From favorites to party crashers, the 2022 Open at St. Andrews is truly wide open

St Andrews, Scotland – Amid the chaos lies the winner of the 150th Open. The mix of competitors at the top of the leaderboard brings together players at different stages of their careers and with different expectations and urgencies.

There are those looking to end a long wait without a major, or for world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who is in a blockbuster pair with Dustin Johnson on Friday – chasing another performance in an already remarkable season. Then there’s the home hopes, the first timers and the group of LIV golfers looking to crash the 150th Open celebrations.

In short, predicting a winner of The Open has rarely been this difficult or exciting.

St Andrews has seen some fine battles over the years – and there are reminders of tales from a bygone era throughout this famous course of narrow margins between golf ecstasy and a place among the greats and those infamous near misses.

With all due respect, nobody wants to be in a group with Doug Sanders or a Constantino Rocca next Sunday – those were the poor players who saw victory ebb at the crucial moment when they had a hand on the claret jug.

Ahead of the tournament, Rory McIlroy said it would be “better for the game” if the winner didn’t come from the LIV breakaway series. R&A CEO Martin Slumbers tried to remain diplomatic in his pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday when he was asked if he agreed it would be better if he didn’t present the Claret Jug to someone from that group of players, and said: “Whoever wins on Sunday will go down in history. And I will welcome him to the 18th green. This is a golf tournament.”

However, this came on the heels of his earlier saying LIV was “damaging the perception of the sport”.

Those who have joined the LIV series have certainly heard and read the comments (although most insist they haven’t, including Sergio Garcia who said on Friday “I can’t read anymore”).

Of the 24 LIV players here, two are at the top of the board. Taylor Gooch – who is six shots from the lead – said the criticism has stirred them up as a group.

“It feels like everyone is against us, and that’s okay,” Gooch said. “Like you said, it kind of bonded us I guess.”

Dustin Johnson was less committed in fifth, just four strokes behind.

“I wouldn’t know what you said or if anything negative was said,” he said. “I don’t pay attention to it.”

It would be fascinating to see how the sport would react if the man holding the Claret Jug next Sunday is from that group of players.

But for those in the R&A clubhouse who might be keeping their fingers crossed, the winner will be someone not involved in LIV. There are many competitors and Cameron Smith and Patrick Cantlay will not want to be known as golf almost men.

It’s 29 years since there has been an Australian winner at The Open. Ironically, it was Greg Norman, who also happens to be CEO of LIV Golf, who was not invited to this week’s celebrations despite winning the event twice. Still, you wouldn’t know that Smith’s shoulders are under pressure, even though he set a new Open record 13-under 13 after two rounds (beating the previous 12-under record of Nick Faldo, Norman and Louis Oosthuizen). He’s far more eager to talk about flipping through Peaky Blinders or trying to catch up on how his Maroons are doing in Rugby League’s home state.

But after his triumph with the Players, there is an expectation all around him and his entire game is perfectly timed to dance around the 112 bunkers on the Old Course.

“I think I’m late [Saturday] It’s obviously going to be a bit firmer this afternoon…so I’d say it’s going to be pretty brutal out there,” said Smith. “This will definitely be key to staying at the top of the leaderboard.”

Smith says he’s playing the best golf of his life this year. Cantlay has had its best year. He ranks fourth in golf overall and added a win to the three he won a year ago when he won the FedEx Cup and PGA Tour Player of the Year honors. In his own reserved way, he says he is in a “good position” ahead of the weekend and will continue to “play out trouble” over the next two days.

You can also add Viktor Hovland – who will play alongside McIlroy on Saturday – to those looking to end their wait for a first Major, with the Norwegian in the mix after his 66 in the third round with a 10-under more spectacular eagle on 15.

