Garcia is the favorite at this Tiger-less Open

January 26, 2010

Damon Hack and Gary Van Sickle have made their picks for the Open Championship. First up is Damon; Gary’s picks are on page 2.

Damon Hack’s picks

SOUTHPORT, England — There is something spiritual about walking an Open Championship golf course, from its rough laced with gold and beige grasses to its bright yellow scoreboards that reach toward the sky. Even the applause from the gallery sounds different here, with the echo of thousands of clapping hands carried on seaside winds.

The golfers know that to win the Open Championship is to conquer golf in its most natural state — raw, untamed and often brutally difficult. Can the player work the ball in the wind, putt from 130 feet, and fashion iron shots out of fescue? Can he withstand weather patterns that change on a whim?

If he can do all of the above, plus bring imagination, reverence and respect to four fascinating days of golf, he might end the week holding the Claret Jug.
This is a championship that favors the golfer who is an old soul.

1. Sergio Garcia He is the best driver of the ball since Greg Norman (who won two British Opens), and he is finally learning to channel his emotions in a positive way. Garcia, who lost to Padraig Harrington in a playoff last year, won the Players Championship in May and no longer looks completely lost on the greens, thanks to some long hours with putting guru Stan Utley. With the Ryder Cup just two months away, Garcia should walk onto Royal Birkdale feeling good vibes in pursuit of his first major. As long as he leaves that yellow outfit that he broke out at Hoylake in the closet, I like his chances.

2. Jim Furyk Known more for his record in the United States Open, Furyk has had several strong finishes in the British Open, including a tie for fourth at Birkdale in 1998 and a solo fourth at Hoylake in 2006. He can work the ball every which way and is an excellent lag putter, skills that will serve him well here. Furyk has had a so-so campaign this year (no wins, five top-10s), but he finished third in his last event, the AT&T National, and will be in contention before the week is out.

3. Andres Romero Held the lead for much of the back nine at Carnoustie last year before making a mess of things on the closing holes. Romero can make birdies in bunches, as he showed in his final-round 67 at Carnoustie, and he notched his first PGA Tour win in New Orleans earlier this year. His British Open record is great in a small sample. A tie for eighth at Hoylake in 2006 and a solo third at Carnoustie. He could give Argentina its second major championship in as many years.

4. Ernie Els He has gained a lot of mental scar tissue in the last few years, but few championships fit him better. Els has finished out of the top five at the Open only twice this decade, and his 2002 win at Muirfield was the highlight of a career that will ultimately place him in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps the best international player of his generation (it’s either him or Vijay Singh), Els needs one more major in his career for peace of mind. It could come late Sunday.

5. Geoff Ogilvy Though his first major title was the United States Open at Winged Foot, Ogilvy always guessed that his first major would come at a British Open. This is the championship he loved the most growing up, and it is the one he always thought fit his game the best. Not the straightest driver in the world (his Winged Foot triumph notwthstanding), Ogilvy gets by on grit, confidence and a dazzling short game. The imagination needed at Birkdale should suit him well.

6. Justin Leonard After a dry spell, Leonard is working his way back into the conversation of the game’s elite. Though he has only one top-10 finish in this championship since winning at Troon in 1997, Leonard has been thriving since being reunited with swing coach Randy Smith. Leonard won in Memphis earlier in the year and has an eye on making the United States Ryder Cup team. It has been brutally windy during the practice rounds here. Leonard, a Texan, must be licking his chops.

7. Trevor Immelman After winning the Masters, Immelman’s game sagged. He hit the circuit, did a star turn on David Letterman, and suffered long bouts of fatigue. He later admitted that he wasn’t prepared for the attention and demands that come with winning a major for the first time. Unless Kenny Perry (who isn’t playing here) wins the PGA Championship, Immelman may be the only golfer who can keep Tiger Woods from winning player of the year. Adding the British Open title would make it a certainty.

8. Anthony Kim Other than Perry, no player on the planet is hotter than Kim, the 23-year-old youngster with the shiny belt buckles and all-around game. Winning a major seems a little bold even for the ultra-confident Kim. Of course, so is winning two PGA Tour events in his sophomore season.

