Home hopeful Francesco Molinari endured an underwhelming start to the Italian Open with an even-par opening round as trilby-wearing Tapio Pulkkanen led early on.

The 2018 Open Championship winner, Molinari has twice triumphed in Italy, but he struggled to make inroads on Thursday with a round that contained two birdies and two bogeys.

That left Molinari trailing his brother Edoardo by a stroke and put him just above the projected cut line, leaving one of the tournament's biggest names under pressure heading into Friday.

Sitting pretty at the top of the leaderboard, though, was Pulkkanen after the lowest opening round of his European Tour career - an impressive seven-under 64.

The 29-year-old Finn went bogey-free, making four consecutive birdies from the 14th, and said: "I think the first year [on the tour] was a learning year. The second year has been more comfortable being here.

"I haven't played that well in the Rolex tournaments so it's kind of a new situation as well, but it's a long way to go and I feel good about my game.

"My putter was really hot today. I made a lot of putts, especially on the front nine, I was five under, I made a lot of long putts. It was perfect greens, so easy to make them."

Despite Molinari's struggles, there were still a number of notable talents in pursuit of Pulkkanen and Rory Sabbatini, who was one shot back.

World number five Justin Rose reached five under, where he was joined by Kurt Kitayama, Joost Luiten, Shubhankar Sharma and Bernd Wiesberger.

However, Victor Perez, playing just two weeks on from his Alfred Dunhill Links Championship success, was in miserable form, with seven bogeys leaving him at three over.

Former world number one Adam Scott ended the opening round in a tie for the Safeway Open lead alongside Andrew Landry, while former NFL quarterback Tony Romo produced a fine display.

Scott carded a seven-under-par 65 for a share of the one-stroke lead after day one of the PGA Tour tournament in Napa, California on Thursday.

The Australian golfer was almost flawless at the Silverado Country Club, where Scott bogeyed one hole while posting an eagle and six birdies.

American Landry joined Scott atop the leaderboard thanks to his bogey-free performance, which included seven birdies.

Francesco Molinari – winner of the Open Championship in 2018 – and Matthew NeSmith are a shot off the pace following their first-round 66s.

Ex-Dallas Cowboys QB Romo posted a two-under-par 70 to be among 22 players tied for 29th position heading into the second round.

Romo – a four-time Pro Bowler who retired in 2016 – is appearing in just his fourth PGA Tour event.

The 39-year-old, who won the 2018 celebrity tournament American Century Championship – used five birdies to help come back from an up-and-down round.

Amateur Romo upstaged stars Justin Thomas and Phil Mickelson in the opening round of the Safeway Open, as well as defending champion Kevin Tway following his 71.

Thomas – winner of the 2017 FedEx Cup and US PGA Championship – experienced a mixed round with an eagle, three birdies and four bogeys for a one-under-par 71.

Five-time major champion Mickelson struggled in his three-over-par 75, which left the American with plenty of work to do.

Francesco Molinari accepted he let high expectations affect his golf as he failed to mount a serious challenge in his Open Championship title defence.

After a sublime first major triumph at Carnoustie 12 months ago, Molinari went on to play a starring role for Europe in their Ryder Cup triumph.

He added the Arnold Palmer Invitational title in March of this year, while also finishing fifth at the Masters.

The popular Italian arrived at Royal Portrush with hopes of another strong performance but made the cut with nothing to spare and only in Sunday's final round did he show his true prowess.

A closing 66 moved Molinari to three under for the tournament, but while the struggles of others in tough conditions pushed him up the leaderboard later in the day he was never in contention.

"In general it was obviously not what I was hoping for. But at the same time I think it's understandable, it's never easy to defend the championship, and especially so in a major," he said.

"It's been an interesting week. Obviously it gave me a sense of closure coming back here and defending and getting the week done. And I'm happy the way I played today. Hopefully next time I'll be mentally more ready to defend another major.

"My preparation was really good. In a way that harmed me because the expectation went up. I didn't do a good enough job of just really enjoying the week, staying calm, enjoying the emotions that I felt through every day.

"It's been hard but I was expecting a hard week. I wasn't expecting to win again. I was expecting to maybe play better. And I think myself and all my team, we're seeing how good I was playing and we were expecting a lot."

Molinari, 36, said he had "massively" enjoyed his year as Open champion.

"I think obviously it's going to sound obvious, it's better to win one year and play badly the other year, rather than finishing fifth both years," he added. "So I'll take that and I'll take the experience from this week and try to learn from it."

