• Open Championship

The strengths and weaknesses of the main contenders

Alex Dimond July 17, 2012


ESPN will have live updates and exclusive coverage from the Open Championship when it gets underway this week - with reporters at Royal Lytham & St Annes to bring you all the insight.

Ahead of this week's Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes, we break down the games of some of the main contenders for the Claret Jug - and assess how realistic their chances of victory really are.

EUROPE

Luke Donald

World ranking: 1. Wins in 2012: 2. Best Open finish: Tied-fifth (2009).

Luke Donald has never won a major © PA Photos
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Strengths: The Englishman is generally precise off the tee, has enviable control over his irons and has one of the most reliable short games around. His short-range putting is also usually faultless, while he has learned how to get the job done and win tournaments in the past year or so.
Weaknesses: Donald is widely classified as a short hitter, although in truth he is around the average for a PGA Tour player. His long-range putting is not always stellar, and he has shown a worrying tendency to get nervous in majors since rising to world No. 1 just over 12 months ago.
Verdict: Donald has missed the cut (six times) more often than he has managed to go the distance in an Open (five), adding weight to the sense that undergoing much of his golfing development in the US has left him under-cooked when it comes to links golf. In calm conditions, though, that is not such a concern - and with Lytham being comparatively short but precise that should theoretically play into his hands.

Chance of contending: 6/10.

Rory McIlroy

World ranking: 2. Wins in 2012: 1. Best Open finish: Tied-third (2010).

Rory McIlroy is chasing his first Open © Getty Images
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Strengths: Perhaps the most naturally-gifted golfer since a certain Tiger Woods, McIlroy has an instinctive full swing that makes him capable of greater stretches of golf than almost any other competitor out there. His chipping is also generally pretty sharp.
Weaknesses: His course management can sometimes appear questionable, while he is not the metronomic putter most young stars are. He grew up playing links golf back in Northern Ireland, but at Royal St Georges last year he suggested the conditions negatively affected his mindset - a worry for this week, considering the forecast.
Verdict: On song, McIlroy is without rival in the modern game - even before the US Open win in 2011, it is worth remembering he would have walked the 2010 Open at St Andrews had it not been for a second round 80 in some treacherous conditions. But his game seems to have been tweaked for American courses in recent times, and his practice in recent months has not been what it should have been.

Chance of contending: 7/10.

Lee Westwood

World ranking: 3. Wins in 2012: 2. Best Open finish: Second (2010).

Lee Westwood remains without a major © PA Photos
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Strengths: One of the best iron players around, with a full swing that repeats under pressure well, Westwood has got himself into contention at majors more than pretty much any other player over the last 36 months thanks primarily to his ability to find fairways and greens.
Weaknesses: Has previously started badly in majors and been forced to make up ground - perhaps indicating nerves and/or anxiety. His chipping has improved in recent months but remains a major concern - while he really cannot be relied upon to hole out consistently from five-to-10 feet, which regularly prevents him from making real assaults on the leaderboard at events with high-quality fields.
Verdict: The Englishman is probably the best long-game player in the world, but his short-game remains an Achilles' Heel. But he has contended before on a consistent basis in majors with that defect so, if he can keep it in check this week, in theory he is the man to beat.

Chance of contending: 8/10.

Sergio Garcia

World ranking: 23. Wins in 2012: 0. Best Open finish: Second (2008).

Sergio Garcia is a links expert © Getty Images
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Strengths: An instinctive player, Garcia is a great driver and imaginative iron play with a touch around the greens reminiscent of a former winner at Lytham, Seve Ballesteros.
Weaknesses: His putting - while not as bad as it was for a while to end 2010 and start 2011 - is suspect, while his slightly-idiosyncratic swing can occasionally break down. The mental aspect has always been Garcia's biggest problem, however - the Spaniard no longer seems to love the game of golf, with the scar tissue of recent major disappointments (Carnoustie in 2007, primarily) seemingly weighing heavy on his mind.
Verdict: Doesn't quite have the same ceiling as McIlroy if both bring their 'A' game, but he is very close. Garcia can win - but only if he truly believes it, and he only infrequently seems to believe these days.

Chance of contending: 7/10.

Graeme McDowell

World ranking: 12. Wins in 2012: 0. Best Open finish: Tied-11th (2005).

