Why this British Open won’t be a cakewalk for players

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Remember that scintillating British Open duel featuring a barrage of birdies and clutch play between winner Henrik Stenson and runner-up Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon a year ago?

Hope you enjoyed it. Because a repeat of Stenson’s remarkable four-round total of 264, the lowest score in major championship history, is as likely as Tiger Woods turning up at the first tee Thursday morning.

(Note for the uninitiated: Woods isn’t playing).

The past two Open Championship winners at Royal Birkdale, which sits beautifully in the sand dunes along the west coast of England, have been won by a combined 3-over par, or 23 shots more than the 20-under Stenson won with last year.

Irishman Padraig Harrington won the 2008 Open at Birkdale at 3-over par. Ten years earlier, Mark O’Meara won the ’98 Open in even par in a playoff.

The previous time the tournament was at Birkdale, in 1991, Ian Baker-Finch shot a final-round 66, which included a 29 on the front nine, to win at 8-under.

Expect the winning score this week to be somewhere between Harrington’s and Baker-Finch’s scores.

“I think it’s the best links course there is,’’ Baker-Finch told The Post. “To me it’s how links should be — amongst the sand dunes. It’s got everything. It’s always windy, and there can be quite severe winds. It’s a par 73 for the membership. There are a lot of long par-4s.’’

Johnny Miller, the 1976 Open champion at Birkdale and now the NBC color analyst who will be calling the action this week, said, “After last year’s amazing duel between Mickelson and Stenson, 20-under par won it. That’s crazy. I don’t see that happening. Bottom line, it’s a strong golf course.’’

Nick Faldo, the 1987, 1990 and 1992 Open champion, who also will provide color analysis for NBC and Golf Channel, called Birkdale “one of my favorite courses, especially my favorite links, because we deem it a little fairer, the fairways are a little flatter, but the sand dunes are fantastic and very demanding.’’

Guessing the difficult conditions of Birkdale is a lot easier than guessing which player will master it.

Consider two things: First, the past seven major championship winners have been first-time major winners. Second, none of the game’s biggest, most established stars are in prime form entering the week.

So a classic crap shoot is what likely is in store for this week.

Hideki Matsuyama

“The real hot shots in golf, like Dustin Johnson and Rory [McIlroy] and Jason Day and Sergio [Garcia] and Stenson and [Rickie] Fowler, even Justin Thomas, recently Mickelson, they’re not on the top of their game right now,’’ Miller said. “So I don’t know what to expect, because majors are a whole different animal.’’

Miller called Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama “the best player right now.’’

“Tournament in and tournament out, his bad shots are really good, which is what you need at Birkdale,’’ Miller said. “And, I think that he’s ready to win.’’

So, too, is Spaniard Jon Rahm, who captured the Irish Open two weeks ago, and Tommy Fleetwood, the Englishman who grew up in nearby Southport and used to sneak onto Birkdake as a kid. He, too, has been in great form of late.

“If the trend continues of first-time winners, there’s some synergy there with Jon Rahm, being Spanish with the history of Seve [Ballesteros] running second to Miller in ’76 and Garcia’s Masters win this year,’’ Baker-Finch said. “So there could be some sort of extra magic in the stratosphere as good as he is and as good as he’s playing. And Fleetwood is a great English talent and another first-timer that could do it. He’s been playing great. Nick Faldo fancies him, thinks he has a great chance.’’

Since Woods won 13 out of 36 majors in nine years leading up to that 2008 British Open at Birkdale, just three other players — Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen — won more than one. Sixteen players captured one major during that stretch.

Brooks KoepkaAP

In the 36 majors leading up to this week, six players have won multiple majors. McIlroy has won four of them. No one else has won more than twice, and 22 players have each won once.

When Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open last month at Erin Hills, he became the seventh consecutive first-time major champion, a streak that began with Jason Day in the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

It is the second-longest streak since 1934, when the Masters began. The longest streak was nine consecutive first-timers from Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open) to Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open), which coincided with Woods’ recovery from the calamity of his personal life blowup.

Oddly, in six of the past seven Grand Slam events, a major champion was the runner-up. The exception was the U.S. Open last month, in which none of the top 20 on the leaderboard in Wisconsin ever had won a major.

Go ahead: You figure it out. Good luck.



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