The oldest tournament in golf and the third major of the year returns to Scotland and Carnoustie golf links this week. This will mark the 147th playing of The Open Championship, the only one of golf’s majors to be played outside the United States.

Carnoustie is famous for having the most gruelling climax of any course on The Open’s rotation; the 18th hole has ended many talented players’ tournaments, just ask Sergio Garcia or Jean van de Velde. The final hurdle may be the steepest but the entire course should set the stage for an exciting contest. Despite the brilliant summer weather in Scotland, hopefully there will be some high winds and turbulent conditions to provide the sternest of challenges to the world’s best golfers.

Carnoustie is hosting the Open for the first time in eleven years and it’s safe to say a lot has changed in the world of golf since Padraig Harrington lifted the Claret Jug back in 2007.

First of all, despite falling short at Carnoustie, it was still the era of Tiger Woods who, prior to any personal controversies or serious injuries, was the undisputed world number one and was still yet to win two of his fourteen major trophies. Eleven years on and much of the conversation in the build up to The Open remains about golf’s biggest star. Tiger’s latest comeback has shown far more promise than the previous few after a string of good performances. These promising signs have led to some golf fans dreaming of watching Tiger winning big once again. Despite this possibility it seems as though it is still too early for Tiger to challenge at the very top level until he starts consistently competing at tournaments. Nevertheless, expect big crowds and much talk from analysts as the saga that is Tiger Woods continues it’s latest chapter.

Nowadays, golf is in a unique position compared to most sports in that there is a large group of elite players at the very top. At any given major there are probably up to fifty players capable of winning and the possibility of an upset from someone outside that group isn’t at all unheard of. This coupled with the changeable nature of links golf, makes The Open notoriously hard to predict.

However, here is a look at some of the players heading to Carnoustie:

The current world number one Dustin Johnson may have broken his major duck at the US Open in 2016 but the American has a habit of starting majors strong before falling away at the weekend. Similarly the reigning champion Jordan Spieth, who superbly beat the field by 3 strokes last year, hasn’t won a tournament since his triumph at Royal Birkdale. Both players are more than capable of becoming the Champion Golfer for 2018 but will need to overcome problems with consistency and current form in order to do so.

The players in real form that are worth looking at are numerous. Masters champion Patrick Reed can be a formidable force when in the mood and after his commanding win at Augusta, he will be hungry to double his major haul. The US Open at Shinnecock Hills proved a huge test to all the players but not long after returning from injury, Brooks Koepka won his second successive US Open title. Koepka’s steely performance showed he has true quality in the most gruelling conditions, excellent preparation for an Open Championship.

From a home perspective, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy is still seen as the greatest hope. The world number eight hasn’t won a major since his PGA win in 2014 and has suffered from inconsistent form of late. Nevertheless, the 29-year-old has talent in spades and should he be able to sort out his erratic putting we may finally see him deservedly reach the top again. A more consistent candidate would be England’s Justin Rose whose all-round game is arguably in the best shape of his career. The world number three and Olympic champion has got a great record of being in contention at the big tournaments and after a few near misses at majors; a Claret Jug would go very nicely with his 2013 US Open trophy. Last year’s Race to Dubai winner, England’s Tommy Fleetwood, recorded an incredible 63 in the final round at Shinnecock to finish second to Koepka. The more we see of Fleetwood the more the Southport native impresses on the big stage, so perhaps it is his time to join the exclusive club of Open champions.

Given that we are in a Ryder Cup year, (the world’s most famous golf team competition takes place in September at Le Golf National near Paris), there is the added element of players gunning for a place on their teams. For Europe, the talisman at Medinah, Ian Poulter, has had an improved year and a strong showing at Carnoustie would certainly keep him in captain Thomas Bjorn’s thoughts. Other hopefuls include Scotland’s newly crowned Irish Open champion Russell Knox who just missed out in 2016 and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, a standout performer two years ago but has struggled since. Bjorn has decided to have four captains picks so immediate form may well play a key role in determining who makes it to Le Golf National.

America appears to have a lot more depth with regards to who makes the team but experienced heads like 2015 champion Zach Johnson and 2013 Muirfield winner Phil Mickleson are good outside bets for a strong Open, and maybe a place on Jim Furyk’s team. With a sea of major winners ranging from the youth of Spieth, and Justin Thomas to the experience of Jimmy Walker and Bubba Watson it may look likely that there will be an American Open champion for the 45th time.

There are still more international hopes however; Henrik Stenson broke Open records at Troon in 2016 and Sergio Garcia ended his long wait for a major at Augusta last year, both are accomplished performers on Scotland’s links and Garcia in particular will want redemption for his collapse at Carnoustie eleven years ago. Spain’s Jon Rahm and Rafa Cabrera-Bello have been excellent these last two seasons and both have the potential to win one of golf’s big four. Australia’s Jason Day has a strong major record but with only one win he will be hugely motivated at Carnoustie to add to his tally.

Stone’s win at the Scottish Open last week, capped off by a masterful round of 60, makes him a serious contender. Photo: Twitter, @BrandonStone.

On ten occasions the Open champion has hailed from South Africa, and one to watch from that group of players will be Scottish Open winner Brandon Stone who shot an incredible 60 in the final round at Gullane. Joining Stone is the 2010 champion at St Andrews, Louis Oosthuizen, who has completed a “grand slam” of second place finishes at the majors. Look out for him to perform on the links yet again as he pushes for a second win.

Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama has the talent to be a major champion one day but will need to put an inconsistent season behind him and be at his very best to triumph as there are question marks over whether his game is suited to links courses.

Given that ten of the last fourteen major winners have been first-time champions there is plenty of hope for the rest of the field. Rickie Fowler has come close so many times and as a former Scottish Open champion and fan of the links game perhaps it is finally his moment.

The list of potential winners is an extended one, with the names mentioned above only scratching at the surface, but if one had to pull a single name out it would be for Justin Rose. The Englishman’s ability to bounce back from poor shots or holes is essential to surviving a gruelling weekend of links golf and his big-stage mentality is one of the best in the game. Seeing an in-form Brooks Koepka on the links is also an exciting prospect.

Whomever wins The Open, they will be joining a group of the greatest to ever play the game with names like Morris, Player, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson, Ballesteros, Faldo, Woods and many more. Whether it be for the first, or the latest time the winner will reach the pinnacle of the sport, as for all the ranking positions, money lists and trophies, there can only ever be one Champion Golfer of the Year.

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