5 groups worth watching this week at the Open Championship

USA's Tiger Woods tees off the 14th during preview day three of The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club. (Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images)
USA's Tiger Woods tees off the 14th during preview day three of The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club. (Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images) /
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The Open Championship returns to Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland for the first time in nearly seven decades this week

Royal Portrush, the links-style course by the coast of the North Channel in Northern Ireland, welcomes the world’s best golfers this week for the start of the Open Championship.

The Open is returning to Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951 when Max Faulkner, a brash English professional, won his only major championship. In the past six decades, the tournament has been restricted to a rota of nine courses, all of them in Scotland and England.

In recent years, however, Northern Ireland has become a golfing haven. Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have all come out of the small country to win major championships. All three are in the field at home this week, with Clarke being given the honor of hitting the first tee shot on Thursday.

The Open Championship this year has taken on added significance because of the changes to the PGA Tour schedule that took effect this year. For the first time since 1971, the Open is being played as the last major of the season. Players like McIlroy and Dustin Johnson have a last chance to add a major title to their record in 2019, while the likes of Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka look to win their second major of the season.

Here’s a look at five groups to pay attention to when play begins at golf’s oldest major on Thursday (all tee times are local).

Tiger Woods, Matt Wallace and Patrick Reed (3:10 p.m./10:09 a.m.)

Tiger Woods orchestrated one of the greatest comeback stories in golf history by winning the Masters in April. But since that magical Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, the golf world has seen little of the 15-time major champion.

Woods has only played three tournaments in the months since the Masters. He last teed up at the U.S. Open a month ago, where he finished tied for 21st. In between, he went on a family trip to Thailand, where he admits he didn’t touch a golf club for two weeks. He only saw Royal Portrush for the first time on Sunday.

All this, though, is part of his plan for this season. “This year I made a conscious effort to cut back on my schedule to make sure I don’t play too much,” he said at his press conference on Tuesday. “I want to play here as long as I possibly can. You have to understand that if I play a lot, I won’t be out here that long.”

Woods has played so seldom in 2019 that he doesn’t have enough rounds to qualify for PGA Tour leaderboards. He would rank third in greens in regulation and eighth in strokes gained: tee to green.

He’s paired with fellow American Patrick Reed and Englishman Matt Wallace the first two rounds. This isn’t the first time Woods and Reed have played together in Europe. They were grouped together for the foursomes matches at the Ryder Cup last year. The result, in short, was disastrous, as they lost both of their matches and instigated a feud within the American locker room that lasted well after the tournament.

Reed has a hate-hate relationship with European golf fans as a result of his Ryder Cup antics. “Captain America” should expect to hear plenty of jeers from the rowdy Irish golf fans this week. The 2018 Masters champion has struggled all season but did finish tied for fifth at the Rocket Mortgage Classic three weeks ago.

Russell had a third-place showing at the PGA Championship in May, his best major championship performance to date, and followed that up with a tie for 12th at Pebble Beach.