CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND I walked past the 18th green here yesterday under beautiful blue skies and stopped for a moment to relive the legend of Jean Van de Velde and his ill-fated British Open finish of 1999. Or was it ill-fated? Van de Velde in defeat may be more famous today than if he'd made a boring bogey and become the champion. He is certainly remembered more vividly than winner Paul Lawrie.
It's a reminder that anything can happen in golf. That same air of uncertainty hangs over the British Open this week. There is no clear favorite. Not counting Tiger Woods, of course, who's pretty much the clear favorite in every contest. Who's going to be the richest golfer in history? I'll take Tiger. Who's going to break every record in golf? I'll take Tiger. Who's going to win the Stanley Cup, beat the San Antonio Spurs in the finals, get elected head of the United Nations and invent time travel? I'll take Tiger.
It's not as if Woods is in some kind of slump. His last four major championship finishes are first, first, second, second. I think Jason Bohn or Tag Ridings would be happy with that. The only cause for concern, however, is that at the Masters and the U.S. Open, Woods came from behind early in the final round and grabbed the lead, only to relinquish it. Every great player has let major titles slip away. And now Woods has, too.
I'd still bet on Woods to win, anytime and anywhere, but his recent performances and happy distractions (don't forget to send him his first Father's Day card next year) mean he's not the usual overwhelming favorite, just the best player in the world on one of its best tracks. If not Tiger, then who? That's just it. Nobody else seems obvious. Let's quickly run down the usual suspects.
Phil Mickelson: He's had one good Open in his career, hits a high ball and usually struggles in the wind. He comes to the Open after bobbling the Scottish Open, which he lost in a playoff, and I won't even bring up what happened in June of 2006.
Jim Furyk: He nearly won the U.S. Open with a great rally at Oakmont. Until last year, however, he hadn't played well in the British since early in his career. He's got the game and the requisite shotmaking and the determination. While he owns a lot of high finishes, he doesn't have a high winning percentage. He'd be a deserving champ, but despite being ranked No. 2 in the world, we never seem to expect him to win.
Vijay Singh: His driver hasn't been his best friend, but the British Open's slower greens may help his putting.
Adam Scott: Two of his more prominent wins the 2004 Players and this year's Houston Open came even though he stupidly hit into water on the 72nd hole. He posted an 82 at Oakmont (no shame in that) and has missed his last two cuts. On fire? No.
Sergio Garcia: In his own words, he has been "putting like a coward" at times this year. I hear he's been trying out a belly putter. You know how sometimes when you make a change you initially catch a little magic? Well, here's a guy who's always there in the Open. If he does commit to the belly putter, it wouldn't be a surprise if he broke through here. He plays better in Europe and he'd love to stick it to the press, which has run out of patience and given up on him as a major contender.
Henrik Stenson: This big-hitting Swede was the Flavor of the Month back in February. Anybody seen him lately?
Ernie Els: He shot a final-round 65 to finish third last week at the Scottish Open but missed the two clutch putts he needed on the final nine the two clutch putts that the Ernie of 10 years ago would've holed. His game has rounded into form, but he has tinkered with a crosshanded putting grip, which means that club is probably an issue for him. It's been five years since he's won a major. It would be a welcome return.
Retief Goosen: The Goose has largely been missing in action since his final-round Pinehurst meltdown in the '05 U.S. Open.
Colin Montgomerie: He just won the European Open at 44, a sweet comeback for the Man Without a Major. He could still win one by accident. Put him in Geoff Ogilvy's shoes at last year's U.S. Open, for instance, and get him in the clubhouse early with a good final round, then let the leaders mess up on the finishing holes (like Phil and Monty did). But his misfired 7-iron from the last fairway at Winged Foot has to be a haunting shot. Mickelson was in the trees with no shot and made double. Monty was in the fairway. I don't see him winning a major playing in the final group on Sunday. He has to come from behind.
Geoff Ogilvy: Like Mickelson, another high-ball hitter who hasn't shown the knack for the knockdown shots usually necessary at the British Open. Then again, who's to say it's going to be windy? The weather breaks all the rules in Scotland.
So who do I like? That's what I'm trying to tell you: I'm like a vegetarian looking at the menu at Morton's Steakhouse. Nothing looks good. You want names, though, so here are a few.
Lawrie was the last Euro to win the British Open in '99. I think it's time for another, mainly because Carnoustie is one of the courses used in the Dunhill Links Championship, the European Tour's answer to the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. The Euros now play Carnoustie every year as part of a regular tour stop, gaining valuable local knowledge. That could be worth a couple of shots. Plus, check out the world rankings. There are five Americans in the top 20. There are six Europeans.
I don't have a convincing pick. Padraig Harrington won the Irish Open this season in front of his home-country fans, the kind of step-up move that says maybe he can finally win the big one on a big stage. Paul Casey is a remarkable talent, kind of like Mickelson. He's got tons of ability and confidence but seems to have trouble harnessing it. He shot that low round at Oakmont, he's won on the European Tour. He's one major win away from people deciding he's having a pretty good career. He could be ready.
No player in golf has a more ironic name than Niclas Fasth. Niclas does not play Fast. That said, he fits in with 2007's theme of offbeat major champions Zach Johnson of Iowa in Augusta, Angel Cabrera of Argentina in Pittsburgh. Why not a Swede in Scotland? It makes so little sense that it makes perfect sense, if you know what I mean.
Speaking of Cabrera, has any U.S. Open winner ever gotten less of a buildup at the British? This guy is a power-hitting machine and a pretty good iron player. He attacks pins. He was in the mix Sunday last year at Royal Liverpool. While Tiger was hitting irons off the tees and going conservative, Cabrera was pounding drivers and... playing himself right out of the championship. He's not a great putter but he's pretty good at lag-putting. That worked at Oakmont, where nobody else was one-putting, either. Carnoustie's slower greens may help prevent him from being a one-hit wonder. I think he's got a very good chance.
We may be in store for a surprise Ben Curtis-type of champion. South Africa has a slew of impressive young guns, like Anton Haig, Charl Schwartzel and Richard Sterne. There's another European, Graeme McDowell, who played college golf at Alabama-Birmingham. He's a birdie machine and quite a good player. He's prone to the occasional big number. If he can get over that, he could win anything. And then there's my perennial favorite name in golf: Bradley Dredge of Wales. The truth is, he can play. And he rhymes with wedge. That can't be bad.
Carnoustie has provided surprises like Lawrie. It has also provided obvious champions, like Tom Watson and Ben Hogan. In 2007, that would mean you-know-who for a third straight year.
There's only one thing I can guarantee about this Open: On the 72nd tee at Carnoustie, the leader is going to take a deep breath... and try to forget the name of Van de Velde.
Good luck to him.