Graeme McDowell thrives in tough conditions © PA Photos
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Strengths: A true links player, McDowell has a willowy swing and low ball flight that clearly has its roots in the type of golf Lytham will demand this weekend. An above-average putter under pressure, the Northern Irishman seems to relish tough conditions and can play most shots in the book. If anything, modern technology has robbed him of many of the advantages he would have over his rivals.
Weaknesses: A merely so-so player around the greens, McDowell really doesn't make enough birdies - it is no real surprise that the tournaments he has excelled in (e.g. the US Open) are more about avoiding mistakes than punishing Old Man Par.
Verdict: His Open record is far poorer than it should be for someone of his ability and experience but, if the weather is as miserable as predicted, conditions this week should play into his hands as he attempts to rectify that.

Chance of contending: 6/10.


UNITED STATES

Tiger Woods

World ranking: 4. Wins in 2012: 3. Best Open finish: Winner (2000, 2005, 2006).

Tiger Woods wants another major win © PA Photos
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Strengths: Whereas back in the day he was pretty much an 'A+' in every category, nowadays Woods' ironplay is perhaps the most notable part of his arsenal - although his driving has improved markedly in the last six months. He also has a remarkable touch around the greens and - unlike almost any player in history - has a knack of elevating his game at the exact moment he needs to most of all.
Weaknesses: Not the robotic putter he once was from inside eight feet, Woods' inability to pick up shots on the greens has left him frustrated often already in 2012. Recent swing changes are beginning to work, but the 14-time major champion has been known to slip back into old habits which have caused him problems. His driving has improved recently, but remains something of a hit-and-miss affair.
Verdict: He has more major experience than basically anyone else in the field, and has won more times than anyone else already in 2012. But his desperation to win another major is not helping him right now, and he's never really liked Opens played in wet and windy conditions (his one non-St Andrews win was at Royal Hoylake in the midst of a comparative heatwave). He is likely to win another major in his career, but it would be a slight surprise if it was this week.

Chance of contending: 7/10.

Phil Mickelson

World ranking: 16. Wins in 2012: 1. Best Open finish: Tied-second (2011).

Phil Mickelson is searching for form © Getty Images
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Strengths: Mickelson's biggest strength has always been his powers of recovery - a master around the greens, he has been known to extricate himself from some pretty lairy spots further away from the pin too. His driving and iron play are great on their day but, as with his putting, you don't know from day-to-day which version is going to turn up.
Weaknesses: His inconsistency has always been the issue with Mickelson, for such an instinctive, natural player the trade-off has come in terms of reliability.
Verdict: Lytham should suit his draw on many holes - although that was also true of Olympic Club for the recent US Open and he didn't quite show up there either. Mickelson has been in poor form recently but an encouraging showing at the Scottish Open suggests he has found something at the seaside.

Chance of contending: 6/10.

Bubba Watson

World ranking: 6. Wins in 2012: 1. Best Open finish: Tied-30th (2011).

Bubba Watson already has a major this year © Getty Images
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Strengths: A big-hitter, the recently-crowned Masters champion is a self-taught left-hander with a 'see it, hit it' approach that unsurprisingly brings hit-and-miss results. He has an underrated touch around the greens and is a solid putter.
Weaknesses: He doesn't really have too much in the way of variety or discipline - he hits the ball, follows it, finds it, sizes up his options and hits it again. Said this week that he learned a lot about course management from watching Tiger and Phil at the US Open over the first two days - which is good, as he certainly has a lot to learn in that regard.
Verdict: Watson has made just one cut in his career at the Open, and it does not immediately strike one as the sort of golf he would revel in - unless the weather stays flat-calm. Playing the weekend would be an achievement.

Chance of contending: 3/10.

Rickie Fowler

World ranking: 20. Wins in 2012: 1. Best Open finish: Tied-fifth (2011).