As for whether the course has lived up to expectations, with Northern Ireland staging the tournament for the first time since 1951, Molinari was in no doubt about Royal Portrush justifying its place on the Open rota.

"The greatest compliment I think is all the feedback that I've heard from the players has been positive and especially on a links course that's not something you hear every year," he said.

"That's been great. The crowds obviously have been amazing. Hopefully we will be back in the near future."

Shane Lowry saw his Open Championship lead cut to three as Tommy Fleetwood closed the gap on a day when high winds and heavy rain are forecast at Royal Portrush.

The Irishman began Sunday's round - brought forward amid fears over the weather - with a four-stroke lead over Fleetwood following his stunning 63 on Saturday, but he dropped a shot at the first to sit on 15 under.

It is the second time Lowry has taken such a margin into the final 18 holes of a major, having done so at the 2016 U.S. Open before closing with a 76 to miss out on the title.

Backed by a noisy crowd, Lowry found the rough with his opening tee shot and then his approach rolled back into a green-front bunker, from which he failed to get up and down.

Fleetwood, who is also seeking a maiden major, could have halved the overnight deficit but missed a 10-foot birdie putt and settled for par to stay 12 under.

The next winner of the Claret Jug appeared highly likely to come from that final duo, but J.B. Holmes, Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose would have started the day with other ideas.

Victory for Holmes or Koepka would complete the first American clean sweep of the majors since 1982, handing the former his first and the latter his fifth.

However, Holmes went out of bounds off the first tee en route to a double-bogey six and Koepka also dropped a shot.

Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open winner, remained on nine under through his first two holes.

Francesco Molinari hopes to soon be celebrating an Open Championship win for Tommy Fleetwood and insists the Englishman is destined to claim a major one day.

The 2018 Champion Golfer of the Year paired up with Fleetwood to form a formidable partnership at last year's Ryder Cup.

They became known collectively as 'Moliwood' and now the Italian half of that duo, who won the Claret Jug by two strokes at Carnoustie, wants to see his close friend's name next to his own on the famous silverware.

Fleetwood sat third at the midway point in Northern Ireland, just one stroke behind leading duo J.B. Holmes and Shane Lowry.

"It would make a good story for you guys to have the two of us, one next to the other on the Claret Jug," said Molinari after shooting a 72 at Royal Portrush on Saturday, having narrowly made the cut.

"He's a friend and I'll cheer him on and hopefully he can get it done. There is still a long way to go but he's there definitely with a chance. If it's not this week I think it's coming soon.

"The way he plays, he's a very talented player and he's still very young.

"Talking about expectations, he needs to wait for his time and it will come, for sure. The way he plays and the way he handles himself, it's just a matter of time. 

"I hope for him it will be this week, it will be great to have his name next to mine on the Claret Jug and we can have a big party together next week."

Fleetwood, 28, goes out in the penultimate group alongside compatriot Lee Westwood on a day of generally favourable conditions on the Dunluce Links.

Tommy Fleetwood plans to draw on his Ryder Cup experience as he bids to claim a maiden major at The Open this weekend.

Fleetwood was one of the heroes of Team Europe's resounding victory at Le Golf National last year, forming a memorable partnership with 2018 Open winner Francesco Molinari.

While the Italian looks set to relinquish his grasp on the Claret Jug, the other half of the 'Moliwood' duo is in contention at Royal Portrush following rounds of 68 and 67.

And Fleetwood feels his coolness amid the madness of a Ryder Cup and ability to use the crowd's support to his advantage could play a role in Northern Ireland.

"The Ryder Cup, nothing gets more nerve-wracking than that, kind of except when you're coming down the stretch trying to win a major," he said after setting the clubhouse lead at seven under on Friday.

"The support is just great and it's a bonus, really. I think for me personally I always feel like I do a very good job of staying within myself and playing my game and doing my thing and having a good focus.

"But the support that we get, especially if we play home events, I've always said I consider myself lucky that wherever I go I get good support.

"But especially when you play an Open or home event. If it's not quite going your way, they can pick you up.

"And if it is going your way, they can fly with you and you can right it. It's great for us. The number of British players that are here all say the same: Playing in front of your home crowd is the best."

A key difference between Fleetwood and Molinari is the fact the latter can claim to be a major winner and that is one area where the Englishman is desperate to emulate his close friend.

