— Ernie Els
No one has earned more points in the world rankings this year than The Big Easy. The 2002 champion (at Muirfield) ranks second in all-time earnings at the British Open. In 19 career appearances, he has 12 top 10s, including in each of the last four years. A month ago, you were reminded that he finished as the runner-up at Pebble Beach in 2000, 15 strokes back of Tiger Woods. At St. Andrews one month later, Els was victimized by Woods once again, finishing second, eight shots adrift. Els should be empowered by a superb 2010 during which he has won twice, finishing third at the U.S. Open and banked over $3.9 million, his second-highest season total during his PGA Tour career.
For as inconsistent as he can be, it might surprise some that the two-time U.S. Open champion has seven top 10s in the British Open, including a T-5 at St. Andrews in 2005, and ranks 11th on its all-time money list. After being sidelined by toe and hand injuries in recent weeks, the 41-year-old posted a T-5 at the Travelers Championship in late June. His above-average length off the tee will serve him well at the Old Course, and he remains one of the world's best mid-range putters, which is critical on the greens that average nearly 18,000 square feet.
With victories in two of his last three events (Memorial, AT&T National), the Englishman has risen to 16th in the world rankings. It has been 12 years since he broke into our consciousness at Royal Birkdale, finishing fourth as an amateur. Remarkably, this is his final start in a major as a twentysomething, as he turns 30 on July 30. This will be his ninth appearance in a British Open, but first at St. Andrews. Ball-striking is pivotal at the Old Course; Rose ranks 15th in the stat on the PGA Tour. He's also fifth in bogey avoidance. The last Brit to win this major was Nick Faldo in 1992 (at Muirfield).
On paper, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but the numbers don't quantify his will. The inaugural Race to Dubai champion finished T-93 and T-64 at St. Andrews in 1995 and 2000, respectively. Although he won the Dunhill Links in 2003, he then missed the cut at the '05 British. He has just three top 10s in 15 career starts in the Open, including last year's infamous T-3 when he bogeyed the 72nd hole to finish one stroke outside the playoff. While he backed into the playoff at the St. Jude Classic a month ago, he still outlasted two others to return to the winner's circle on the PGA Tour for the first time since 1998. He'll need to maintain a superior level of course management to contend, but he has all of the tools and motivation to finally break through in a major.
Everything else is second to experience in a major championship. Parlayed with previous success at the host site and it's a deadly weapon to all comers. Woods secured his career grand slam -- well, his first of what is three times over -- at St. Andrews in 2000. As a 24-year-old, he avoided all 112 bunkers throughout that edition en route to establishing the all-time 72-hole score in relation to par (19-under) and won by eight strokes. Back at St. Andrews five years later, he finished five clear of the field for what was his 10th major victory. At last month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, when asked what four courses he'd cherry-pick for the majors, he said, "I'd probably pick St. Andrews all four times." He has a love affair with the home of golf. It's one relationship that he's never kept a secret.
Showed enormous resiliency after throwing away the BMW PGA Championship in May with a 71st-hole double bogey (on a par 5 no less), rebounding the following week to win in Madrid, albeit with a weaker field. The following week, he placed third at Celtic Manor in Wales, host of this year's Ryder Cup. The greens of Pebble Beach took a bite out of his red-hot play -- he finished T-47 in the U.S. Open -- but the Brit bounced back in Paris two weeks later, finishing T-11. No worries if he finds the devilish bunkers at St. Andrews. Donald ranks first in sand saves on the PGA Tour. He also leads the circuit in scrambling and putting inside five feet, and sits sixth in bogey avoidance. And after a forgettable British Open record through 2007, he posted a T-5 at Turnberry last year, finally proving that he can compete on links courses.
There are few places where the 40-year-old can't compete. He has five top 10s in 14 appearances in the British, but he's been very average out of the sand with the new channel grooves in play this year. That could spell doom should he mismanage his way around the Old Course. Otherwise, his propensity to hit fairways (currently seventh on the PGA Tour) and scrambling (12th) sets him apart from the pretenders. He's also 11th in bogey avoidance. And he finally regained his winning form, and twice at that, with victories at the Transitions Championship in March and Verizon Heritage in April.