Rickie Fowler has a good Open record © Getty Images
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Strengths: A reliable driver with a pretty mechanically sound swing, Fowler's biggest strength is perhaps in the mind - he seems to revel on the big occasion and, after some initial growing pains, does not seem to be intimidated by being in contention in big events. Sergio Garcia would kill for his on-course demeanour.
Weaknesses: Fowler isn't really amazing at any one facet of the game, merely very good at all of them. If you were being picky you would say his short game could be sharpened up slightly, while he still has a bit of work to do on turning the ball both ways (he can hit a nice baby fade, but behind that he is not always consistent in hitting the shape of shot he wants to).
Verdict: The 22-year-old was deeply impressive last year in Kent, meaning he has now finished tied-14th and tied-fifth on his two appearances to date in this fabled championship. You would expect him to contend for a Claret Jug one day, although this week's event may come just to soon for a player who only claimed his first PGA Tour victory a few months ago (and first professional victory anywhere a few months prior to that).

Chance of contending: 6/10.

Dustin Johnson

World ranking: 17. Wins in 2012: 1. Best Open finish: Tied-second (2011).

Dustin Johnson has come close before © Getty Images
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Strengths: 'DJ' hits the ball a country mile but, unlike fellow bomber Bubba, he also has a technically sound swing and underrated short-game. His putting comes and go but his touch on the greens is good for a big man.
Weaknesses: Questions remain about Johnson's decision-making - he has been known to do things (on and off the course) that really make you question what he has going on upstairs. His power gives him a huge advantage, but only puts him in deeper trouble if he is even slightly out-of-sync - and he has missed much of this season through injury.
Verdict: Johnson is one of the few young players with the type of game and natural talent to challenge at any major championship, regardless of conditions. He would have won the Open last year had it not been for Darren Clarke's good luck and out-of-nowhere play - and with a recent win he seems to have the form to contend again this week.

Chance of contending: 7/10.


REST OF THE WORLD

Adam Scott

World ranking: 13. Wins in 2012: 0. Best Open finish: Tied-eighth (2008).

Adam Scott has improved in recent times © Getty Images
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Strengths: A great close-range putter since switching to a belly model over 18 months ago, Scott has always had a solid full swing and has been among the better drivers on the professional circuit. He has been known to be pretty nifty from the sand, too.
Weaknesses: Confidence from close range on the greens is needed, because his long range distance control isn't particularly good - a potential problem on the larger-than-average greens of links golf. His short game has also never really been more than workmanlike.
Verdict: Briefly - after adding Steve Williams to the bag - elevated to one of the most in-form players in the world, Scott seems to have regressed back to his former level as an A-level talent with B-level results in recent times. He has always had the talent and technique to win a major, but it is starting to feel like it will never happen for him - and the Open is certainly not the obvious place for him to prove that statement incorrect.

Chance of contending: 5/10.

Louis Oosthuizen

World ranking: 18. Wins in 2012: 0. Best Open finish: Winner (2010).

Louis Oosthuizen is technically sound © Getty Images
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Strengths: Oosthuizen has one of the most technically-perfect swings around, while he has the unflappable demeanour that often served compatriot Retief Goosen so well. Consequently he does few things exceptionally but almost nothing poorly.
Weaknesses: His short game is perhaps not quite at the same level as the rest of his game, while at a push you could say that his putting is a bit too streaky.
Verdict: Oosthuizen has one of the best swings in the game, and is obviously in good form after narrowly missing out on the green jacket at Augusta National (losing to Watson in a play-off). Having eviscerated the field at St Andrews two years ago, it is clear he doesn't mind links conditions and, while Lytham will provide a more exacting test, he has both the game and the mentality to fare well.

Chance of contending: 6/10.

Ernie Els

World ranking: 40. Wins in 2012: 0. Best Open finish: Winner (2002).

Ernie Els fancies one last hurrah © Getty Images
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Strengths: 'The Big Easy' has an, er, easy, repeatable swing that yields results while playing safely within himself - the South African has rarely, if ever, played at maximum tempo. He is still regarded as one of the best bunker players around, which should help with Lytham's 206 such hazards.
Weaknesses: An average putter even in his heyday, Els now faces a daily tussle with the flatstick that he doesn't always win (and that's being kind). The three-time major champion has been very down about his game for a while now, but a strong showing at the recent US Open has helped bring his belief back up - and you know he fancies his chances this week.
Verdict: He's done it before at the Open, and in less than stellar conditions, but you do worry age (he is now 42) is beginning to count against the likeable former champion. It would be a bit of a surprise to seem him top of the leaderboard come Sunday.

Chance of contending: 4/10.
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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk