Meet the Open Championship contenders

Rory McIlroy is a young man who suddenly finds himself with quite a lot to prove despite elbowing his way into the upper reaches of the world rankings and convincing everyone apart, apparently, from himself that he is ready to take down a Major at a ridiculously young age. Rory’s collapse at the Masters must still eat into him no matter what he says, but he is so good, so determined and so quick a learner that he may well be in for a stellar Open. First, of course, he needs to barricade that fragile putting stroke. Sandwich could offer an arena for this to happen. Don’t forget how well he played for three rounds last year, now if he can just make that four.

Luke Donald is an obvious choice for the quietly impressive Englishman has reinvented himself over the last two years. This transformation from good to potentially great is best demonstrated on the greens. At one time a haphazard putter he now seems to have controlled the old, bad urges and this, on top of a terrific short game, offers much evidence that he will figure large in 2011. I hope so.

The first of two teenagers to be picked is the incredibly talented Italian Matteo Manassero, he too, has everything and then some. Just 18, this Italian is edging his way towards genuine phenomenon status. In between school studies he has added brilliantly to his stunning curriculum vitae already this year. In his only previous Open, 2009, he finished 13th as an amateur and received much advice from Tom Watson who he played with for those first two days. He is also minimally twice the golfer now. How good would it be in this, the year of Seve’s departure, for a young lookalike to ignite the old game again at St George’s? The answer is very, very good indeed.

From the United States I would like to offer Nick Watney. Fresh-faced 
and occasionally jittery, I believe I have detected signs that Watney is now close to embracing the rewards an outstanding natural talent makes possible. Now aged 
30, he is the right age with the appropriate experience. His WGC win this year endorses these thoughts and some of you may 
recall that he tied for seventh in Scotland last summer.

Then there is the second of my teenagers. Ryo Ishikawa is already a youthful legend in Japan, but this is no X-Factor nonsense, this is because this nice kid is also the real deal as a golfer. Dedicated to the game, his instinctive reaction to his country’s problems by offering all his prize money to the disaster fund reveals a young man of wider sensibilities than often may be found in ambitious sportsmen. He has the game, he seems to have the belief and he enjoyed a decent St Andrews where he finished 27th.

Finally, picking Charl Schwartzel to enjoy a decent week does not exercise too many brain cells. The South African has been relevant for some years now, but his Masters win, and especially the nature of it, suggests he has entered that secret garden of extreme self-confidence and belief that will take him to Kent in the best of good moods about his chances. Not just talented, Charl has that laconic edge to him that augurs well for everyone who loves a braai. And who doesn’t?

But don’t forget…

There are, of course, many other golfers to consider, including my old favourite Lee Westwood who was of course runner-up at last year’s Open at St Andrews and, as I type, the world’s number two golfer. His chances are discussed elsewhere on these pages but, for now, I will ride with the men mentioned on the previous pages. You will have your own notions just as relevant as mine for it is fun to sit for a few minutes to deliberate on these trivially important matters. Apart from anything else it takes the mind off the mortgage for a while.

Whatever else happens, weather, good/bad luck, injury or even the consumption of a dodgy prawn it may well ultimately dictate who emerges happiest down on the Kent coast. This, in a game more perverse and unpredictable than any other outside life itself, is as it should be. Taking the blows and riding with the punches is as much a part of the Open tradition as the cry of those skylarks or the invigorating breeze that suddenly turns into a threatening gale.

If any of us could ever be 100% certain what would happen at an Open then 
we wouldn’t bother going. It is the ‘not knowing’ that draws us to places like Royal St George’s like open-mouthed moths to a flame. The more I see of this grand, old game the less I think I know in reality. To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. See you in Kent. Bet I’m closer than you with my picks.