But 8-under has the world’s greatest player and reigning Masters champion lurking. A triumph here for Scheffler would add his name to the elite club of those who have won two Majors in one year. That would also mean five tournament victories and there is still time in the golf calendar. If he tops the rankings next Sunday, he would be just fifth to accomplish the feat, along with Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. For someone who doesn’t think he’s “perceived” as world No. 1 – that would be something for the man who watched YouTube videos of past winners in the run-up to this tournament for little hints on how to the Old Course tames him best.

Britain’s Matt Fitzpatrick is also chasing his second major of the season after winning the US Open last month. He’s under 6 after the first two rounds having leveled after the first and is certainly improving as the week progresses. He played alongside Woods on Thursday and Friday. Amid the excitement surrounding their grouping, Fitzpatrick thrived on Friday.

“I feel different,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to the confidence that comes with winning a Major. “I can keep up and I can win. [Winning a major] don’t hold me back It’s nothing I’m nervous about. I need to show myself a little more. Yeah, it just gave me that extra confidence.”

His compatriot Tyrrell Hatton is not lacking in self-confidence. Though he’s kept his ferocity in check this week — there were no bat-bending antics, but he threw a ball into the burn on Thursday — he’s sitting at 8-under and firmly in the mix.

But if we get into that, the main hope is McIlroy.

Sheila Walker, great-great-daughter of old Tom Morris, is hoping for a British winner this week. It’s been a 22-year wait since they’ve had one here in St Andrews at The Open, looking back on Faldo’s triumph in 1990. And many believed McIlroy was the man who would end that wait. After his impressive, reasonable 6-under 66 on Thursday, he scored 68 on Friday and finished clean in third place.

“I felt like I was in control,” McIlroy said.

It’s been eight years since McIlroy won a major. He came here to play wonderful golf. How he would like to end the wait here and exorcise those demons of seven years ago when he failed to come to St Andrews as the defending Open champion after injuring himself playing football earlier.

“I just have to go out there and play my game and play my golf for the next two days and that’s all I can do,” McIlroy said. “Cam Smith goes out and shoots two more rounds like the first two days. I’m going to have a really hard time winning the tournament. So I just have to go out there and do my best and worry about myself. Hopefully that’s good enough.”

When it comes to long waits, Adam Scott is in the same boat here, having last won a major in 2013, but he’s also in the mix at 7-under. He’s also looking to put some past pains to rest after losing a four-stroke lead with four holes remaining at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2012.

“Every time I think about slipping one through my hands, it hurts,” Scott said Friday. “And it would be exciting if I could shoot a really great round [on Saturday] tee off with a legitimate feeling that I’m in the running, not only because I haven’t really been in that position for a major in a while, but also because I’ve had one in that pitcher, I’m keen, and I’d like two put on.”

As always, there are those who may have had a slightly better chance of going into The Open. This competition has many surprise winners, so Cameron Young and Sahith Theegala both have a chance. Young is alone in second place, two strokes back and playing alongside Smith in Saturday’s final fixture. Theegala is tied for the eighth and six shots back.

“It’s obviously a special place for golfers, especially competitive golfers playing one of our greatest championships on one of our oldest and largest golf courses, which is great fun,” said Young. “But I’ll try to just do my job with my head down for the next few days.”

Xander Schauffele (5-under) and Jordan Spieth (4-under) are lurking a little deeper. Neither has strayed from it as there is still so much golf left to play.

One of the local takeaways here has a ‘munch box’ – it’s basically a mix and match, ideal for those who have a hard time deciding what to eat. And this weekend’s leaderboard is munch box-sized.

St. Andrews is a golfing fairy tale place. Some of the world’s best bid farewell to the championship on the Swilcan Bridge. There are people who have made a career here. Some have suffered the kind of disappointment and heartbreak that their careers never recover from.

Whoever finishes at the top of this Sunday’s leaderboard will have their nerve and have mastered all of the dangers of the Old Course that end the championship. As it says on the 18th above the stands: “Everything led to it.” But the sheer unpredictability of this championship means no one really knows exactly where this story is going and what the outcome will be by Sunday night. From favorites to party crashers, the 2022 Open at St. Andrews is truly wide open

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