By Andrew Both
(Reuters) - Former British Open champion Johnny Miller has pegged Hideki Matsuyama as the early favorite to win next week’s championship at Royal Birkdale and become Japan's first major winner.
But Miller, who won the title at the course in 1976, said on Tuesday that picking a champion was even tougher than usual in view of the poor form of several of the sport’s biggest names.
“The real hot shots in golf, like Dustin Johnson and Rory (McIlroy) and Jason Day... they’re not on the top of their game right now,” Miller said, adding Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas to that list.
“So I don't know what to expect, because majors are a whole different animal but Hideki, I think he’s the best player right now.
“Tournament in and tournament out his bad shots are really good, which is what you need at Birkdale. And I think that he's ready to win.”
World number two Matsuyama tied for second at the U.S. Open last month behind Brooks Koepka, though he has the added pressure of trying to become the first Japanese to win a men’s major.
Miller, speaking on a telephone conference call promoting the Golf Channel and NBC coverage of the Open in the United States, does not think Birkdale is likely to throw up an obscure winner.
Eight of the nine previous Opens there were won by multiple major champions and, though Birkdale is not the most famous Open course, it is a strong test, Miller believes.
“I think Royal Birkdale is one of my favorite courses, especially my favorite links, because we deem it a little fairer, the fairways are a little flatter but the sand dunes are fantastic and very demanding,” said the American, who perhaps is a little biased in view of his victory there in 1976.
“I’m excited to go back there and sort of see if my memory resurrects. I believe it's an accuracy course. The reason why I won the Open in '76 is my caddie literally made me hit a one-iron. I hit a one-iron 12 out of the 14 tee shots.”
That will not be an option this year, as players no longer carry one-irons.
“I can see a lot of driving irons and three-woods off the tee like (2016 champion) Stenson did last year,” Miller said.
While the players will try to keep mistakes to a minimum, Miller will aim to avoid any verbal bogeys in the commentary booth, no easy task he said given the long hours on air.
“You've got to keep your wits about you and you've got to be careful what you say nowadays a bit,” he said.
“Not that I'm very careful. Sometimes I cross the line. I'm always near the line.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina)