For Brits, the greatest week in the golfing calendar has arrived. Golf's oldest and most prestigious major is upon us, with sell-out crowds, a fantastic golf course and some typically unpredictable weather all adding up to make this Open Championship one of the most exciting in recent memory.
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As Darren Clarke put it earlier this week, "It's the biggest, the oldest, and the best."
The Open has not moved from its usual mid-July slot, but it does seem strange to think that due to the schedule changes which came into force at the beginning of the year, this is now the final major of 2019, and therefore the last major action we will see now until Augusta National in April. That is a long, long time to wait...
Image Credit: The Open Twitter
The R&A have seen sense and remembered that there are plenty of incredible golf courses in Britain that aren't in England and Scotland, so we have travelled over to Northern Ireland and the fantastic Royal Portrush, host of the 1951 Open Championship.
One half of golf's greatest ever double-act, Francesco Molinari, triumphed last year at a burnt-out Carnoustie in an enthralling final round. A whole host of Americans including Kevin Kisner, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Tiger Woods all looked like they could come out on top during various points on Sunday, whilst Justin Rose appeared from nowhere with a back-nine eagle to put himself firmly in the mix.
But the steady Italian wore the other golfers down with accurate, precise ball-striking and a steady nerve. Molinari did not make a bogey during either day over the weekend.
A short iron to inside 6 feet and one more putt was all that was required on the 18th green to crown Molinari as Italy's first ever major champion, finishing two shots clear of the chasing pack.
All eyes will be on Rory McIlroy as he seeks to add to his one Claret Jug from back in 2014. When he won two majors that summer if you'd have told people he'd still be stuck on four coming into the last major of 2019, they'd say you were mad.
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But here we are, and at Portrush this could be the ideal opportunity for Rory to kick on. He has two wins already this season and, besides Augusta, it's hard to think of anywhere he'd be more suited. He has played here countless times, shot 61 here as a 16-year old, and carries the hopes and expectations of the nation on his shoulders when he tees it up on Thursday. No pressure...
Of course, the Champion Golfer of the Year Francesco Molinari will receive plenty of attention as he looks to become the first man to retain the Open title since Padraig Harrington in 2008, and his grouping alongside Bryson DeChambeau and Adam Scott could be a very intriguing one.
Brooks Koepka is the man to beat in many people's eyes, as he continues his incredible run at major championships after claiming the US Open earlier this year. If there's one major he's struggled at, however, it's the Open, something which he'll surely be looking to address this week. Koepka has no weaknesses to his game and a ruthless streak once he gets into the lead. People keep doubting him and he keeps proving them wrong, so don't be surprised if he gets the measure of links golf this week.
There's also the small matter of Tiger Woods' return to action, having not featured since a steady T21 at the US Open. The World Number Five has spoken positively about Portrush, and loves the challenge of links golf, but his lack of game-sharpness could take its toll in such a tough examination.
Image Credit: The Open Twitter
Finally, expect Northern-Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke to attract plenty of support this week as they fly the flag for their country. Clarke will hit the first tee shot of the Championship at just past 6.30am on Thursday, whilst McDowell is from Portrush and qualified in dramatic fashion at the Canadian Open by holing a monster putt on the 18th green.
Still the only venue outside of England and Scotland to have held the Open, Royal Portrush last hosted 68 years ago in 1951 when Max Faulkner won by two strokes.
Image Credit: Royal Portrush Website
The Championship Course at Portrush is known as the Dunluce Links, and has undergone a number of changes over the last couple of years in anticipation of the event. The 17th and 18th holes are gone and are replaced by two holes using land from the Club's second golf course, though they will serve as the 7th and 8th hole during Championship week.
The Par-5 second hole, Giant's Grave, has been lengthened by 40 yards so that it now approaches 600 yards when the tees are right at the back, and the course as a whole now measures over 7,300 yards.
Image Credit: Royal Portrush Website
All in all, five new greens, eight new tee boxes, ten new bunkers and two holes have been added to the original Harry Colt design so that it is ready to challenge the game's greatest players.
The signature hole is undoubtedly the par-3 16th (previously the 14th), known worldwide as Calamity Corner and regarded as one of the most iconic in golf. Measuring a daunting 240 yards, golfers must carry their tee shot over a huge chasm which stands between them and the green. Expect to see plenty of golfers bail out to the left this week into Bobby Lock'es Hollow and face a tricky up and down.
Image Credit: TaylorMade Golf Twitter
Perhaps the most exciting hole of the week could be the 17th, however. Though it measures over 400 yards it plays downhill and often downwind, meaning that the majority of players will be capable of driving the green if they can navigate the bunkers. If it's looking like a close finish on Sunday afternoon, look out for these two holes to be key.
Our Betting Tips
The Favourite - Matt Kuchar @ 41/1
The now-unpopular American is about as consistent as any golfer on the planet, and playing some of the best golf of his career over the last twelve months or so. T12 at the Masters, T8 at the PGA Championship and T16 at the US Open shows that he's more than capable of competing at the majors on all different types of course.
Kuchar opted to play in the Scottish Open last week and was rewarded with a solid top 20 finish which should give him plenty of confidence heading into Portrush this week. He also has a good links record, with a Top 10 in 2018 and pushing Jordan Spieth all the way in 2017.
If you can get him at around 40/1 he's a great price for both an outright winner or an each way bet.
The Outsider - Louis Oosthuizen E/W @ 55/1
2010 Champion Oosthuizen not only has one of the best swings in the game, but he is also one of the very best golfers. Tee to green he is as good as anybody, and he has consistently been ranked inside the Top 25 in the World Rankings over the last five years.
Another good links player who also finished as runner up in 2015 at St Andrews, Oosthuizen has performed well so far this year and was in contention recently at the US Open, where he finished T7.
Four rounds at Lahinch for the Irish Open before a trip to Ballybunion and Trump Doonbeg should have him more than used to playing links golf again, and he could be a real danger this week if the putts drop.
The Longshot - Patrick Reed E/W @ 90/1
Reed has endured a pretty quiet twelve months after winning The Masters in April of last year, but appears to have turned his form around over the last few weeks and seems to be peaking at the right moment with a major and the FedEx Cup race still to be contested.
Another controversial American, Reed has finished T5 and T23 in his two appearances before Portrush so should be feeling much better about his game, and ready to remind the world just how good he can be.
A missed cut sandwiched in between three Top 30 finishes in his last four Open appearances show that he is a decent links player, where his gritty character and improving iron play could serve him well this week.