By Tim Liotta
Open Offers Last Chance at History
The 151st Open Championship offers one last chance, for the six players at the absolute top of major championship golf, to alter the way 2023 is remembered.
While it feels like Rory McIlroy has been forever trying to add a fifth major-championship trophy, it's been John Rahm, Brooks Koepka and Wyndham Clark claiming the first three major championships this year, with Scottie Scheffler settling for a Players Championship while seemingly always lurking prominently on those first three leaderboards.
And it seems appropriate to add Cameron Smith, the defending Open Champion, to the who-is-the-best list, but he remains a bit more of a mystery after his Win-A-Major-Disappear-to-LIV over the last twelve months.
Claims to #1 in the major game RIGHT NOW:
After his dramatic Scottish Open victory complete with a birdie-birdie finish to prevail by a shot over Robert MacIntyre, McIlroy, like the rest of us, immediately measured his latest triumph in Open Championship terms.
"Obviously a huge confidence boost going into The Open next week," he said. "I've had my chances over the last couple of months and been knocking on the door. Just haven't quite been able to get it done so hopefully this breaks the seal and we can go on from here."
Rory's last six starts:
T7 at the PGA Chammpionship
T7 at the Memorial
T9 at the RBA Canadien Open
2nd at the U.S. Open
T7 at the Travelers
WON the Scottish Open
Rory appears to be gaining momentum since his U.S. Open runner-up, which felt eerily similar to last year's near-miss at St Andrews. He converted the shots he needed in Scotland, which was not the case at LACC. He won at Royal Liverpool in 2014, and he has a chance to re-claim the No. 1 ranking in the World.
Rahm played the best golf of anyone this year, albeit from January into April, winning four times in 9 starts, including adding a Masters to his 2021 U.S. Open title for his second career major championship.
While it may look like Rahm has cooled off, he finished T10 at the U.S. Open, closing with a 65 after three days of burning the edges.
"Ball-striking wise, it slowly got a little bit better each day," Rahm said on U.S. Open Sunday. "(On Saturday) went to the range in the afternoon and found a very comfortable feel that I felt like I could replicate often.
"After the really positive session (Saturday) afternoon, I went with some confidence today and kind of took over basically where I left it off and got to that first tee with a lot more -- I wouldn't say belief, but I think it was a lot less tension in my swing today, and it showed."
Nobody has achieved more separation from his peers than Rahm did the first four months of the year, and it seems we're always surprised when he is unable to re-assert that dominance.
After re-announcing himself in the major championship picture with a T2 at the Masters in April, Koepka regained his place as this generation's best major championship player with his fifth major title, a dominating, two-stroke victory at the PGA Championship with a 66-66-67 finish.
There's no telling what his LIV record means, but he quietly finished T17 at the U.S. Open last month, battling LACC to a virtual draw with rounds of 71-69-70-69. He has every right to claim he can one-up anybody any time at the top of the major championship ladder be in 2023.
The current No. 1 has displayed a year of ball striking that rivals some of best years Tiger Woods put up, but all he has to show for it is a Players Championship. He's yet to finish further back than T12 in 2023, and he's number one in scoring average and strokes gained: total.
He finished T3 at the Scottish Open after admitting he had not put in his usual level of preparation, and his Open Championship record is better than it looks.
Another LIV question mark who has put together another terrific major championship season since winning his first major last year at St. Andrews with one of the great closing rounds in Open Championship history.
After struggling at the Masters through a 75-75 finish that netted him a T34 finish, Smith rebounded with a closing-round 65 and T4 at the PGA, and a fourth-place finish at the U.S. Open thanks to Sunday's only sub-round round, a 3-under-par 67, among the top four finishers at LACC.
While his play at the highest level has been brief, Clark has a major championship on his 2023 resume, so he's proven he can outplay the best (Rory 2nd, Scottie third, Smith fourth, Rahm T10 at LACC) on a major-championship stage.
Add to his 2023 a dominant 4-shot victory in an elevated event, the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow - a performance that saw him outgun Xander Schauffele across a Sunday back nine - and you have to put him on the list of the best players in the game over the last sixth months.
No matter what the other five have done in 2023, McIlroy will garner the most attention this week, a lot of it sentimental thanks to his nine-year chase for his fifth major.
With two stuck-in-neutral final rounds the last two times he's been in contention, first at St Andrews last year, and last month at LACC, his birdie-birdie finish to overtake Robert MacIntyre.
"I tried to say yesterday that I improved as a wind player, and I feel like I have," McIlroy said. "Hopefully those two iron shots on the last two holes will prove that.
"Yeah, you've got to hit great shots but you also have to finish them off with putts, and that's something that I didn't do at St Andrews last year, and it's something I didn't do in L.A. a few weeks ago.
"So to be able to hole those putts coming down the stretch when I needed to, I don't feel like it really proves anything. I don't feel like I need to prove anything in my career, but it's satisfying to know that for me that I can still do it."
For the six mentioned about, the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool offers the last chance to change what 2023 means to their place in the game.
For Rahm and Koepka, it's a chance to solidify themselves as the No. 1 major championship threat. Two majors in 2023 would put them in history's rarified air.
For Clark, it's a chance to prove LACC was no fluke, and that, even with a very short resume, he belongs in this company.
For Scheffler, winning the Open would transform 2023 from a year of questionable putting into a positive, productive leap forwardy, solidifying the argument he is the best golfer in the world.
For Smith, becoming the first player to repeat as an Open champion since Padraig Harrington's double in 2007-08 would resurrect the aura he took on after his awe-inspiring finish at St Andrews a year ago.
And for Rory, to end nine years of waiting for his fifth major at Royal Liverpool, he could easily claim to be the best player of his generation.