One of the greats of British golf tells Rob Tanner who he thinks is in contention to win this year’s Claret Jug - and why it could be the culmination of a hot sporting summer for Spain.
When the first group of players tee-up for the start of the The Open Championship at 7.30am this Thursday, there will be a pair of envious eyes watching from the United States of America - and they won’t belong to Tiger Woods.
The three-time Open champion has been forced out of this year’s event at Royal Birkdale because of a knee injury which could end his season but it is not Woods who wishes he could turn back the clock and once again bid to hold aloft the Claret Jug.
Tony Jacklin won the title in 1969 to become the first British player to win the event for 18 years, and the memories are still strong. Jacklin, who was born and raised in Scunthorpe but now lives in Florida, will be keenly watching the current generation of golfers as they bid for glory in what he considers the greatest golf competition of them all.
“I love the Open,” said the 64-year-old former Great Britain Ryder Cup captain. “Links golf is my passion and I like it better than any other form of golf. It is the ultimate challenge for a golfer.
“As a former winner, I was eligible to have entered but I am not competitive these days. The courses are too long for me and it would just be a slog. The holes have been stretched so much, because the players hit the ball so far these days.
“Royal Birkdale isn’t the course I remember from when I played there in the Open in 1971. I finished third then behind Lee Trevino and it was a fantastic course.”
Since Trevino’s win, American players have dominated Birkdale’s Opens, with only Australian Ian Baker-Finch in 1991 breaking the run of successes achieved by Trevino, Johnny Miller (1976), Tom Watson (1983) and Mark O’Meara (1998). But with the absence of Woods, the most dominant player in the world, Jacklin believes this year’s event is wide open and the 37-year wait for a British winner at Birkdale could be over.
“There is always someone who emerges at Opens, someone who takes everyone by surprise,” said Jacklin, who also finished third at the 1972 Open at Muirfield.
“A British winner would be great but I think there is only a handful of players on the Tour capable of dealing with the pressure.
“Justin Rose has not been putting well recently but he should be ready for the challenge.. Lee Westwood could also be a contender if he can reproduce the form he showed at the US Open last month. He just missed out on that occasion [when he missed a birdie putt on the 72nd green that would have put him in a play-off alongside Woods and Rocco Mediate] but he will be a threat at Birkdale. He is a good solid player and he has matured a lot in recent years. It could be his time.”
However, Jacklin believes Sergio Garcia will be the favourite to complete a summer sporting treble for his country.
After their Euro 2008 football success and Rafael Nadal’s victory at Wimbledon, Jacklin believes Garcia could be crowned the King of Spain if he goes one step further than he did last year, when he finished runner-up to Irishman Padraig Harrington.
“Sergio has to be the favourite,” Jacklin said. “His putting was letting him down but he has worked hard on that and if he can keep his putter hot, he will be the man to beat.
“He has been playing tremendously well from tee to green, better than ever, but the putter has been the problem. If he can keep that putter going, he will be in contention.
“It is wide open this year and anyone could win. I will be watching with interest because it promises to be another classic.”
Jacklin is undoubtedly one of the most successful golfers Britain has ever produced. He followed up his 1969 Open success with victory at the US Open 12 months later and won a total of 29 titles during a glittering career. However, he is also famous for leading Europe to long-awaited victories in the Ryder Cup. He was a playing member of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team in 1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975 and 1977, and of the first all-European team in 1979. Except for a famous tie in 1969, all of those teams were defeated, but as the non-playing captain of Europe in four consecutive Ryder Cups from 1983 to 1989, he had a superb record, captaining his men to their first victory for 28 years in 1985 and to their first victory in the United States since the Second World War in 1987.
Since then, Europe has gone on to dominate the event and they head to Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky this autumn looking for a fourth consecutive victory. However, Jacklin is a close friend of Paul Azinger, captain of the United States team and he has warned current captain Nick Faldo to expect a tough battle.
“I play at the same club as Paul in America and I know him well,” Jacklin said. “He is taking this incredibly seriously. Since their failure at previous events, the Americans have given Paul almost carte-blanche to level the field.
“Paul feels the US haven’t picked the best players in the past and he wants to change the format, as well. As home captain, he also has the advantage of having the course set up how he wants.
“It is going to be very difficult for Nick and his team. Europe shouldn’t underestimate Paul at all.
“It will be important that Europe get off to a good start. If they do, they will be in with a good chance. It is going to be fascinating.”