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Jonas Blixt and Graeme McDowell won in this past week's only two events on the major tours. Blixt, a 29-year-old Swede in his second year on tour, got his second career PGA Tour win at the Greenbrier Classic, lifting him out of a season-long funk and into the 2014 Masters.
And McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, got his third worldwide victory of the year at the French Open.
We've come to that point in the year when we look anxiously to the Open Championship, the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup playoffs and the Presidents Cup. Every week feels like a reminder that we haven't reached the end of the hot summer and closure on a long season.
Luckily, we are in the last week before the world descends on Muirfield for the Open Championship. We'll learn very soon who will be the 142nd winner of golf's oldest major tournament. Yet before we latch to the quandaries that arise from links golf, consider with me five issues to ponder over the next week.
1. Does Phil Mickelson overcome the bitter disappointment of Merion, where he came so close to winning his first U.S. Open, to finally take the Open Championship?
At 43, Mickelson's days as a consistent presence on leaderboards at majors could be numbered. Only nine players have won majors after they turned 43.
The past two Open winners were 42: Darren Clarke at Royal St. Georges in 2011 and Ernie Els at Royal Lytham & St. Annes last year.
Perhaps too much is made of age, especially with today's advances in equipment technology and better nutrition and training programs that have enabled players to compete at an elite level much longer than in past generations.
By far, Mickelson has played his worst in the Open Championship of the four majors. In 19 appearances, he has only two top-10s, including a tie for second in 2011, where he said he had finally embraced the links-style game that calls less for the target golf favored on most U.S. courses and more hitting the ball along the ground.
At the Greenbrier, Mickelson missed the cut for the third consecutive year. He said that he had difficulty with his distance control with his irons, due to the high altitude of the West Virginia resort. The lefty will play in the Scottish Open, beginning on Thursday at Castle Stuart, where he finished in a tie for 16th in 2012.
No matter how the four-time major winner fares in this week's event on the European Tour, he will be physically and mentally prepared for Muirfield, where he had a tie for 66th in 2002. Back then he was still two years from winning his first major, the 2004 Masters. He brings a different urgency now to one of golf's most historic venues.
A victory will help him get over the hurt of Merion and put him one step closer to that career grand slam.
2. Which Tiger Woods will show up at Muirfield?
Tiger is resting his sore left elbow. We know that he can play hurt. We know his record in majors, and we also know that he hasn't won one since 2008.
Will he be 100 percent healthy come July 18 when the Open Championship begins? It's likely that we won't fully know the answer to this last question until the 14-time major champion hits a shot out of the tall fescue at Muirfield.
Perhaps the specter of the injury will lessen the pressure on him to win at Muirfield? With a month off from competitive action, he might struggle with nerves or he might arrive with a more carefree attitude, a state very alien to the hyper-focused Tiger.
There are players such as Els, McDowell and Bill Haas who come into Muirfield with confidence from recent wins.
Tiger's four victories on the season now seem like distant memories. It's time for him to make some fresh news.
3. The Royal and Ancient Club scrapped the special money list on the PGA Tour to qualify for the Open Championship.
Instead, the ruling body awarded spots to the top five players off the FedEx Cup standings not already in the tournament after the Greenbrier Classic.
Billy Horschel, Boo Weekley, Russell Henley, Jimmy Walker and Harris English were the five qualifiers. With the exception of Walker, who finished in a tie for second at the Greenbrier Classic, all these players have won tour events in 2013.
Which one of these players has the best chance of having a breakout performance at Muirfield?
I'm betting on Horschel, who had a tie for fourth at Merion in just his second career major championship. The 26-year-old former Florida Gator has been one of the most exciting players in 2013. And though he can be very anxious and excitable at times, Horschel seems to thrive on being in contention and in the limelight.
Only a very confident young man would have the nerve to wear octopus-covered pants in the final round of the U.S. Open.
|Jordan Spieth, 19, could still qualify for the Open Championship, but it would take a victory at the John Deere Classic to punch his ticket to Muirfield.|
4. What player not already in the Open Championship has the best shot of winning the John Deere Classic this week to earn his way to Muirfield?
Don't be surprised to see 19-year-old Jordan Spieth hitching a ride to Muirfield on that John Deere-sponsored charter. The Dallas native has made the most out of his special temporary membership status on tour with five top-10s. At Greenbrier, he started the final round 4 shots off the lead after three 67s, but fell to a tie for 23rd after a 3-over 73 Sunday.
Still, the former Texas Longhorn knows how to get on a leaderboard. The John Deere Classic has been owned in recent years by Steve Stricker, who has won three out of the past four tournaments, but Spieth is well positioned to wrestle it away from him or Zach Johnson, who won last year. After the season Spieth has had thus far, no one would be surprised to see him pull it off.
5. As predictable as the LPGA Tour season has become with the dominance of Inbee Park, PGA Tour winners are much more difficult to predict and understand by their actions.
On Sunday, Blixt joined a list of 2013 tour winners who won events after some very mediocre play.
Before Greenbrier, Blixt had missed the cut in half of the 16 events he entered and his best finish on the year was a tie for 11th at the Colonial.
That's a better record than the one D.A. Points brought into Houston. Points had missed the cut in seven of his first nine events of the year before winning in Houston.
Derek Ernst had made less than $30,000 on tour in seven events before winning the Wells Fargo Championship in May. And since then, his best finish is a tie for 44th at the AT&T National.
Johnson Wagner, a three-time tour winner, had a disappointing final round 3-over 73 for a tie for second after holding the 54-hole lead at Greenbrier. Still, he should have been pleased with his week, considering he had missed six cuts and withdrawn from another tournament in his past seven events.
Ben Curtis was a little-known rookie, ranked 369th in the world, when he won the 2003 Open Championship in his first appearance in a major.
Who will be the next player to come from the doldrums to win a tournament? You couldn't go wrong by picking almost anybody from the bottom of the money list.