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The most open Open in recent memory

Royal Birkdale is held in fond regard among players, media and spectators alike. It was the site of Arnold Palmer's famous maiden Open title in 1961; one which inspired his countrymen to take a genuine interest in golf's oldest major championship.

Plenty of success has ensued for the Americans east of the Atlantic in the years since, but Birkdale in particular has been a happy hunting ground. Of the seven Opens to be staged at the Southport course since '61, there have been four different winners from the United States - the most recent of which was Mark O'Meara in 1998, who beat another American, Brian Watts, in a playoff. Lurking one stroke behind at the conclusion of 72 holes was O'Meara's good friend, Tiger Woods.

At the time, beating Woods wasn't considered dramatically significant. In fact, at that stage, it was 2-1 to O'Meara in terms of majors won. Yet by the time Padraig Harrington lifted the Claret Jug at Birkdale a decade later, there were genuine enquiries made as to whether an asterisk should be put next to the Irishman's name, as Woods, who had been under the knife for knee problems, was absent.

That was because in the intervening 10 years between O'Meara and Harrington's triumphs at Birkdale, Woods had won 13 of his 14 major titles, thus book-ending an era that looks more remarkable by the day.

That's not to say we didn't offer Tiger the requisite awe he deserved at the time. However, we are approaching the 2017 Open off the back of a streak in which the last seven major winners have all been first-timers. And, looking at the form of the world's best players, you'd be a brave man to argue with (Sir) Nick Faldo's prediction of it becoming eight this week.

Dustin Johnson, cruelly struck down by a freak injury in the build up to the Masters, has yet to regain the pulsating form that had him set to pull away from the chasing pack. Rory McIlroy can't seem to find the green from inside 150 yards. The only consistent thing about Jordan Spieth has been his inconsistency, while Jason Day's wild-swinging approach seems to have caught up with him. Even Henrik Stenson, who in conjunction with Phil Mickelson so royally entertained us at Troon last year, has missed a number of cuts of late.

They are good enough players that it may only take a few good swings before they start flushing it again, but, of the big guns, only Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm look to be in decent form. Success for any of them would still translate into yet another first-time major champion though.

Further afield, Sergio Garcia is long overdue an Open title, and the omens for him are good, given that O'Meara's triumph in '98 followed victory at the Masters earlier that year. Justin Rose, too, will like his chances of becoming the first Englishman since Faldo to win an Open, given that he came fourth at Birkdale (as an amateur) when O'Meara won - still his best performance at an Open Championship to date.

Southport's very own Tommy Fleetwood must be licking his lips given the red-hot form he finds himself in, while there is a certain X-factor about Marc Leishman which gives me the belief that his time in a major may yet be on the horizon. Scottish Open winner Rafa Cabrera-Bello deserves fair consideration, too. And none of this is to even mention the South African contingent who will be making the trip to Merseyside. If nothing else, it's fair to say that one of our big guns is surely overdue a genuine tilt at a major championship.

Honestly, it is difficult to recall a major which was as profoundly wide open as this. No wonder some bookies are paying each-way bets up to 10 places! This, in an era where we're being treated to an abundance of supposedly once-in-a-generation stars such as Johnson, McIlroy, Spieth and Co.

And that just takes me right back to Tiger. And even further back to the likes of Nicklaus. How on earth did they achieve what they did? It's difficult to say whether their respective eras made for more compelling viewing than what we have today. Certainly, I'll be setting up my stall this weekend for what promises to be a thrilling race to the Claret Jug.

However, given the increasing levels of convergence at the top end of the game, and with no standout players building their fort at the summit, I can't help but wonder... will we ever see the dominance of a Tiger and his like again? At least in our lifetimes, anyway?

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