The Open Championship
- Royal Troon
- 14-17 July
- Live text commentary on BBC Sport website from 06:30 BST. BBC Radio 5 live 10:00-19:00, BBC Two highlights 20:00-22:00.
While the club flag flies proudly over the clubhouse at Royal Troon it could easily be replaced by a Star-Spangled Banner.
Every Open staged at the challenging Ayrshire links since 1962 has been won by an American player and current form suggests that run will be extended after this week’s 145th running of the Championship.
Arnold Palmer set this rollerball in motion 54 years ago and Dustin Johnson is primed to ride its momentum and make it seven consecutive US wins at Troon.
Having cast aside the demons that repeatedly undermined his attempts to land a first major with victory at last month’s US Open, the big hitter from South Carolina is in irresistible form.
A closing 66 in his next outing, at the WGC Invitational in Akron Ohio, provided back-to-back victories. This is a 32-year-old in his prime, at last fulfilling vast potential, and Johnson arrives in Scotland seeking a hat-trick of huge wins.
Switching from a draw to a power fade, Johnson has eliminated a damaging hook from his armoury.
“I feel like I hit a lot more fairways,” Johnson said.
“Maybe the stats don’t say it, but I feel like I do, so I think that’s the important thing. I just don’t feel like my misses are as bad.”
But it is improvements in his approach play that have made the biggest difference.
After a slow start to the year the powerful American concluded that it was his wedge play that was letting him down most.
Armed with the latest swing analysis technology, Johnson knuckled down to making sure he became more consistent in this key department. The results have been startling.
“All I look at is carry numbers, just so I have more of a feel when I’m on the course and playing,” he said.
“I felt like I was good with it, but I was too streaky. One day I’d be perfect, the next day, not that I hit them bad, I just didn’t hit them good enough.”
For someone famed for his prodigious length off the tee, Johnson now ranks top in the PGA Tour statistics for accuracy from 50-125 yards out. On average he puts these approaches to 15 feet.
“My wedges have improved a lot,” he observed. “I’m getting a lot more opportunities when I’m in the fairway and hitting my wedges closer than I have been.”
And he is no slouch with the putter, ranking highly in the 15 to 20 feet category with a 30% success rate. It makes for a formidable package.
“I just feel like the work I’ve put in with the putter is finally paying off. But you’ve got to hit the shots so you can have those putts,” Johnson added.
There is another statistic that highlights a key Johnson strength because there is no one better at covering the front nine. He is a brilliant starter.
This is particularly apposite at Troon where traditionally scores are made on the way out and defended on the way back. Someone with Johnson’s power and current touch could easily be five under par by the time they reach the seventh tee.
But they all know how tricky it is to maintain such a position on a back nine, described by South Africa’s three-time Open champion Gary Player as “the most difficult in the world, when the wind is blowing”.
In 2004, the last time the Open was played here, no one shot better than the four-under-par 67’s carded by Lee Westwood and Davis Love. It is a formidable test and subsequent course changes have been minimal.
The par-four ninth and 10th holes have been altered while the biggest difference is found with a repositioned 15th fairway. The hole has been straightened and lengthened by 15 yards and at 499 yards is the longest par four on the course.
This is where Nick Price squandered a commanding position to let in Tom Watson to claim the fourth of his five titles in 1982. It is a back nine that should provide plenty of drama and no one will believe they have the title in their pocket until they are signing their card.
In 2004 Ernie Els covered the inward half in three under par to complete four rounds in the 60’s and secure a place in a play-off with Todd Hamilton when the relatively unheralded American bogeyed the last.
In the four-hole shoot out it was Els’ bogey after overshooting the par-three 17th that proved the difference and Hamilton kept alive America’s Troon winning streak.
Of course, there are no guarantees that this run will continue this week. Yes Johnson has to be regarded as the man to beat but imponderables always abound at Opens.
An unfavourable draw can discount half the field if they encounter the worst of the conditions on the Thursday and Friday, while the depth of strength at the top of the game is immense.
World number one Jason Day will be determined to make up for missing last year’s St Andrews playoff by a single stroke as will two-time major winner Jordan Spieth after being similarly frustrated.
The wet build up to the Open plays into the hands of 2014 champion Rory McIlroy, although the Northern Irishman has been busy establishing a new swing pattern to put an enigmatic year back on track.
Last year Zach Johnson proved these majors are not the sole domain of the big hitters at the very top of the rankings with his victory on the Old Course.
At 7190 par-71, Royal Troon is not overly long and with thick, juicy rough this could be a week for a shorter, more accurate plodder.
Branden Grace’s low ball flight off the tee could be a big asset and having tied fifth at the US Open, the 28-year-old South African looks increasingly ready to land a first major title.
Australia’s Adam Scott, who came so close at Lytham in 2012, Masters champion Danny Willett (who has struggled of late), and Justin Rose are others who could prosper.
Rickie Fowler’s major form has been miserable this year but he likes links golf and doesn’t mind donning waterproofs when necessary. He certainly provides another reason to suggest the American dream will continue at Royal Troon.
Add Patrick Reed into the mix after a good weekend on the links of Castle Stuart and there is added reason to bet on back to back Open wins for the US.
Last year the name Johnson was etched on the Claret Jug as Zach celebrated his second major.
But while there are plenty of contenders, the man of the moment – with those booming drives and his sharpened wedge play – suggests that the same surname will provide the inscription this time.
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