TROON, Scotland – As the warm-up rounds build toward Thursday morning, this 145th Open Championship has, as it often does, produced a reliable string of questions.
Who does the course favor? What role will the weather play? Could there be another long-shot champion? Are haggis nachos a safe and responsible lunch order?
By Sunday evening we'll have all the answers. (The haggis may not affect the tournament outcome, but they will play a role in GOLF.com’s coverage.) There are of course other questions to bat around, but on a cool, gray afternoon, one seems particularly enticing:
Is golf's new Big Four unstoppable?
Sure, it's possible an outsider lifts the Claret Jug this week, but with Dustin Johnson ascending to No. 2 in the rankings after back-to-back wins in Oakmont and Akron, the sport has tilted decisively toward the top. Jason Day (ranked No. 1), Johnson, Jordan Spieth (3) and Rory McIlroy (4) have combined to win six out of the last 10 major titles.
Funny things can happen at Opens, and at Troon in particular. In ’04 Phil Mickelson was fresh off a Masters victory and a near-miss at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock, but the champion turned out to be 500-to-1 long shot Todd Hamilton. And while the new quartet has been dominant, each player enters this Open with varying degrees of optimism.
Foremost is the powerful Johnson, who strutted through a practice round here Tuesday morning alongside his friend Gary Woodland. Johnson pulled driver on the 367-yard 1st hole, where some players will hit irons to avoid the fairway bunkers, and ripped it pin high, just left of the green. As DJ made his way to the 2nd hole, a man in a sharp suit bounced over to greet him -- "Congratulations, champion!" -- then turned to Johnson's brother/caddie, Austin, and chirped, "and congrats to the little brother!" Johnson grinned and continued along. After withstanding the Oakmont rules imbroglio and rallying to win the WGC-Bridgestone, he arrives at Troon as the hottest player in the field.
Day, who spoke here Monday, is still stinging after blowing a lead over the closing holes at the Bridgestone.
"It sucked. It was really bad. I hated losing," he said. "Like I've always said, we got spoiled with Tiger Woods, how he dominated very much so through his years and did so well. That's what we're shooting for. That's what I'm shooting for, to be able to finish off like he did back in the day."
Day's Bridgestone fade was unexpected, but his recent run of seven titles in 20 events is in the vicinity of vintage Tiger. Before catching fire at the 2015 PGA Championship, Day finished T-4 at last year's Open at St. Andrews, the only time he's cracked the top 30 in this event. He said he's still motivated by that near-miss last year, where he left a birdie putt short on the 72nd hole to miss a playoff by a stroke.
"Just to be able to be called the champion golfer of the year would be fantastic," he said. "When I was growing up there were two major championships we looked at: it was Augusta National and the Open Championship. And back in the day when [Greg] Norman came, a lot of Australians would start their career in Europe and that's what their favorite major would be."
Spieth spoke to the press Tuesday and received a flurry of questions about his controversial withdrawal from the Olympics. At times he sounded agitated. ("Not everybody's going to understand. Nobody's going to understand what it's like in my shoes.") But the U.S. Open at Oakmont was his first major finish worse than T-4 since the 2014 PGA Championship. Even though he exited the podium on Tuesday in a seemingly sour mood, and his season has yet to live up to his historic 2015, it's hard to imagine him not in contention this weekend.
Perhaps the most vexing question about the new Big Four is this: Is McIlroy still part of the club? "Those guys are having a great run at the minute," McIlroy said Tuesday, after finishing his practice round. "But I mean, I'm happy where my game is. I can't worry about other guys. If I focus on myself and make sure that I'm playing the best that I can, I'm pretty confident that if I go out and play my best golf I'm going to win more times than not."
Many expected this to be a rebound season for the 27-year-old former No. 1, who missed the second half of 2015, including the Open at St. Andrews, after suffering an ankle injury while playing soccer. During McIlroy's rehab, Spieth snatched away his spot atop the World Ranking. This year McIlroy has played erratically, while Day and more recently Johnson have swerved around him in the rankings as if he were a Honda stuck in neutral.
McIlroy has had flashes, like his win in May at the Irish Open, which was punctuated by a laser three-wood on the final hole for a kick-in eagle, which stands as one of the best shots of the year.
But then there are the assorted lowlights. He biffed a final-round lead at Doral. He dabbled with a left-hand low putting stroke. He fizzled in a head-to-head pairing with Spieth on Saturday at Augusta. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open. He drew a few groans by removing himself from the Olympics. (He said he had no regrets.) And Tuesday morning, in front of a few dozen spectators and one well-placed Sky Sports Facebook Live cam, McIlroy took six shots to extract his ball from a greenside bunker on the par-3 8th hole "Postage Stamp."
"I think I took an 8 or a 9, so that didn't go too well," McIlroy said with a laugh. "Every time I tried to get it out, it would go back into the same spot. Hopefully the struggle is out of the way for that hole."
Not exactly confidence-inspiring, but it's still Tuesday. This week offers a career-making opportunity for all 156 players in the field, but its potential upshot for McIlroy is unique to him alone: It's a chance to re-affirm his place among the game's elite and wash away a mostly dispiriting season.
Can he renew his membership to the club? Stay tuned.