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The Links Effect: Picking out a likely winner at the Open

Will it be a grizzled veteran or fresh-faced newbie who'll triumph at Hoylake?

by Aidan Elder | July 14, 2014

The Open Championship is special.

The glassy greens, the rough that rivals S&M for punishment, the fact a moderate gale counts as ‘decent conditions’ – it really is a real test of a champion.

To win it, you need the right combination of skills, experience and mental strength. And if you can time your rounds to coincide with the calmer spells of weather, well that doesn’t hurt either.

But are there any characteristics to look out for in an Open winner? Are there certain clues to look out for in a player’s profile that hint he could be about to get his hands on the Claret Jug? The Paddy Power Blog have rifled through the history of the last 20 tournaments and comeback with a definite maybe.

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Coming of Age

43, 42, 42. No, that’s not our typically Friday night takeaway order, that’s the age of the three most recent Open winners. While those numbers suggest it’s becoming an event for the elder statesmen of the tour, it represents a run on the high end of the scale. In the last 20 years of the Open, they are the three oldest winners and we have to go back to Mark O’Meara

Even when we take out a few of those outliers, the trend points towards going with slightly older players. Over the last 20 years, the average age of an Open winner is 33.4 and that number is condensed by about a year to the tune of a year due the brilliance of Tiger winning all three of his Opens before the age of 31.

The lesson to consider, is that while the temptation may be to side with the admittedly talented Jordan Speith, Hideki Matuyama and Matteo Manassero before they break their major ducks, it’s rare for players so young to get their hands on the Claret Jug. At 25, 25 and 24 respectively, even the fantastically haired in-form pair of Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Victor Dubuisson don’t fit the typical profile.

Are You Experienced?

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Related, but not completely welded to age is experience. While in the majority of cases, an older player is likely to have had a few nibbles at the Open, it’s not always the case. For example, a 37 year old Tom Lehmann took the 1996 title on just his third appearance at the event. On the other side of that coin, when Tiger his first Open at the age of 24, he already had five previous appearances at the event.

Open experience is important because so much of links golf relies on knowing the conditions and realising that a four over par might actually be a great score, depending on how the wind is blowing. With the changeable conditions, knowing how to limit the damage at a seemingly innocuous point early on could be the difference when the scores are tallied up on Sunday afternoon.

Looking back over the last 20 years, the average number of previous Open appearances of the winner is 9.5. Sometimes it’s been a good bit lower than that (John Daly [3], Justin Leonard [3], Todd Hamilton [3], Louis Oosthuizen [3]), but others such as Phil Mickelson [19] and Padraig Harrington [17]  need several more bites of the cherry.

Ben Curtis’s rocking up for the first time and winning in 2003 and Darren Clarke’s fairytale at the 23rd time of asking in 2011 are the bookends of the range, with the stats suggesting that most winners need to have substantial experience of Open conditions to claim victory.

70 per cent of the last 20 winners had played at the Open five or more times prior to their victory. That number doesn’t make absolutely iron-clad link between experience and victory, but it clearly doesn’t hurt if you’ve been around the links a few times.

Class and form

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Despite the often difficult conditions, the Open has been the maiden major win of several recent winners. The comfort and ego-boost of knowing you’ve got a major already sitting on the mantelpiece can give you that edge in a close finish.

But equally, players going for their first major don’t seem overly put out by not having won one already. Except maybe Sergio Garcia who constantly find new and amusing ways to bottle it. 50 per cent of Open winners had previously won a major, obviously meaning that 50 per cent hadn’t.

Current form is more important. 13 of the last 20 winners had won at least one event on tour prior to the Open that season. It may not have been a huge event, but it was enough to get that winning feeling and a bit of practice in how to hold a trophy without looking like a smug dickhead.

When you overlay the various categories to see what elements matter for an Open winner, there’s a clear if unhelpfully vague trend that emerges.

Experience matters, but isn’t crucial. Young guns can win, but being a bit older helps. Having recent form on your side is no harm, but there are ways around it.

Someone will tee off on Thursday and about 280 shots later, they’ll get their hands on the Claret Jug. We have no idea who that will be. That’s the beauty of the Open.

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