An Olympic golf fan’s guide to the British Open


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The British Open is the last big men’s golf event before the Olympics

The world’s oldest golf tournament tees off tomorrow at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, site of the 149th Open Championship (as they call it over there). The final men’s major of the year is also the last significant event before the Olympic men’s tournament begins two weeks from today — on Wednesday, July 28 in Canadian time zones. (The women play a major next week, the Evian Championship in France, before their Olympic tournament tees off Tuesday, Aug. 3 in Canadian time zones.) Barring any 11th-hour dropouts, the fields for both Olympic events have already been determined.

With all that in mind, let’s preview the British Open through an Olympic prism. Here are some key things to know about the chase for the Claret Jug and what it might tell us about who will win the men’s gold in Tokyo:

Jon Rahm is the best player in the world.

That’s not what the official rankings say — they have American Dustin Johnson a hair ahead of the 26-year-old Spaniard. But everyone knows who’s the true No. 1 right now. Johnson hasn’t finished higher than eighth in any tournament this calendar year, and he missed the cut in two of the three majors. Rahm is rolling: he won the U.S. Open last month for his first major title, and before that was leading the Memorial by a mile when a positive COVID-19 test forced him to withdraw. He also tied for eighth at the PGA Championship and fifth at the Masters. Data Golf’s more-dynamic ranking system places Rahm No. 1 with a bullet, and bettors agree: he’s just north of 7/1 to win the British. No one else’s odds are better than 15/1.

Rahm should also be the highest-ranked player (and the betting favourite) in Tokyo. Johnson confirmed a while ago that he wouldn’t play, opening up a spot for another American player. Countries are allowed up to four entries in the Olympic tournament if they’re all ranked in the top 15, and the U.S. is the only nation this applies too (everyone else was capped at two). Justin Thomas, Colin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau (the Nos. 3-6 players in the official world rankings) are set to represent the U.S. in Tokyo, and they’re all playing in the British Open.

British fans might be cheering for Rory McIlroy this week — and against him in Tokyo.

The Open galleries will get behind any contender from the Isles, and the Northern Irishman is one of their most-beloved players. McIlroy’s four major titles include the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool. He’s currently ranked 11th in the world and even higher in the betting markets, where he always draws a lot of backing. But British fans might turn on him at the Olympics. Though Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, McIlroy has the option of playing for either Great Britain or Ireland at the Olympics, and he’s chosen the latter. Great Britain will be represented in Tokyo by Englishmen Paul Casey and Tommy Fleetwood, who are ranked 21st and 35th in the world, respectively. The top two Englishmen — No. 10 Tyrrell Hatton and No. 20 Matthew Fitzpatrick — both said no to the Olympics, as did No. 29 Lee Westwood. But they’re all playing this week.

The Olympic hosts’ hero dropped out.

Hideki Matsuyama’s victory at the Masters in April made him the first Japanese player to win a men’s major and positioned him as a big star for the Tokyo Games. He was mentioned as a possible candidate to be Japan’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony (the honour ended up going to women’s wrestler Yui Susaki and men’s basketball player Rui Hachimura), and even to light the Olympic cauldron (that’s still a secret).

Matsuyama has some unexpected free time to prepare for Tokyo after testing positive for COVID-19 during a PGA Tour event two weeks ago. He said he was symptom free but continued to test positive, leaving him unable to practise for the British Open. Matsuyama decided last week to withdraw.

Both South Koreans in the Olympic men’s tournament — Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim — elected to skip the British to prepare for Tokyo. Among the other dropouts are 2015 British Open champ Zach Johnson, who tested positive last week, and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson, who was in contact with an infected person.

Both of Canada’s Olympic men’s players are here.

Corey Conners is ranked 38th in the world after strong showings at the Masters (tied for eighth) and the PGA Championship (tied for 17th). But he hasn’t been at his sharpest lately, missing the cut at the U.S. Open and, before that, finishing outside the top 50 at the Memorial. Conners’ rise this season tracked with improvements in his sometimes-dicey putting and work around the greens, which have since regressed. But those aspects of the game tend to be volatile for even the best players. Conners remains elite at the more sustainable skill of ball-striking. So if his short game comes back this week or in Tokyo, he can contend.

Mackenzie Hughes, ranked 64th, can’t match Conners’ skill from tee to green, so he really needs a hot putter to be in the mix. Hughes held a share of the lead heading into the final round of the U.S. Open, but his approaches and short game deserted him and he finished tied for 15th.

Canada’s Corey Conners has the chops to contend for the Claret Jug if his short game is on. (David J. Phillip/The Associated Press)

Quickly…

Olympic athletes will have to put on their own medals. In a pandemic-induced change to the traditional practice of an official placing the hardware around athletes’ necks on the medal stand, medals “will be presented to the athlete on a tray and then the athlete will take the medal him or herself,” IOC president Thomas Bach said today. Medallists and officials will also be required to wear masks, and no fans are allowed at any Olympic venues, so these ceremonies will look a lot different in Tokyo. Read more about the decision to go to self-serve medals here.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. stole the show (sort of) from Shohei Ohtani. Most of the excitement at baseball’s all-star festivities this week in Denver revolved around Ohtani, the Ruthian slugger/pitcher who’s leading the majors with 33 homers while going 4-1 with 87 strikeouts in 67 innings as a starting pitcher. The flame-throwing, rocket-hitting Ohtani is the best two-way player since the Babe, and some say he’s better. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci argues, Ruth was a true two-way player for only a 218-game window in 1918 and ’19. Ohtani has a better slugging percentage this year than the Sultan of Swat posted in either of those seasons, while stealing far more bases (12 already this season). The 26-year-old Japanese sensation is the most exciting player baseball has seen in quite some time. But Ohtani had (by his standards) a so-so All-Star week, beginning with his first-round loss in the home-run derby on Monday. In last night’s All-Star Game he went 0-for-2 with a pair of groundouts as the American League’s leadoff hitter and worked a clean but strikeout-less first inning as its starting pitcher. The MVP went to Guerrero Jr., after the 22-year-old Toronto Blue Jays slugger smoked a 468-foot homer to help the AL to a 5-2 win. Guerrero is the youngest MVP in All-Star Game history and the first Blue Jay to win the award. Read more about his and Ohtani’s performances here.

And finally…

A guy in Ontario ran nearly 900 kilometres of trail in 9 days. Twenty-eight-year-old Kip Arlidge covered the entire Bruce Trail (stretching from Tobermory, Ont., down to Niagara Falls) in 219 hours and 27 minutes, shattering the record by about 14 hours. A marathon is about 42 kilometres, so Arlidge ran (or hiked, once his body broke down) about two and a half of ’em a day for nine days in a row — much of it on rough terrain. Read more about how he pulled it off in this story by CBC News’ Haydn Watters.

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