Gary Van Sickle’s picks

Welcome to the British (Wide) Open at Royal Birkdale. The world’s best player, Tiger Woods, is out of action after knee surgery. The world’s hottest player, Kenny Perry, is going for a fourth victory in ’08 at Milwaukee instead of Royal Birkdale.

The defending Open champion, Padraig Harrington, has managed only a handful of top-10 finishes and has a wrist injury. And this year’s Masters champion, Trevor Immelman, has all but turned invisible since donning that green jacket.

There isn’t an obvious favorite in the field. Only an idiot would try to pick this week’s winner … so here are my picks to win, the eight who could be great (or not):

1. Sergio Garcia. It doesn’t matter where the Open is played, Garcia rises to the occasion. With the exception of a missed cut in ’04, he’s been in the top 10 every year since ’01. He finished second in ’07, fifth in ’06 and ’05, tenth in ’03, eighth in ’02 and ninth in ’01. He’ll be on the board, you can pretty much count on it, and without the big cat around, he shouldn’t suffer from Tigeritis in the final round.

Mark O’Meara and Ian Baker-Finch were recent Open winners at Birkdale. It’s a course that favors sharp iron play, good distance control and good putting. Sergio’s iron play ranks with anyone in the game. If his putting is really as good as it looked at the Players (and if it is, where’s he been since then?), he will be the man to beat. If he wins, the Best Player Without a Major title will be transferred to Adam Scott, or maybe even Anthony Kim.

2. Lee Westwood. He’s playing his best golf in years and has really gotten closer to the form he had when he was a young phenom on the Euro tour years ago. His brush with a major title at Torrey Pines was an indicator that this Englishman may be ready to take the next step after all these years.

3. Trevor Immelman. That item a few paragraphs ago about iron play and distance control being a key to success? That’s Immelman’s game in a nutshell. He, too, has had putting issues over the years, actually going to a long putter at times. But he plays a precision game when he’s on, and mid-July is enough time for him to escape his apparent Masters hangover. A British Open win would suddenly make him a contender alongside Tiger for player of the year.

4. Andres Romero. The Argentine could’ve won last year’s Open. He poured in 10 birdies during the final round but ran afoul of Carnoustie’s two finishing holes and missed the Garcia-Harrington playoff by a shot. He can be a phenomenal iron player and a streaky-hot putter. He proved himself, not that he needed to, by winning a PGA Tour event in New Orleans this season. He’s a big-league player, and there’s something about the Open that brings out his best golf. He was also in the hunt Sunday in 2006 at Royal Liverpool.

5. Robert Allenby. This Aussie, long known for his ballstriking, is quietly having a renaissance season. He’s done everything but win. His closest call came recently in Memphis when he lost to Justin Leonard in sudden death, which ruined his undefeated playoff record. Problems with his wrists and hands sometimes wreak havoc with his game, but he was third at Congressional and also fourth twice earlier this season. He looks like the Allenby of old, who always resembled a player destined to win a major. The slower Open putting surfaces ought to take the edge off the weakest part of his game.

6. Justin Leonard. He won in Memphis again this season, but he has gone through a few dry spells over the years as he’s started a family and reconstructed his swing. He won the Open at Troon in 1997, and because he’s from Texas, he can adjust his game to play in the wind. He fits the profile: good iron player and great putter. His droughts have kept him from getting the recognition he deserves. He’s a crafty player who can’t overpower a course in the bomb-and-gouge era, but he can win majors.

7. Phil Mickelson. I’m required by law to include Lefty as the second-ranked player in the world. The scouting report on Phil says he doesn’t excel at links golf because he has trouble controlling his high ball in the winds. His Open record is dismal, just one top-10 finish in his career. That came at Royal Troon, where a late bogey kept him from joining Ernie Els and Todd Hamilton in a playoff. Still, he’s supposed to be a factor. With Tiger out, he’ll never have a better shot at an Open.

8. Padraig Harrington. You just can’t ignore the defending champ, even if he has a bum wrist and hasn’t found his A-game this season. He can’t help but be focused on this week after his thrilling win at Carnoustie last year, and it would be no surprise if he played his way onto the leaderboard from the start.