"He's done great. He's obviously built a lot of confidence over the years, and he's made himself into a prolific winner and major winner at that," said Fleetwood.

"I love the way he goes about things. He's built a great team around him. There's a lot of similarities between us except, you know, a couple more wins and a major in there. So I've got a bit of work to do."

Rory McIlroy endured a first-hole nightmare and suffered a calamity at Calamity Corner before a poor finish to his eight-over opening 79 at The Open on home soil.

The four-time major winner started Thursday's play as the favourite to claim the Claret Jug, but the Northern Irishman faces the prospect of missing the cut at Royal Portrush.

McIlroy's first tee shot went out of bounds and he started with a quadruple-bogey eight.

More misery followed with a bogey at the third, while he had to scramble to save par after another wayward effort from the tee at the fifth.

A pair of birdies in three holes before the turn helped restore some semblance of order and he reeled off six consecutive pars on the back nine before the Northern Irishman's horror show at the 16th.

McIlroy four-putted for a double bogey at the hole known as Calamity Corner, one a casual tap inches from the hole that stayed above ground.

He then finished with a seven at the par-four 18th, which just about summed up his day.

Irish eyes were smiling on Shane Lowry, who sat at the top of the leaderboard when McIlroy walked off the 18th green in the rain, while reigning champion Francesco Molinari could only muster a three-over 74.

Alex Noren, Webb Simpson and Sergio Garcia were among a group of players a shot off the pace, while Jordan Spieth was well poised on three under through seven.

Brooks Koepka, the form player in majors, was going along nicely at two under halfway through his first round.

Other notable moments included an ace for Emiliano Grillo at the 13th, and a 13 for 2001 Open winner David Duval at the seventh after he played the wrong ball and went on to sign for a miserable 19-over 90.

Darren Clarke, who had the honour of the opening tee shot, signed for an even-par 71.

Darren Clarke hit the opening tee shot of the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush on Thursday, with the world's best golfers set to battle it out for the Claret Jug.

The sport's oldest major is returning to the course for the first time in 68 years and the Northern Irishman was given the honour of getting the tournament underway in his home nation.

Clarke, the 2011 Champion Golfer of the Year, carded a birdie on the par-four first, while playing partners Charley Hoffman and amateur James Sugrue made pars.

Home hope Rory McIlroy goes out at 10:09 local time (9:09 GMT), with reigning champion Francesco Molinari in the group before him.

Tiger Woods will have a score to aim at by the time he tees it up at 15:10 local time (14:10 GMT), with Patrick Reed and Matt Wallace alongside him.

Having won four of the past 10 majors, Brooks Koepka – off at 13:04 local time (12:04 GMT) – will certainly be one to watch on a day when rain is forecast at various stages.

It was another glorious day at Royal Portush as preparations for the Open Championship continued on Tuesday.

Players aplenty faced the media - including a certain Tiger Woods - and there were a host of big names out on the course.

And they weren't the only ones strolling the stunning links track, with Omnisport's reporters also on the prowl.

Here's a sample of what they happened upon during their travels inside the media tent and beyond...

 

NO PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT?

Brooks Koepka's record is a peculiar thing.

The world number one has won four of the past 10 majors and placed second at the Masters and U.S. Open either side of defending the US PGA Championship in the first three major tournaments of 2019.

But he is only a twice a winner on the regular PGA Tour. So what's the difference?

"I just practice before the majors. Regular tournaments I don't practice. If you've seen me on TV, that's when I play golf," he said to laughter from the press pack.

Top marks for honesty there, Brooks.

PINT OF GUINNESS, TIGER?

Tiger Woods was in a jovial mood during his media conference, which as ever was the best attended of them all.

When asked if he'd had chance to have a sip of Guinness, the three-time Open winner offered this assessment of one of the more popular Irish delicacies.

"This week? No, not this week. In the past...hmm," he joked.

 

LOST IN THE ROUGH

One of the joys of covering an Open Championship is heading out on the course to take in the sights and catch a bit of golf.

On practice days, with reduced crowds, it's an opportunity to follow some of the big names without having to contend with the masses that follow the action during the tournament.

But the plans of one Omnisport reporter, who set out to watch Brooks Koepka, were thwarted by some poor navigation and, in fairness, a little bit of bad luck.

If you take a wrong turn on this course and get stuck the wrong side of one of the boundary ropes that funnel spectators down certain pathways, you can end up a long way from where you want to be.

