Open Championship

Birkdale gets ready for Spanish Armada

sergio garcia
Sergio Garcia: heads a strong Spanish contingent at Royal Birkdale this week. (Photo: SNS Group)

Royal Birkdale is the latest target for a resurgent Spanish contingent to land one of golf’s big prizes.

Sergio Garcia heads a strong group of Spaniards heading to the 146th Open Championship over the Southport links.

With Rafael Cabrera-Bello crowned Scottish Open champion on Sunday and Jon Rahm winning the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open the previous week, these are golden times for Spain, who saw Garcia win his first Major in April with his Masters success.

The Spanish Armada will have berthed in good spirits with all three recent winners entitled to feel they have a chance of glory this week.

“We’re all very excited. It’s a really special moment for Spanish golf, it’s been a long time since we’ve had such a high,” said 22-year-old Rahm.

“Before Ireland I said I had not played my best on a links golf course yet. But obviously now, if that wasn’t my best, it was very close to it. I took a lot of positives from that win.

“I haven’t hit the ball that well in a long time and on top of that I was able to roll the ball in a good line and read the breaks properly so that obviously gives a lot of confidence into a week like this.

“I’ve had problems in the past on links courses with spinning my ball too much, not controlling my distance, and getting my trajectory wrong but Ireland felt like a turning point.

“I’m still adjusting [to being one of the favourites]; remember this is only my fourth major that I’ve ever played.

“Every one of the previous majors have been very different, and now coming off Ireland and being in the world top ten, this is a different feeling too.”

If Garcia’s putting holds up under pressure as it did at Augusta National, his experience of links golf should see him finish above both his compatriots. From 20 Open starts, he has finished in the top 10 on ten occasions, with top six finishes in the last three Claret Jug outings.

The 1998 champion Mark O’Meara gets the action under way tomorrow alongside Chris Wood and Ryan Moore.

The Merseyside venue is staging its 10th Open, the last occasion in 2008 when Padraig Harrington completed back-to-back Claret Jug victories following his Carnoustie triumph 12 months earlier.

The 45-year-old Irishman checked in at Birkdale this week with a spring in his step after a strong finish to his Scottish Open challenge, a closing six-under-par 66 at Dundonald seeing him finish just five shots behind winner Cabrera-Bello.

Hailing from the banks of the River Liffey, Harrington revels in the challenges posed by links golf and there’s no doubt he’s looking forward to trying to land his third Open.

“I think I’m a credible contender on any golf course but bring me to a links golf course, no doubt about it, it gives me an advantage,” he said.

The last seven Majors have been claimed by first-time winners and there is no shortage of competitors hoping to make that eight this week.

Tommy Fleetwood
Tommy Fleetwood: local lad is centre of attention (Photo: SNS Group).

Step forward local hero Tommy Fleetwood, the French Open winner having been the centre of attention during preparations on his home course.

“The expectation levels are big but I’d rather it be that way than come here as a no-hoper,” he said.

“People are talking about me as a contender now and I’ll settle for that.

“It’s going to be an unforgettable experience that’s for sure.  I’ll have the most support I’ve ever had in my life. It’s going to be a great week for me no matter what.”

The 26-year-old added: “The thing is now I have the mindset with golf that nothing scares me.

“I’ve thought about winning The Open since I was five so a few more days won’t make any difference.”

Other likely lads hunting down their first Major who are worth watching this week include Matthew Fitzpatrick, Hideki Matsuyama, Thomas Pieters and Andy Sullivan.

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