Ben Coley previews the third round of the Open Championship, where Cameron Smith will tee off with the lead but some of the world’s best are on the prowl.
4pts Rory McIlroy to win the Open at 4/1 (General)
1pt treble Law, Lowry and Wise to win their two-balls at 5.3/1 (Sky Bet)
The (Jeff) Overton window keeps shifting at St Andrews, where before the tournament we were asked to believe we might see players threaten to break 60, but now, scoring broadly in line with recent renewals at the Old Course, we’re meant to be concerned that scoring has been too low. Not a bit of it. Thirty-six holes of fascinating golf behind us, the stage is set for a fabulous weekend.
Cameron Smith is the man to catch after a second-round 64 which saw that putter of his do what it did at Sawgrass, but had failed to do in the Masters, the PGA Championship, and the US Open. It’s no exaggeration to say the Aussie might be a major champion already had his most dangerous club behaved itself at Southern Hills and if it stays hot for two more days, he’s going to be mighty hard to shift.
Of course, that’s a sizeable if. Rounds like that which he produced on Friday are rare enough; to keep draining putts when the pressure is increasing all the time takes something special. Smith is renowned for his toughness and rightly so, but he’s not won a major yet and until he has, that is a question yet to be answered. He’s also got a big number in him from time to time and at some stage you’d think he’ll face something approaching a crisis. How he deals with it will count for plenty.
None of this should be perceived as negativity regarding our pre-tournament headline tip. He looks as ready as anyone can look before they’ve proven it, and like so many major winners he has very recent experience of playing out of the final group. Remember, that’s what Matt Fitzpatrick had done a month before his US Open win, and it’s only three months since Smith was charging at Scheffler on Sunday at Augusta. To my untrained eye, he also looks to be swinging it beautifully – as well as putting as he did, don’t underestimate how many irons were pin high yesterday, precisely where he wanted to hit them.
It’s that pre-tournament position, and my long-held view that RORY MCILROY would be the man to beat this week, which to a degree influences the selection at the top of this page. There’s no escaping the fact that McIlroy looks very dangerous, dealing better with a slow start to round two than he has at times. He carries a level of confidence around St Andrews which makes this feel different and again brings echoes of Fitzpatrick, who was so at ease at Brookline. These things matter.
Playing from the penultimate group alongside a Ryder Cup teammate, McIlroy has no excuses today and I don’t think he’ll need them. That’s not to say I’m adamant he’s going to end an eight-year major drought tomorrow night, but I am very confident he’ll be snapping at the heels of anyone who manages to remain in front of him. He’s been imperious off the tee so far and his typical weakness, iron play, seems less likely to hurt him here. There are several others in the mix who’ve not exactly excelled with their approach shots from a statistical point-of-view, but that’s not always an accurate reflection of things when players aren’t aiming at pins all day.
With Cameron Young lacking links experience and remaining a PGA Tour rookie who is yet to win at anything like this level, and Viktor Hovland entering the weekend of a major with a chance to win for the first time in his career, McIlroy is by a long way the biggest threat to Smith and it feels like the right time to add him to the staking plan, with Dustin Johnson also in the mix for pre-tournament followers.
Johnson might emerge as a key player if he can crack the front-nine, which he hasn’t so far, but Scottie Scheffler probably represents a bigger danger to those in front. He ought to be a shot or two better and as an almost permanent fixture on major leaderboards since the autumn of 2020, the world number one is unlikely to be all that far away at the death. Whether he can win might depend a little on Smith, because five shots is a decent gap, but Scheffler should keep up his end of the bargain.
St Andrews has always been a good course for front-runners, even if Johnson himself faded from first to 49th over the weekend here in 2015. With catastrophe easy enough to avoid for those willing to take their medicine, I find it hard to believe the winner comes from outside the final few groups. There are too many world-class players who’ve built excellent foundations for that to happen, and there’s not much more to say.
Pre-tournament positions do shape in-play wagers but those looking at things anew would also be pointed towards McIlroy. At twice the price of Smith, with just one player separating them, it’s the four-time major champion who looks the best value and I expect those roaring him on this afternoon to be rewarded with a move into the final group for Sunday.
As ever, I’ll stress that two-balls are less appealing than three-balls. The latter provide far more opportunities to identify weakness and disparities, and offer the back-up of dead-heat payouts. Two-balls at the weekend are by nature more complex: these are players whose performances so far have been near identical.
Stakes are kept small as a result as I can’t see anything way out of line. Even AARON WISE (1430 BST), who is selected on the basis he’s been performing at a higher level than Lucas Herbert all year and is ranked significantly higher by DataGolf, comes with the caveat that Herbert is an excellent links player who is a shot better than Wise to this point.
Still, the American is much more solid and ought to be favourite, which he in fact isn’t with several firms. That surprises me and if he continues to drive the ball as well as he has, ranking third off the tee so far this week, he’ll have sufficient opportunities to beat a player whose short-game is better, but whose long-game can let him down badly.
Wise is the best value, but the banker might be SHANE LOWRY (1305). His attitude this week has been fabulous, helping him to defy a nightmare start, and there’s no reason he can’t continue to climb the leaderboard just as he did in last year’s delayed title defence. Lowry hasn’t putted all that well so far but the rest of his game is in excellent shape and, as we know, the putter could come alive at any stage.
Nicolai Hojgaard of course has one of the key tools in cracking St Andrews: abundant power. That’s no doubt helped him but it’s the putter that explains his position in the middle of the pack. He’s been fully five strokes better than Lowry on the greens and with the Irishman holding all the aces in terms of links smarts and experience, it’ll take more hot putting for Hojgaard to keep with him.
Finally, while I respect what the amateurs have achieved so far and what happened here in 2015, when Paul Dunne led, surely DAVID LAW (1240) is entitled to be shorter than 10/11 to beat Filippo Celli.
Law is a solid DP World Tour pro with stacks of experience, he’s in dreamland playing in the 150th Open at St Andrews having qualified just two weeks ago, and his tee-to-green game so far this week has been very good.
Celli has relied more on the putter but that’s not really the point. He’s a young, inexperienced amateur with the Silver Medal to play for and it’s a big ask to compete with those, like Law, who’ve been round the block and back again. Throw in the support Law will enjoy before fans turn their attentions to the final group and I expected to see the Scotsman priced shorter than he has been.
Posted at 0830 BST on 16/07/22
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