2023 Open Championship: Back to Royal Liverpool with all eyes on McIlroy

2023 Open Championship: Back to Royal Liverpool with all eyes on McIlroy
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HOYLAKE, England — So many players showed up at Augusta National with high hopes for the major championship season. In the 105 days between the opening rounds of the Masters and The Open, so much hope has given way to a small measure of desperation.

The Open, which returns to Royal Liverpool for the third time in the last 17 years, is the last chance this year to win a major.

“This is the last major for eight or nine months, and you don’t know what’s happening in 12 months’ time,” Adam Scott said with a wry smile, referring in part to so much chaos in golf with the battle-turned-partnership with Saudi-funded LIV Golf.

“It does go quickly, especially the way our schedule has shifted,” Scott said. “Now this one is ‘Glory’s Last Shot,’ although you can’t use that punch line for The Open Championship. But it is.”

No need reminding Rory McIlroy of that.

Still fresh is the sting from the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club last month, when he trailed by just one shot going to the back nine on the final round and couldn’t convert enough shots to overtake Wyndham Clark.

Even fresher might be getting links soil under his feet and remembering a year ago at St. Andrews when he shared the 54-hole lead, two-putted every hole and watched Cameron Smith outplay him to hoist the silver claret jug.

McIlroy won four out of 15 majors from the 2011 U.S. Open through the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, and he has come up empty ever since. It’s a remarkable drought for someone of his talent. He has won 18 times worldwide since his last major.

Throw in the fact McIlroy won his Open title in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, where there’s a forecast of occasional showers throughout the week, and the expectations keep rising.

“I’m as close as I’ve ever been, really,” McIlroy said at the Scottish Open, his tuneup for the final major of the year. He takes a one-shot lead into the final round at The Renaissance Club.

“My consistency in the performances, especially in the majors over the last couple years, is way better than it has been over the last few years,” he said. “So I’m really pleased at that. But at the same time, having had a really good chance at St. Andrews, having a really good chance in LA a few weeks ago, yeah, I need to keep putting myself in those positions.

“Even though I’m not getting the wins, it’s going to stand by me for whenever I get myself in position again.”

Scottie Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 player, is playing even more consistently well — two wins, including The Players Championship, and six consecutive finishes in the top 5, including the last two majors that he had a chance to win.

This is his last chance at a major this year, too. Ditto for players still searching for their first one, whether that’s Patrick Cantlay or Xander Schauffele, Viktor Hovland or Rickie Fowler.

Still, this week at Royal Liverpool starts with one player. It’s why Padraig Harrington smiled when he referred to McIlroy as a “person of interest” at the 151st Open.

“He’s got two things going for him — he can obviously win any week, and he’s going to a golf course that’s going to have good memories on and be comfortable on,” Harrington said. “There’s no doubt that pretty much everybody will look at the leaderboard to see how he’s getting on.”

This is the 13th time golf’s oldest championship is at Royal Liverpool, which was missing from the rotation from when Roberto de Vicenzo won in 1967 to Tiger Woods winning in 2006.

The last two speak to fickle weather on the northwestern coast of England. It was so brown and dry when Woods won in 2006 that he hit driver only one time. It soft enough for McIlroy’s victory in 2014 that the Open went to a two-tee start for the first time in its ancient history for the third round to avoid the heavy stuff.

Scheffler started playing links golf only in 2021 at Royal St. George’s. He pulled video of the last two Opens at Hoylake and noticed the changes.

“I got to see both sides,” he said. “One was crazy firm, the other was soft.”

Even as players began to arrive, Hoylake showed its summer seasons. The sun made it feel like an oven in the morning. The rain made it hard to see by early afternoon. After that came a mixture of sun and rain and clouds, and that was all before dinner.

Royal Liverpool has changed, too. The last two times, players faced a 161-yard par 3 that headed back toward the clubhouse, then a par 5 toward town, a long par 4 toward the Irish Sea and the closing par 5 where McIlroy hit that magnificent 5-iron in the third round for eagle that staked him to a five-shot lead.

Now the 15th is a 620-yard par 5 back toward town, the 16th is still is a par 4 and the 17th is a 131-yard par 3 that heads out toward the Dee Estuary. The 18th is still a par 5 but about 60 yards longer at 609 yards. Par has been lowered to a 71.

Low score still wins regardless of par, and that’s all McIlroy wants. He famously said after his latest close call at the U.S. Open, “I would go through 100 Sundays like this to get my hands on another major championship.”

Along with being the final major of the year — this is fourth time for the PGA Championship going from August to May, so players are used to it now — it’s the last chance for Americans on the Saudi-funded LIV Golf circuit to state their case for the Ryder Cup.

Brooks Koepka has done his part and is close to securing one of the six automatic spots thanks to his runner-up finish at the Masters and his victory in the PGA Championship, his fifth major.

Dustin Johnson would have to win to have any chance of earning one of the six qualifying spots for the U.S. team — qualifying ends after the BMW Championship on Aug. 20 — although a strong showing might make him worthy of consideration for a captain’s pick.

It all starts on Thursday, and for McIlroy, it’s all about patience.

“It’s a journey to get yourself into contention, and to be there on Sunday afternoon, and there’s a lot of golf shots to be hit and a lot of golf to be played,” he said. “The worst thing you can do in this game is get ahead of yourself.”

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