The two-time Open champion placed T-65 in his bid for the three-peat at Turnberry last year, but he entered that tournament after having missed five straight cuts as he worked through a swing tinkering. He's a two-time winner of the Dunhill Links, which incorporates St. Andrews in its rota, and finished T-5 at the Travelers Championship in June. Although he has five top 10s this year, no one besides Tiger Woods inside the top 21 of the world ranking has earned fewer points than Harrington.
The U.S. Open champion sits fifth on the European Tour in greens hit, and he's 14th in fairways. That formula will serve him quite well at St. Andrews, where he finished T-11 in 2005, a personal best in six starts in the British. He has zoomed to 13th in the world rankings, and is a lock to play in his second consecutive Ryder Cup. He rode the whirlwind of his breakthrough like a veteran, letting it come to him and returning only when he could exhibit conviction to moving on. Restarted his motor at Loch Lomond in the Scottish Open, where he finished T21.
While five runners-up in the U.S. Open suggest that that's the major that eludes him, his record in the British proves that the claret jug is further out of reach. Lefty has just one top 10 in 16 career starts in this major, and that was at Royal Troon in 2004, where he placed third. Like most links courses, St. Andrews has to be played from the hole backwards. Placement off the tee is priority No. 1. Mickelson's aggressive belief that he can hit any shot at any time doesn't work. While that swashbuckling style helped him win the Masters, particularly from the straw in the trees at the 13th hole on Sunday, he'd be better served at dissecting the Old Course on paper and setting a game plan versus spending time hitting balls from common collection areas. Moreover, his graceful and fluid putting stroke doesn't favor the harsh strikes required on the fine fescue greens that will be running at about 10 on the Stimpmeter.
While he remains the king of golfers on Twitter, he also gained legions of fans with his classy acceptance and understanding of his place in history at Turnberry last year. By taking down Tom Watson with ease in the playoff, he was the kid that beat up and stole from Santa Claus. It was a relatively surprising victory, too, considering his mediocre history on links courses. Since recording his first major title, Cink has fallen from ninth to 38th in the world rankings, and he's had just one top 10 in a full-field, stroke-play event (T-8, Memorial). He was a worthy champion, but the odds are greatly against the British having its third consecutive back-to-back winner (Tiger Woods, 2005-06; Padraig Harrington, 2007-08).
The Welshman is making a serious push to continue the accidental tradition that the Ryder Cup has always included at least one representative of the host country. He's currently 49th in the world rankings, thanks to an early season victory in Morocco and three runner-up finishes since. He's one of the best putters on the European Tour, but isn't long or accurate off the tee. There's no question that this 25-year-old is the real deal, but asking for success at St. Andrews is too tall a task at this stage of his career.
He limps into his third career British. After giving away the French Open, where he held the 54-hole lead, eventually fading to a T-5, the German missed the cut at the Scottish Open. His American counterpart is Dustin Johnson, who is six months older. These are multiple winners that mash it off the tee, are above average with their irons and putt a lot better than most realize, but they get into trouble when they can't avoid the big number, which is set up by poor course management. Like Johnson, Kaymer is still on his way up the learning curve, but neither has a glass ceiling.
Something has to give. Or take. On one hand, he's 0-for-5 in the British (although he hasn't competed at St. Andrews yet). Kuchar is so-so with his short irons and he'll never win a long-putting contest. Meanwhile, he leads the PGA Tour in bogey avoidance, sits third in scrambling, inside the top 25 in greens hit and putting, and inside the top 10 in two splits in putting from 5-15 feet. He has six top 10s this season, including a T-6 at the U.S. Open, where he closed strong. If he can mentally wipe the slate clean on the other side of the Atlantic, he'd make a lot of sense holding the claret jug on Sunday.
The eccentric Brit was the runner-up to Padraig Harrington at Royal Birkdale in 2008, but chased it with a missed cut at Turnberry a year ago. He's eighth in the world rankings, but over 55 percent of his points were tallied in just four events dating back to his win in Singapore last fall. The moral of the story is that he has been way too inconsistent to warrant consideration to contend at St. Andrews. Since finishing T-10 at the Masters three months ago, he has one top-45 payday, and that was at the French Open (T-18). He placed T-11 at the Old Course in 2005, and leads the European Tour in greens hit, but Poulter is a giant can of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Absolutely nothin'.