Wide open field targets British Open

Dustin Johnson (Getty Images)
Dustin Johnson (Getty Images)

Southport - While uncertainty surrounds the form of leading names such as Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, the British Open begins at Royal Birkdale on Thursday with a plethora of players hopeful of winning the Claret Jug.

When the Open last came to the links at Southport, near Liverpool in north-west England, it was 2008 and Tiger Woods had just won the US Open.

That was his 14th major, but Woods has not won any since and no longer does a single player dominate the sport.

The last nine majors have all been won by a different name, going back to Jordan Spieth's back-to-back victories at the Masters and US Open in 2015.

Indeed, the last seven have all been claimed by first-time major winners, including Brooks Koepka at last month's US Open and Henrik Stenson in the Open at Troon 12 months ago.

"Golf is in a place right now where you have so many players playing really well. And a lot of the guys that are playing really well haven't won a major, like Jon Rahm or Justin Thomas," said McIlroy, 2014 Open champion, on Wednesday.

Japan's world number two Hideki Matsuyama is another serious threat, so can a first-time winner lift the Claret Jug in front of Birkdale's distinctive white Art Deco clubhouse on Sunday evening?

"I think Birkdale, because we're going back to a place where we've been before, it's not a course that's new to anyone, I think that might make a little bit of a difference," added McIlroy.

"But that is sort of where golf is at the moment. No one is really standing out and sort of taking it by the scruff of the neck."

McIlroy comes into the championship in relaxed mood despite poor recent results, including missed cuts at the Irish Open and Scottish Open.

World number one Johnson, 33, sat out the Masters with a back injury and missed the cut in the US Open at Erin Hills. But he has remained among the favourites for the $1.845 million first prize with most bookmakers.

"I feel good. I feel like the game is starting to get back to what it was," said Johnson.

"I really like the golf course. Obviously it's my first time here. But I got over here early. I got here on Saturday. So I've gotten a lot of practice on the course. And I feel like it sets up well for me."

Padraig Harrington was the last winner at Birkdale, a stunning par-70 course that winds its way through the sand dunes, nine years ago.

He is the last player to successfully defend the Claret Jug, and Stenson, 41, will hope that is an omen, although he must know the sort of golf that saw him defeat Phil Mickelson on the last day at Troon was once-in-a-lifetime stuff.

Five of the last six Open champions have been aged 39 or older. In 1998, Birkdale crowned the 41-year-old Mark O'Meara, although a 17-year-old Justin Rose finished fourth as an amateur.

Rose and local lad Tommy Fleetwood now look the best bets for a first English winner since Nick Faldo in 1992.

Birkdale -- where over 225,000 spectators are expected this week -- is hosting the Open for the 10th time, with Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer among the former champions at the course.

The latter won at Birkdale in 1961, and a plaque sits by the 16th fairway to commemorate a famous shot he hit from a bush en route to the title.

The course has great history and poses a formidable challenge, not least if the weather deteriorates.

The skies gradually turned black before thunderstorms forced a premature end to practice rounds on Wednesday.

Thursday is expected to be cooler, but mostly dry. However, wet and windy weather is forecast for Friday.

"I think it's the fairest links golf course we play, it rewards great golf. But we really haven't played this course in good weather," warned Rose.

There was one withdrawal on the eve of the tournament, with Brandt Snedeker pulling out injured and fellow American James Hahn taking his place.

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