Hoylake, 17 July 2023: At the Open on Monday, year after year, the defending champion is asked to hand back the Claret Jug to the R&A. The finest silver in golf is an emphatic recognition, not only of the prowess of a golfer but also of their place in the pantheon of great athletes. The Open Champion experiences an honour that is steeped in the rich tradition and immeasurable heritage of the sport itself. Cameron Smith can long for it as much as he wants, but Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy are just two of many golfers hoping to steal the thunder this Sunday afternoon.
In the 151st edition at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, it was everything Cameron Smith could do to keep his eyes dry. It wasn’t enough though, the pain evident as he parted with the Jug almost reluctantly. “I just had to hand back the trophy there. I thought I was going to do all right, but I was actually holding back from tears (sic),” admitted Smith. “A bit of a moment, I guess, that crept up on me.”
Like many champions before him, the Aussie harbours hopes of turning in another stellar performance to try and hold on to the honour of being the Champion Golfer of 2023. “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been saying to all my mates. It’ll only be a week and
we’ll be drinking out of it again,” suggested Smith, before turning cautious. “You never know, sometimes you can play your best golf at major championships and you can run fourth or fifth.”
Defending any tournament is hard, with the target on your back. Even more so in a major tournament, with the weight of history and all the perks that go with it. Since the turn of the millennium, only Padraig Harrington (2008) and Tiger Woods (2006) have managed to achieve the feat. Hoylake is going to be another severe examination of skill and character, and more than likely to produce a champion that does not answer to the name of Smith.
Scottie Scheffler has been impeccable all season, the kind of pin-pointed golf that could be rewarded at Hoylake. The 7,383 yard layout values an accurate second shot, with greens in regulation, a potentially decisive marker this week. The American has finished T12 or better in an incredible 19 straight events. In his last seven events, he has finished T5 or better. Scheffler was tied for third in the Scottish Open last week. He is 2.81 strokes overall, a performance reminiscent of the 2006 effort of Woods, who gained 2.98 strokes over the competition. You don’t need to remind anyone that Woods won the Open at Hoylake that season.
Rory McIlroy has not won a major since winning the PGA Championship in 2014. Even though the Masters has remained elusive for the tormented Northern Irishman, victory this week could heal many wounds and end a prolonged drought. With 24 PGA TOUR titles to his name, victory last week wasn’t the key, as much as the manner in which he attained it. McIlroy swung to the top on a pair of clutch birdies on the last two holes on Sunday for a rousing triumph. Perhaps, it was just the medicine he needed for all his final round ailments. There is a sense of deja vu too. McIlroy won the Open when it was last held at Hoylake in 2014. A repeat would not only round off another great season for the world No.2 but also offer much needed relief at earning a fifth major.
Even though the Masters may have gained prominence in recent decades, under the studied influence of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the Open Championship remains the quintessential honour for those with keen sense of tradition. After all, the Open was played for the first time in 1860, a full 74 years before the great American tournament came into existence.
Indian interest in the event will ride on the sturdy shoulders of Shubhankar Sharma. The Indian has a settled presence on the European circuit, and will believe that he has the experience needed to deal with the challenges of links golf. In his sixth major appearance, Sharma will hope to return better than the T51 he achieved in both 2018 and 2019 Open Championships.