W2W4 at The Open: Who will be Thursday's surprise contender?

Stewart Cink ruined Tom Watson's Open dream in 2009, but he has yet to win a tournament since. Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

SOUTHPORT, England -- What do Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, John Huston, Graeme McDowell, Rocco Mediate and Robert Allenby have in common?

All of them topped the leaderboard at Royal Birkdale after the first round of The Open in its last three stagings here in 1991, 1998 and 2008.

It has become something of an Open tradition for the elite, household names to mix with lesser-known mortals in the early stages of the tournament -- so who will be this year's surprise package in Round 1? Our writers at Royal Birkdale give their verdict.

Stewart Cink

It's been eight years since Cink played the role of The Grinch Who Stole Tom Watson's Open. He hasn't won since then, enduring a series of personal and professional ups and downs.

Lately, though, there have been more ups, as he's made the cut in five of his past six starts, including a pair of top-10 finishes. I don't know if Cink can keep it going for four days, but he'll be a feel-good story on this leaderboard in the early going.

-- Jason Sobel

Charles Howell III

The PGA Tour veteran has undergone a mini-resurgence of late after returning from injury, losing in a playoff a couple of weeks ago at the Quicken Loans National to Kyle Stanley and seeing his name on numerous leaderboards. Howell owns just two victories but has 16 runner-up finishes in his career, and he is playing in his first Open since 2012.

-- Bob Harig

Wesley Bryan

He was known for his trick shots with his brother George. Now he's known as a PGA Tour champion after winning the RBC Heritage in April. Here's what he and his caddie, William Lanier, said to me Tuesday when I saw them after a practice round:

Caddie: "This is in the top-five of golf courses I have ever been on, caddying or playing."

Bryan: "I was in love with this place by the third hole. I love everything about it."

That from a team that knows the elements and can't wait to play. Watch out for them.

-- Michael Collins

Steve Stricker

After kicking off last week's John Deere Classic with a 73, he closed the tournament out with rounds of 67-65-64 for a share of fifth place, but just as importantly his record on Thursday at The Open in recent times is stellar. In three of his past five appearances, he has carded either 66 or 67 to be in the top six after 18 holes.

He also tied for seventh at Birkdale in 2008, so this particular stretch of linksland holds no fear. Greg Norman represented the seniors in style nine years ago -- 50-year-old Stricker can do so this week.

-- Matt Cooper

Andrew "Beef" Johnston

A long way off being among the bookies' favorites, Beef has had only one top-10 finish since taking last year's Open at Royal Troon by storm. However, after local hero Tommy Fleetwood, Johnston will be one of the crowd's favorites, and that's the way he likes it.

His tie for 19th at the Scottish Open was decent preparation for Royal Birkdale, and his driving remains a strength that could give him the momentum he needs.

-- Leo Spall

Lee Westwood

Lee Westwood has made a habit of coming up small in big moments, but just like Darren Clarke's surprise victory at Royal St. George's, this could be Westy's week to shine. He's such a good ball striker that with some average putting, he can finally get it done.

-- Kevin Van Valkenburg