And so it proved for this lost reporter, who never did track down Koepka and was left instead to watch Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who has won four fewer majors than the American.

It's been 68 years since Royal Portrush last hosted The Open Championship and excitement is building ahead of the start of the 148th edition of the tournament.

Sunday was the first official practice day and several players took to the course a day later to get familiar with a venue most in the field will never have played.

And there was plenty going on around the course as the build-up kicks into gear.

Below, Omnisport's team on the ground round up some of the best goings on in Northern Ireland.

 

TIGER'S TEE TROUBLES

Nothing can make your own golf abilities feel quite so inadequate as watching the pros tee it up at The Open.

But, rest assured, even the greatest of greats can encounter a few woes out on the course, even 15-time major winners like Tiger Woods!

While preparing to hit off at the 11th, Woods needed a few attempts to get his ball to stay on the tee, much to the amusement of the watching patrons and the party involved with his playing group that included Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.

"God damn it!" Tiger exclaimed. "My short little tees just don't work."


WATER GOOD IDEA BY THE OPEN

We all want to do our bit to help protect the environment, right?

Well the good folks here at The Open do as well and this year the tournament has removed all single-use plastic bottles.

In their place, players (and indeed members of the media) have been provided with special edition refillable bottles, with water stations placed all around the course.

Good on you, folks.

GOODBYE, AT LEAST FOR NOW, MY FRIEND

None of us here at Omnisport have ever triumphed in a major golf tournament, nor do we expect any of us ever will…

But it's easy to imagine that the toughest part of winning a Claret Jug is handing it back a year later.

That's exactly what defending champion Francesco Molinari had to do on Monday and the Italian had to ensure the famous trophy was kept in some safe places…

"I was very, very careful with it, especially the first few weeks," he said.

"We've had a couple of drinks out of it. Nothing out of the ordinary. I've got small kids at home so I had to keep it out of reach most of the time to avoid disaster!"

 

CLARET CHUG?

Jordan Spieth is a man who knows how to win a Claret Jug, having triumphed in a day of high drama at Royal Birkdale a couple of years back.

And to start his latest tilt for a second Open Championship, Spieth partook in an American pastime of chugging down a can…

Although we're not entirely sure what was in inside.

In Portrush, the scenic Northern Irish coastal town playing host to this year's Open Championship, there is an ice cream parlour that boasts a rendering of Francesco Molinari made entirely from sprinkles.

It must have taken some considerable work to put together but by all accounts it was worth the effort, if you like that sort of thing. Not that Molinari has been to see it.

He is a busy man and not nearly as frivolous as the edible artwork created in his likeness. His focus this week is on retaining the Claret Jug he won last year in no less painstaking a manner than one imagines would be required to pay homage to a man via the medium of confectionery. 

Building up to the 2018 Open at Carnoustie the Italian was firmly under the radar, not considered a genuine challenger, and that seemed a fair assessment when he closed Friday's round six shots adrift.

But something happened over that weekend in Scotland that transformed Molinari. Or, perhaps more accurately, transformed the perception of Molinari.

You see, the man himself appears immune to change. Before becoming Champion Golfer of the Year, he was placid, low-key, modest. And afterwards? He was still all of those things, but somehow more so.

Amid the hype and hyperbole of his maiden major, secured by a stunning 65 on the Saturday and a nerveless, bogey-free 69 on the Sunday that saw him pull clear of a chasing pack featuring far glitzier names, Molinari's restraint was almost unimpeachable.

And suddenly people were interested in this quiet, unassuming man, whose reserved nature only caused him to be thrust further into the spotlight. He was a curio, worthy of closer scrutiny; people wanted to know what made him tick, or if his introversion was something he fought, something to be overcome.

During a media conference ahead of the Ryder Cup he was labelled "insular", the reporter who made the claim drawing a stark contrast between Molinari and the majority of his European team-mates, whose more expressive characters were painted as more desirable.

The answer was unemotional but considered, and it was absolutely true - "There's no point in trying to be something that you're not".

Of course, Molinari went on to light up Le Golf National with a perfect record, forming one half of the legendary 'Moliwood' duo with Tommy Fleetwood, a double act where nobody had any trouble identifying the straight man. And he did it his way - calmly, without fuss.

The quiet man brought an entire continent to a crescendo. Again, perceptions changed, but he did not.

And now, heading into this week at Portrush as the reigning champion, there are new expectations to deal with, the kind that come with being firmly on the radar, and not at all under it.

