open really brings the 40-somethings into the equation. I think it’s the most wide open of all the majors so you could probably pick any one of 50 dark horses in the field at Hoylake!
Player: Hoylake is a course that requires a tactical and strategic approach. Players will play a great deal of irons off the tee, which was how Tiger Woods won in 2006, but I think that Nicolas Colsaerts, Billy Horschel or Angel Cabrera could all make a run at the Open because they are great iron players. This will be Tiger’s first major of the year, and I never think we can count him out. I would love to see him play well, but it is quite incredible that even when Tiger is a “dark horse,” he can be the “favorite” as well.
Calcavecchia: Angel Cabrera is my dark horse. His game fits any course. He hits it miles and is now full of confidence after his recent win. Plus he's won two majors. He knows how to get it done!
3. What is your all-time favorite links course to play and why?
Els: It’s got to be Muirfield. To me, it’s the fairest of all the courses on the Open rotation, with everything right there in front of you. It’s the kind of golf course where you can’t hide -- you have to drive it well, hit your irons well, have your short game working nicely and manage your game and your emotions. It reminds me a bit of Lytham. But where Lytham goes out and comes back, Muirfield moves in different directions on almost every shot you play. It’s just a wonderful design. The par 3s are unbelievable. Each and every hole is a little bit different. There’s left-to-rights, right-to-lefts, it all happens out there. It is the perfect links test.
Player: While it is one of the most demanding courses in the world, I have always appreciated Carnoustie as one of the great links courses in the world with its tall native rough and deep, punishing bunkers. The routing is not the traditional out and back links layout and changes direction much more frequently than most links courses, ensuring the wind comes from every possible direction. Carnoustie also has one of the toughest closing stretch of holes with the Barry Burn coming into play on the last three holes. In Ireland, I have always liked Royal Portrush, where I won the 1997 Senior Open Championship. I am not sure the Royal Portrush has received the recognition it deserves, but I am thrilled to hear that the Open will be returning to Ireland in 2019. Royal Portrush is one of the great courses of the world with its sometimes great challenges, like the 14th hole, but also with its spectacular views of the water below as it plays along the high cliffs.
Calcavecchia: Royal Troon is my favorite links course because I won the Open there! I loved the course at first sight. Every hole just fit my eye.
Palmer: Royal Troon. I won the Open there and played particularly well that week.
4. What is the toughest shot you’ve faced on a links course?
Palmer: The shot I remember best is the six-iron I hit out of a tough lie in the rough at the 15th hole in the last round of the 1961 Open at Royal Birkdale. It saved a par, and I won by a shot.
Els: Probably my shot from up against the face in the greenside bunker on 13 in the final round at Muirfield in 2002. When you save par from a really challenging spot like that, and at such a crucial stage of the Championship, it almost feels better than a birdie.
Player: Links courses provide a wide variety of difficult shots. Perhaps the strangest I ever had to face was during the 1974 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes when my second shot flew the green on the final hole and I was forced to play my ball left-handed with my blade putter after it landed against the stone clubhouse wall. The shot landed 10 feet from the hole and secured my third Open Championship victory. I have always thought that Carnoustie is the toughest golf course I have ever played, especially if the wind howling. When I won there in 1968, the R&A had stretched it to a massive 7,252 yards and the wind and rough were up. To say it was a bear would not do it justice.
Calcavecchia: There's hundreds that come to mind but the hardest ones are when you’re in the 2-foot-high hay-rough and you have no idea if you’re going to move it a foot or 30 yards to get it back in play. You just think you might be in there slashing around all day!
5. If you could give one tip to playing links golf to an amateur, what would it be?
Player: I have always loved links golf because of its distinctive challenges. On links courses, wind will almost always plays a factor. If it is windy, widen your stance slightly and play the ball a little further back in your stance to play a lower trajectory. Learning to play the ball along the ground, particularly around the greens, is incredibly important. Creative bump-and-run shots are also a must. Links courses will make you take creative and strategic shots. Embrace this and play accordingly.
Els: If it’s breezy, most amateurs try to hit it too hard and the ball just balloons into the air and gets blown off course. I always say take more club and then make a smooth, three-quarter swing. That generates a little less spin and you can control your ball-flight. Also, play your chips and pitch shots lower to the ground, nice little bump-and-runs. Don’t just go with maximum loft from anywhere inside 80 yards. That won’t work.
Calcavecchia: Take plenty of club and swing with ease in the breeze!
Palmer: Keep the ball in the fairway.