Nick Dougherty tips home favourite Tommy Fleetwood as the man to beat at the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale
Nick Dougherty is a perfect frontman for much of Sky’s Open coverage this year. He hails from Bootle, just down the coast, and has played in four Open Championships. For our Open issue of the magazine (out ) we asked him what Royal Birkdale asks of players – and who might answer those questions.
Is Dustin Johnson the man to beat?
He has been the standout player this year. He’s playing terrifically well and when the putter gets hot, he is pretty much untouchable. In terms of what he can do with a golf ball, he could be the closest thing we’ve got to Tiger. He drives it a mile, he drives it straight and his wedge game now ties it all together. He’s also quite good at using his body to manipulate the ball flight, so he’s got the complete package for links golf.
What about Sergio Garcia? Does his game match up well to the challenges posed at Royal Birkdale?
Links golf traditionally suits Sergio and if he drives well, he has a great chance. I think he will be there or thereabouts, but can he get over the line? I’m not sure. Yes, he has a new- found belief in his game after winning at Augusta, but I think there’s still a lot of scar tissue from missed opportunities at previous Opens.
Which players would you pinpoint as links specialists?
Rickie Fowler springs to mind. I don’t necessarily think he’s a “links specialist”, but he has adapted well to links conditions in the past. He’s got all the shots and he’s played well at the Open before (he finished T2 in 2014 at Hoylake, just down the road).
What attributes do you need to contend at Royal Birkdale?
Birkdale rewards persistence. It’s one of the tightest Open Championship venues in terms of positional play. It can feel unfair sometimes and if the winds gets up, it’s almost impossible to be precise around Birkdale. It takes a very strong mental game and the weather plays a big part.
Who needs a big performance at Birkdale to kick-start their season?
I think Jason Day has struggled since reaching world No.1 and winning a Major. I don’t think he’s taken his foot off the gas, but he might have lost that driving hunger. He’s had personal issues going on with his mum as well, which is a very challenging thing emotionally. But when you find the game so easy for a while, it can be frustrating when things start going wrong and other guys like Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama and Dustin Johnson eat up tournaments the way you did. He doesn’t need to win at Birkdale, but he needs to keep pace with Dustin because I don’t see him slowing down anytime soon.
Who’s the best British hope?
It’s hard to look past Tommy Fleetwood because of his form. In terms of quality tee to green, Tommy is as good as anyone right now. You can’t write off Rory, but I always think The Open is the hardest one for him to win. That’s why I’m delighted he’s already won one. Every player has different traits and I don’t believe playing in the wind is Rory’s forte. When he tries to squeeze the ball to keep it low, his body outpaces the club and he gets stuck behind. He’s normally brilliant at saving shots, but it’s much harder to do in the wind.
Who do you think has the best chance of joining the maiden Major winner’s club?
I think Rickie and Justin Thomas have a good chance, but I do doubt their ability to handle the conditions if it starts blowing a massive gust, like it did in 2008. If the wind gets up, I think it will bene t a certain type of player who has experience dealing with those conditions and knows how to manage their game. Maybe Poulter could be a dark horse. He has been through the ringer a bit, but he’s dug out some good performances. He got a break with his PGA Tour card and very nearly won the Players. He will go to Birkdale with confidence and last time it was there he was the man who pushed Harrington the closest.
And finally… who’s your money on?
The smart each way bet is Dustin Johnson because I think he will definitely finish in the top four. But I really believe Tommy Fleetwood is one to look out for. He will be playing in front of a home crowd and is coming off the back of some amazing performances in the States. He is one of the best European players on Tour right now and if he carries that form into Birkdale, he could be hard to beat.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM SKY
Henrik Stenson may be the reigning Open champion, but he’s not the only one who will be defending a title at Royal Birkdale.
Nick Dougherty and the rest of the Sky Sports Golf team will be attempting to earn back-to-back BAFTAs after scooping the Best Sports Production award for its coverage of last year’s Open at Royal Troon.
Sky beat off competition from Channel 4 for its coverage of the Paralympics and the BBC for its coverage of the Rio Olympics and the Six Nations clash between England and Wales.
This year’s Open will once again be broadcast live and exclusively on Sky Sports. You can watch the opening tee shot being struck on Thursday July 20, with live action starting at 6.30am on Sky’s dedicated Open channel.
There will also be some new toys in the studio, plus a revamped player zone on the driving range.