After the Masters, where Molinari slept on a two-stroke lead heading into a final day in which he shot a 74 to finish two behind eventual winner Tiger Woods, he is also having to deal with everyone realising he is indeed human, and therefore not entirely unaffected by pressure.

With that collapse, the myth of the unflappable Molinari - a ridiculous one at any rate - could no longer survive. But that was only ever the perception, and not one Molinari was invested in.

He is much more complex than the timid and reticent golfer so ripe for parody. Not unlike a masterpiece made of ice cream sprinkles - the closer you look, the more you find there is to admire.

So it was with little fanfare that Molinari held his media conference on Monday. It was not a packed room, there was little in the way of well-worn anecdotes, or of misty-eyed reminiscences. His Portrush canvas is blank for now, but ready for a sprinkling of Molinari magic.

Francesco Molinari described winning The Open as a life-changing experience and admits he was not prepared for the level of expectation that comes with being a major champion.

A year ago, Molinari made his major breakthrough at Carnoustie after a fine bogey-free two-under-par final round saw him clinch a two-shot victory.

Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were among the star-studded cast to have challenged unsuccessfully against Molinari, who went on to take five points from five matches in Europe's winning Ryder Cup effort at Le Golf National.

Molinari is excited by the prospect of defending a major title, even if nothing could have prepared him for the additional responsibilities attached to winning one of golf's big four.

"No, I wasn't prepared for that [the rising expectation levels]. It was quite a big challenge, especially at the beginning, to get used to it," he said.

"I guess it's something you learn to deal with, especially obviously the win last year came after a certain period of time where I played some really good golf. So, expectations kept rising almost every week I was playing.

"But I think now I've learned to do a decent job of managing that. Obviously this week is going to be extra special, and any week that you defend is special. And especially at a major championship. So, it's going to be another new experience for me.

"It changes your life, really, especially for a guy like me who likes to go a little bit under the radar and doesn't really need the attention.

"It changes a lot in terms of everyday life, getting recognised by more people, commitments. Every tournament you play there's more things to do. And obviously time with the media, but also with sponsors and various different things to do. That's been the other adaptation that I needed to get used to.

"It's even more impressive to think of the guys who have won a lot more major championships and they face a different challenge to some other guys."

Molinari had the opportunity to add to his Claret Jug with a green jacket at the Masters in April, but a disappointing last-round 74 left him in a tie for fifth as Woods ended an 11-year wait for major glory.

The Italian had led through three rounds and he says only time will tell if he has learned from the experience.

"I don't know [if I can learn anything], it depends in what position I get into on Sunday," he added.

"All kind of experiences help you going forward. I'm sure if I'm going to be lucky enough to be in contention on Sunday, obviously the experience from Carnoustie last year will help me, the experience from the Masters will help me. But many, many others that I've had through my career.

"When you lose, in a way you want to forget about it as quickly as possible. But obviously then you analyse it and see what's going wrong, if something has gone wrong."

Tiger Woods will start his quest for a fourth Open Championship alongside compatriot Patrick Reed, while home favourite Rory McIlroy joins U.S. Open victor Gary Woodland for the first two rounds at Royal Portrush.

American great Woods, who won a 15th major title at the Masters in April, tees off at 3.10pm local time alongside the man who presented him with his latest green jacket, and Englishman Matt Wallace.

McIlroy will be backed by fervent home support at Portrush, where he set a course-record 61 as a 16-year-old in 2005. 

In his threesome is Woodland and Paul Casey, the former having made a major breakthrough at Pebble Beach last month.

Reigning champion Francesco Molinari starts his defence shortly before 10am on Thursday and the Italian has Bryson DeChambeau and Adam Scott for company in a marquee group.

Four-time major winner and world number one Brooks Koepka has been paired with 2010 champion Louis Oosthuizen and Shubhankar Sharma, while Dustin Johnson is alongside Jason Day and Keegan Bradley.

The honour of the opening tee shot goes to local hero Darren Clarke, who clinched the Claret Jug eight years ago.

While Royal Portrush will be uncharted territory for the majority of the field at the 148th Open Championship, there is a strong sense of familiarity for Rory McIlroy.

The four-time major champion set a course-record 61 at one of the toughest links venues – which has not held The Open since 1951 – as a 16-year-old in 2005.

