ITALY'S Francesco Molinari can keep up his red-hot streak of form – and challenge for his first ever Major at Royal Lytham and St Annes next week.
That was the prediction of former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen today as he looked ahead to the 141st staging of golf's greatest event.
Oosthuizen has been paired with Molinari in the opening two rounds of the £2.5 million Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart. And he watched on as the star, a European hero in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor two years ago, stormed into an early lead in some style.
The 29-year-old carded a course record 62 across the 7,193 yard layout just outside Inverness to leave an international field trailing in his wake. South African Oosthuizen knows all about what is required to triumph in the game's biggest tournaments from personal experience.
He lifted the Claret Jug at St Andrews in 2010 and lost in a play-off for the US Masters to Bubba Watson at Augusta in April. He firmly believes that Molinari has everything in his armoury he needs to come out on top in Lancashire a week on Sunday.
He said: "Francesco is playing brilliantly. He is, as ever, playing solidly from tee to green and is putting beautifully as well.
"He had a chance of shooting 59 in his first round yesterday. He had an eagle putt on the front nine that just stayed out. If it had gone in then he would have had a chance.
"He is such a solid player. He has a swing where not much can go wrong. He has to have a good chance next week the way he is playing just now."
Oosthuizen, who many golf pundits fancy to repeat his success at Lytham, believes Molinari's shot-making ability will be crucial.
He played a practice round at the renowned seaside course, which will host the Open for the 11th occasion, last Saturday and was taken aback at how punitive it was.
He remarked: "It is a tough, tough golf course. Especially off the tee. You have to drive the ball well and find fairways to score well.
"There are a lot of little bunkers out there just off their fairways which are going to gobble up your ball if you hit it even a bit off line.
"The wind is sure to blow at Lytham next week so ball striking is going to be very important and Francesco is as good as they get."
Oosthuizen made a poor defence of his Open crown at Royal St George's last year and eventually finished in a tie for 54th place. Yet, the man from Mossel Bay was forced to pull out of the Scottish Open – a call he feels cost him dearly in Kent.
He reckons the players who have teed it up in the Highlands this week will be at a distinct advantage over their rivals next week.
"Players at Castle Stuart this week who are playing in the Open will certainly benefit from playing competitively on a links golf course," he said.
"We play in the Dunhill Links Championship on Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews every year. That is good practice for the Open too.
"So I think the European players have an advantage over the other players. They play more links golf and are more used to the conditions."
However, Oosthuizen does not feel Royal Lytham will present a typical links challenge as a result of the poor summer weather. And he thinks that the United States players, led by Jason Dufner, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, will challenge strongly once again as a result.
Americans have come out on top the last two occasions the Open has been staged at Royal Lytham; Tom Lehman prevailed in 1996 and David Duval triumphed in 2001.
"There are so many quality players in the United States that I think some of them will certainly challenge," reflected Oosthuizen.
"The course is a very slow because of the amount of rain they have had. There is not much run in it at all."
Oosthuizen is confident he can vie for the Claret Jug once again if he can get his putting in shape at Castle Stuart.
He stated: "The greens on this side of the Atlantic are far, far slower and that will take some adapting to. I am struggling to get my lines right on the greens and have hardly made a putt of any length.
"I am swinging the club well and am giving myself chances for birdies. If I can start converting those opportunities then I won't be far away.
"If I can start hitting my irons a bit better, a bit closer to the pins, and can start holing a few putts then I can definitely put myself in a position to challenge."
Oosthuizen received the European Tour Shot of the Month award for April for his second shot to the second hole in his final round in the US Masters.