A swirling breeze off the Irish Sea nudged ominous clouds over this resort town Wednesday, transforming what had been a balmy week into a more familiar shade of gray. The world’s best golfers worked their way around the undulations of Royal Birkdale, fine-tuning their games with a last practice round before Thursday’s start of the 146th British Open.
The forecast calls for a damp start to the tournament, followed by sunny spells, then a more steely sky Thursday night with gusts of up to 30 mph.
In other words, par for the course.
“We really haven’t played this course in good weather. ... ’98 wasn’t great, ’08 wasn’t great,” said Justin Rose, runner-up at this year’s Masters. “This week might not be great. Because it’s a fair golf course, I think it plays well in tough conditions too.”
Lately, the winds of change in professional golf have been equally fickle, with a parade of players looking unbeatable one year and highly vulnerable the next. A year ago, Dustin Johnson was the hot hand. Before him, it was Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy … each briefly planting a flag at the summit of the sport.
The constant churn at the top underscores the depth of field, how difficult it is to live in that rarefied air at the top and how amazing it was that Tiger Woods stayed at the pinnacle for as long as he did. The recent results in major events only buttress the case that no one maintains a spot at the apex for long. The past seven winners of major championships are first-time major winners.
“That’s sort of where golf is at the moment,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “No one is really standing out and sort of taking it by the scruff of the neck. It’s so hard these days to separate yourself.”
McIlroy said that with the evolving technology in equipment and coaching, and that you can statistically know so much more about your game now than in decades past, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish yourself from the competition.
The par-70 Birkdale first played host to the Open in 1954 and since has been home to the tournament more times (10) than any course but St. Andrews. The eight players to win at Birkdale have 19 Claret Jugs among them, and this course favors seasoned competitors.
Birkdale, bracketed by sand dunes, has narrow fairways and 123 bunkers, an average of nearly seven per hole. In this age of better golf through technology, courses are constantly being lengthened for tournaments. But Birkdale — at 7,173 yards — is actually 17 yards shorter than when it played host to the Open in 2008.
There’s no mitigating the gusts, though, and those can howl. There are multiple sets of consecutive holes played in opposite wind directions. Scores just below or at par are typically competitive here, where in 2008, Irishman Padraig Harrington finished three over par and won the tournament by four strokes, recording the only over-par championship winning score this century.
“I got lucky in 2008; I came into the tournament, and I was injured,” Harrington recalled. “And it just took a lot of the expectations off. I was able to do all the stuff that you have to do as defending champion and have time to do it. So because I wasn’t playing practice rounds that week, I basically freed up a lot more time. So there was a lot less stress.
The British Open isn’t always a grind-it-out affair. At Royal Troon last year, Henrik Stenson finished a record 20-under to beat Phil Mickelson by three strokes. Mickelson shot an astounding 65 on Sunday of last year’s tournament, his best-round on the final day of a major. His 17-under would have won all but four Opens in the storied history of the tournament, dating to 1860.
Stenson said he feels less pressure to win the British this year because he checked that box a year ago.
“I never felt it was a big problem not having won one, even though I badly wanted to win one,” Stenson said. “But I never walked around feeling like, ‘Oh, I’m one of those guys on that list that potentially are the best players not to have won a major.’
“And yet, I think once you win one, obviously that’s off your shoulder. And it’s more about putting yourself in contention again and trying to win a second one.”
Many more players will be looking for their first this week, hoping to emerge from a field that might be described as, well, wide open.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer