It’s been unfortunate that most of the conversation surrounding this week’s British Open has been about who WON’T be playing in the Olympics in a month’s time, rather than the championship at hand. The first Open Championship was held at Prestwick 156 years ago. This week, just up the road, sharing a shoreline along the Firth of Clyde, 156 golfers will play for the Claret Jug (and the enviable title “Champion Golfer of the Year”) at Royal Troon. I threw in that nice bit of symmetry with the 156s to set up a theme: I’ve got a weird hunch on a (relatively) off-the-board pick for this weekend’s Open. I’m gonna use some other cherry-picked and reverse-engineered evidence to justify that pick.
Troon is, naturally, a classic links golf course. The first seven holes hug the coastline, all in the same direction, and usually play downwind. If the prevailing winds blow, guys will start with lots of birdies. You score on the front at Troon, and try to hold on when you turn into the wind coming back in. The 8th hole is the Postage Stamp, Troon’s most famous hole. It might be the best par 3 in the world, and, like many of the great par 3s (7 at Pebble, 12 at Augusta, 17 at Sawgrass), it’s a short one, at a scant 123 yards. What makes the Postage Stamp tough are the five deep bunkers that surround the miniscule green (only 10 yards wide) that gives the hole its name. Number eight is also the first hole the competitors will play that goes back into the prevailing wind, complicating club selection and feel. Nine through thirteen feature some directional routing changes and blind tee shots, then 14 through 18 go straight back into the prevailing wind that made the front so scorable. It sets up well for a dramatic conclusion.
There are valid arguments to be made for Jason, Rory, Jordan, DJ, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Rickie and Sergio. I’m tired of going chalk and getting burned. A win for any of those players would make great narrative fodder for the golf world, but Troon doesn’t usually provide that. Troon is usually unpredictable. So I’m picking Matt Kuchar. A guy like Matt Kuchar wins at Troon. If Matt Kuchar wins the Open, everyone would be happy for him, but nobody would be excited over the future implications. That’s what happens at Troon.
The last six champions at Troon have all been Americans. Obviously, Kuch fits that bill. The fact that only Americans have won at Troon since 1962 is probably nothing more than a fluky coincidence, but there’s something especially “American” about Matt Kuchar this week. As the top players in the world have dropped out of the Olympics in droves, they’ve had to answer questions about their decision instead of discussing the major championship about to be contested. Matt Kuchar can answer questions about Brazil with his usual brand of wide-smiling goofy-dad cheer, because he’s genuinely excited about playing in the Olympics. It’s the same look he’ll have on his face as he take pictures playing ping-pong in the Olympic village, or on a helicopter ride to the statue of Christ the Redeemer, or over the course of 72 holes representing the USA. Guys are (understandably and justifiably) disinterested in going to Rio, and it just makes Matt Kuchar (and, for that matter, Bubba, Rickie, and Patrick Reed) look a little more patriotic. Even though, IN NO WAY, does skipping the Olympics show a lack of patriotism. It just makes the guys that are going look a little bit better. That’s good mojo.
Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson have won at Royal Troon during this fifty-four year American winning streak. They’re two of American golf’s greatest champions, but they are also the exception to the profile of Troon’s American victors. The others have been Tom Weiskopf, Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard, and Todd Hamilton. All four won their only career major at Troon. Let’s ignore Hamilton for now, because I still can’t process that Todd Hamilton has a major and Lee Westwood doesn’t. I could have been convinced that all of the other three had won more than one major. I was especially surprised when I learned none of them had multiple major victories. Matt Kuchar has been a solid, top-25 player on the PGA Tour for almost 15 years now. He has won the biggest events that aren’t majors (The Players, the Memorial, a WGC, a playoff event). He doesn’t get hung with the tag of “best not to have won a major” because…well, I don’t exactly know why. Kuch seems to be having a similar career to those other three. Solid professionals, respected by their peers, Ryder Cuppers, but maybe, sorta underachievers, but major winners. Matt Kuchar probably needs a major championship to solidify his status in the game.
British Open winners tend to be older than their American-major brethren. On the Golf Channel the other day, I saw that British Open champions have an average age of 38, while the other three major champions’ average age is almost 10 years younger (admittedly, I don’t recall the year they used to start that measurement, but Kuchar is exactly 38, and I already said I’m cherry-picking). Recent winners Zach Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Darren Clarke were all past their 38th year. It makes sense that older players thrive at the Open. The courses are shorter, the greens are slower, and the style of golf requires experience. Links golf is a different animal. Open participants need to hit shots they won’t hit any other week of the year: bump-and-runs, hundred-foot putts, low stingers that stay below the wind. Some people assume links golf would favor European players, but the fact is, Euro Tour players see this style of golf as rarely as their American counterparts. It takes getting used to. Kuchar missed his first several cuts at the Open, but he’s made it to the weekend in the four most recent editions of the game’s oldest championship, including a pair of top-15s.
Here’s another quirky stat about recent Open winners that points to a surprise victor. Each of the last seven years, the champion finished no better than 40th the year prior. Last year, Kuch finished 58th. If that nugget doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. It’s practically a guarantee.
I like that he’ll be playing with Graeme McDowell and Beef Johnston the first two days. Their crowds will be especially supportive and enthusiastic. Kuch should be comfortable, but not distracted. There’s no denying that helps.
I never thought I’d make a prediction of Matt Kuchar the night before a major championship. It’s not exciting, but I can’t shake it. It’s nothing more than a hunch and a perfect storm of unscientific data, but it all fits. Matt Kuchar will lift the Claret Jug Sunday night. I’ll be happy for him, but I won’t be particularly excited. That’s Troon.