Matt Cooper

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Open Championship Sleepers

Monday, July 17, 2017


 The specific test of the Open Championship means that there is always potential for a surprise high finisher and many, naturally, hail from the European Tour.
 
Last year at Royal Troon, for example, Andrew Johnston made the top ten and Matthew Southgate the top 20. In 2015 Anthony Chesters and Anthony Wall made the top dozen. 
 
Here are ten players who might have been overlooked by the majority, yet could feature on the leaderboard at some stage this week – and five who are up against it.
 
Soren Kjeldsen
Possibly a three card trick from the Dane this week. Links credentials? He claimed victory in the 2015 Irish Open at Royal County Down in weather that was sometimes filthy. Open credentials? He was right in the mix at Royal Troon last year, indeed T3 and just three back at halfway. Form? Until the last couple of weeks you might have had your doubts, but there have been genuine signs of improvement which peaked with a final round 68 last week at Dundonald Links, helping him to a strokeplay best of the season T9.
 
Last year’s cult hero continues to ride the wave and last week impressed with T19 in the Scottish Open, a nice warmer as he seeks to back-up his T8 in this event 12 months ago. He’s never played Royal Birkdale before, but his coach is based in the area so he’ll have plenty of info for the team. Endlessly popular with the galleries and he still loves their affection every bit as much as they enjoy his attitude.
 
A semi final appearance in the WGC World Match Play and third in the BMW PGA Championship are the highlights of what is the Japanese star’s best year of international golf and his recent T10 in the Irish Open at Portstewart both added to that and hinted that there is more to come. Back in 2006 the 14-time winner on the Japanese Tour finished tied fifth in the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool and whilst his four other Open starts were abrupt (missed cuts each one), his form this year suggests he has a great chance of making the weekend, and maybe in style.
 
Impossible to overlook based on form. He warmed up for the run of three Rolex Series events which preceded this week with a trio of top 30s, neither one of which he could turn into top 20s. Maybe he was just waiting for the big prize funds because he’s promptly ticked off three top tens (T6 in the Open de France, T4 at both the Irish and Scottish Opens). He looked right at home on the links and perfectly comfortable with seeing his name on the leaderboard in among strong fields.
 
What to make of last week’s Scottish Open play-off defeat? For 54 holes he was superb and on Sunday he played 17 holes of almost forensic final day play, gaining the lead, holding it, seeming for all the world like he would claim the title. Then an errant approach to the 72nd hole led to a clumsy bogey and he repeated the error on the first extra hole. Looks right at home playing links golf, with results to prove it (T8 at Castle Stuart). Just a matter of whether you expect him to shrug off the disappointment or suffer an understandable dip.
 
Haotong Li
The Chinese 21-year-old might have the personality to transform many stereotypes about Asian golfers; his expressive nature and excitable laugh are a long way from cliched perceptions. He suffered on his major championship debut at the US Open (weekend rounds of 82-84) but turned it round with T7 at the Open de France. His Driving Accuracy stats are poor (ranked 162nd) but during the final round of the Rocco Forte Open he seemed to find it easier to hit the short grass when he was aiming 40 yards right or left of it, then letting the wind do the rest.
 
Had a chastening Open debut back in 2007 when rounds of 74-80 saw him head home early, but one year later the local lad improved to T19 at Royal Birkdale. Local lad might be stretching it a little since he hails from the Wirral, home of Royal Liverpool, rather than the Southport coast, but he’s well versed in the links game. Began the recent Open de France with a lap of 64 and was in contention during the final round prior to finishing T16.
 
Back in 2008 the Englishman was hot property on the Challenge Tour with two wins, qualified for the Open at Royal Birkdale and spent the first two days hovering round the top 20 before falling back on the weekend to T67. He’s finished T11 and T9 in the last two Dunhill Links Championships and in the last two weeks has mixed very good rounds with very bad ones. Lives in the north-west of England and has been visiting the course on his off weeks as prep.
 
His record on links courses is far from impressive – he missed the cut at the Scottish Open and Open Championship last year, then stumbled to early departures in both the Irish and Scottish Opens this month. But there are a few factors which suggest he might have the tools to crack the code eventually. First up he won the Qatar Masters at Doha, a course where Open champions Paul Lawrie, Ernie Els, Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott, plus links specialists Sergio Garcia and Thomas Bjorn, have won. Moreover all that week he was playing bump-and-run shots around the greens by choice, was unfussed by the gusting wind and is a superb putter. The raw material is there, does he have enough experience? 
 
Feel free to overlook last week’s missed cut in the Scottish Open. On one hand he did exactly the same last year prior to finishing T12 at Royal Troon. On the other it was understandable after a hectic week which saw him win Final Qualifying at Royal Cinque Ports (36 holes on Tuesday) then finished T2 at the Irish Open. Both those results reiterate that the Englishman thrives on linksland. Add in a minor tour victory at Royal St George’s, membership at Carnoustie and an abiding love of The Open and there’s every reason for him to be on the long list.
 


Gamers beware
 
He does have a victory on the links (at Kennemer in the KLM Open), but it is something of an anomaly in his career record and chats to Dutch journalists suggest he’s not the biggest fan of the distinctive test. He’s only twice (in nine tries) finished better than T40 in the Dunhill Links, only once thrived when the Irish and Scottish Opens have been on linksland, and is yet to notch an Open top 40 in five attempts.
 
The South African has a dreadful record at The Open. He’s not only missed five cuts from five, but he’s consistently scored badly. Seven of his ten championship rounds have been 76 or worse (and four times he has posted 80 plus). Mirroring that appalling event form is his current form struggles. He’s missed the last five cuts, including all three of the Rolex Series event in the last three weeks (the latter two meaning further woe on the links).
 
The American is flying high in the Race to Dubai but his tweet last week said much about his record playing this form of the game. “I love links golf,” he wrote. “I love links golf. I love links golf. I love links golf. I love links golf. Just need to say that to myself 10000000x...” Why the black humor? He missed the cut at the links-like Le Golf National, then the genuine links at Portstewart and Dundonald Links. He also failed to last the week at Royal County Down, Gullane and Castle Stuart in the last three seasons.
 
The Frenchman’s excellent third round last week was notable for bucking the perception that he struggles in wind (20mph+ gusts are forecast for the week). What we do know is that he has admitted to preferring target golf (in a post-round interview at the Open de France). It was a refreshingly honest admission because golf tends to deem such views as sacrilegious, almost morally wrong. Good on him for telling the truth. That said, his links results – last week excepted – should make gamers nervous of picking him.  
 
It would take a remarkably brave man to press hopes on this week being the one when the Englishman rediscovers his mojo. His last seven starts have reaped three missed cuts, three withdrawals, a T58, and a change in caddie.



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