Ahead of the 146th British Open, we get the inside track from prostate cancer survivor and editor at large of Golf Monthly magazine, Bill Elliott, who remembers the 1976 emergence of one of golf's all time greats and reluctantly backs another Spaniard for this year's title.

17 Jul 2017
In - Sport Golf

Few, if any, Open Championship venues offer the challenge contained within Royal Birkdale's sceptred acres, the Irish Sea a constant, though invisible, companion.

If all the world really is a stage then this course really is a platform worthy of the feet of the planet's finest, most committed golfers.

Royal Birkdale

Yes, it is that good. For me, the best in England. And it would be the best in the kingdom were it not for the towering presence of Muirfield on Scotland's east coast.

When I travel to Lancashire for this 2017 Championship, it will be the 44th Open I will have covered. I can recall most but none more vividly than the flurry of rumbles I've observed at Birkdale, starting in 1971 and a Centenary Open won by Lee Trevino. 

If that was good then five years later offered up one of the three greatest Opens of my lifetime.

The summer of '76 was notable for two things: it was the bicentennial celebrations of the Declaration of American Independence; and it was the hottest summer in England since dinosaurs strolled across Birkdale's antediluvian landscape. Fire engines circled the course, smoking was banned, water was even more in demand than beer.

Seve

While the usual suspects were in town – Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and the rest of the elite platoon – I was introduced on the evening of the competition to a man who was to embroider my sports writing career like no other.

Back then, Severiano Ballesteros was a gauche Spanish teenager whose name was known only to the inner cognoscenti.

It was over supper in a Southport restaurant that week that an older, wiser journalist friend spotted a posse of Spanish golfers at a nearby table.

He walked over to say hello and I walked with him. When it came to Seve my pal said: "this is Severiano who is going to be great one day. Maybe even this week".

Seve’s looks, charisma, smile and buccaneering talent had taken him into the lead and an eventual tie for second place alongside Nicklaus

I laughed and – when this was translated to him – Seve grinned too. I thought my friend had hyped up this kid too much.

Not for the first time in my life I was wrong. While I met him early in the week, the rest of the sporting world knew him by the time Saturday's final round ended and, yes, Opens concluded on a Saturday back then.

By then his looks, his charisma, his smile and – above all – his buccaneering talent had taken him into the lead of this Open and an eventual tie for second place alongside Nicklaus.

Johnny Miller won, of course – the lithe American in the middle of the greatest run of form of his life and a spell only subsequently equalled by Tiger Woods in his pomp. But it was Seve who caught everyone's imagination, and over the coming decades he more than fulfilled that early, startling promise.

Represent your club at Prostate Cancer UK's golf championships

Since then, the Birkdale Opens have been won by Tom Watson, Ian Baker-Finch, Mark O'Meara and, in 2008, Padraig Harrington, who beat back the revitalised challenge of Greg Norman. At 53, Norman was on a working honeymoon with Chrissie Evert and was anxious to show his new wife what he could do.

So now here we are in 2017, another heatwave predicted (we'll see!) and a new platoon of stars assembling on the Lancashire coast.

Any time I'm asked who I fancy to win, my stock answer is to come back to me after the first two rounds, the halfway cut is made and we actually have some idea who is playing well – or who may be enjoying the thin slices of good fortune that enhance any player's chances of victory.

The weather, as always, will play a huge part. If it is warm and benign then even Birkdale, with its criss-crossing holes and statuesque dunes, will be at the mercy of today's power hitters.

In this case it comes down to the best putters – and no-one need look beyond Jordan Spieth in this particular category.

If the wind blows, however, then anything can and probably will happen. Some will bend before a gale, others rise to the challenge.

If you are beginning to gather that I haven't a clue who will win this Open then you are correct. At this distance, the luck of the early draw and a morning or afternoon tee time when conditions may change drastically, plus a fortuitous bounce away from a bunker or a divot, mean that form – while significant – is not necessarily paramount.

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Tiger, for example, was not only emphatically the best golfer in the world for many years, he was, at times, the one who embraced those lucky breaks more than most.

If pushed against a wall and forced to come up with a name at this long range then I offer one for consideration: Sergio Garcia.

The irascible, occasionally tempestuous Spaniard has a fine Open record that reads: Played 20, Missed Cuts 4, ten top tens and in proper contention several times.

At times, he has suffered some outrageous poor fortune. But now he is due to arrive in Lancashire with a Masters Green jacket in his suitcase, what's not to like about his chances this time?

We'll see. Meanwhile, sit back, sip something long and cold and enjoy.

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