A lot has changed in the 14 years since but McIlroy's knowledge of Portrush, coupled with the fervent backing of a partisan home crowd in Northern Ireland, should aid his cause.

But there is a star-studded cast – led by world number one and four-time major victor Brooks Koepka – who will all be desperate to deny McIlroy a dream home coming.

Here, three Omnisport writers pick out their players to watch in the battle for the Claret Jug.

 

PETER HANSON

Favourite: Brooks Koepka

Koepka's phenomenal record in major tournaments includes a couple of top-10 placings at The Open. A year ago, Koepka was a distant 39th at Carnoustie, but that was sandwiched by triumphs at the U.S. Open and US PGA Championship. He secured another PGA title in May, and only a wonderful four days from Gary Woodland denied him a third consecutive U.S. success. Koepka often feels he does not receive the acclaim he deserves but the fact the attention will be focused on McIlroy should play into his hands at Portrush.

Likely challengers: Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele and Tommy Fleetwood

Rahm's three attempts to win The Open have hardly been a success story – a tie for 44th two years ago his best result. But the passionate Spaniard has two top-10 major finishes in 2019 and won the Irish Open this month, so will be feeling confident at Portrush. For a while now it has appeared a matter of when not if Schauffele becomes a major champion. Respective finishes of second and third at the Masters and U.S. Open further enhanced his major pedigree and he proved his ability to contend on tricky Open courses when ending as runner-up at Carnoustie a year ago. Fleetwood's form in recent months has been patchy, but the amiable Englishman has the sort of clutch-scoring ability that should suit Portrush.

Outside bet: Graeme McDowell

The halcyon days of winning the U.S. Open in 2010 may seem like a distant memory for the former world number four, who last year was ranked as low as 239. But 'G Mac' has shown signs of improvements this year, recording top-10 finishes at the Texas Open and Canadian Open, while he flirted with contention at last month's U.S. Open before finishing 16th. And do not discount the power of local knowledge. While the majority of the focus will undoubtedly fall McIlroy's way, Portrush native McDowell will be desperate to impress in front of home support.

RUSSELL GREAVES

My favourite: Francesco Molinari

When Molinari lifted the Claret Jug in 2018, he did so to little fanfare. On that Sunday at Carnoustie, his name was not the most illustrious of the contenders. Rory McIlroy was up there, as was Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and, of course, Tiger Woods. What separated this quiet, unassuming Italian from that star-studded field was his immense calmness under pressure. He went bogey-free in a two-under par 69 in tricky conditions that will likely be replicated at Portrush. When the going gets tough, this guy will get going.

Likely challengers: Koepka, Spieth and Fleetwood

Because since when does Koepka not challenge at a major? It is what he does. Time and time again. How Spieth would yearn for that kind of consistency now, but he did make a decent fist of retaining his title last year and it can never be declared a surprise to see him in the mix. Fleetwood was the focus of much of the pre-tournament attention when Spieth triumphed, with Royal Birkdale his home course. He may not have the same intimate knowledge of this track, but how poetic it would be to see the Claret Jug passed from one half of the Ryder Cup 'Moliwood' partnership to the other.

Outside bet: Matt Kuchar

Kuchar came mighty close to glory two years ago, but Spieth's stunning revival from his 13th-hole woes kept his compatriot at arm's length. Back then, Spieth said Kuchar would win a major one day. This could be his year.

JON FISHER

My favourite: Fleetwood

Fleetwood is without a win in 2019 but has recorded four top-10 finishes. He is likely to enjoy the conditions at Portrush. The links course on the upper tip of Northern Ireland is defended primarily by the wind which could play into the hands of a man brought up on the blowy north west coast of England. Fleetwood is overdue a major breakthrough and will enjoy considerable support.

Likely challengers: McIlroy, Koepka and Spieth

No real surprises here. McIlroy holds the course record at Portrush. Expectation could be an issue in his home country but he has the tools to dominate. Spieth won the Open in 2017 and was tied for the 54-hole lead 12 months ago before falling away. He hasn't won since his Birkdale triumph but seems to thrive in UK conditions. And Koepka because, well, it's Koepka.

Outside bet: Adam Scott

Scott, like Spieth, is very much at home at the Open. Four consecutive top-10 finishes from 2012-2015 - he should have claimed the Claret Jug in 2012 but bogeyed the last four holes to finish second to Ernie Els by a shot - show a pedigree on this type of layout. The swing has never been a problem and his putting is, very belatedly, not proving a hindrance.

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