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Just a few weeks ago, prior to the US Open at Merion, many of the world’s best players, golf spectators and journalists were questioning the USGA’s course set-up (which has become a regular feature of the U.S. Open). Was it impossible? No. Was it very difficult? Very. Did the USGA get what they wanted? Yes, as the cream of the crop Rose to the top (pardon the pun), the winning score was close to par as they wanted and the event was one of the most talked about in years.
The last time I recall the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews “messing up” a course set-up was Carnoustie in 1999, when they grew in the fairways very tight and grew the rough so thick that finding your ball was only 40% of the issue as 60% of it was getting it back in play! This year they have had a good growing season and the Muirfield looks fairly lush from the images I’ve seen already, but that can change in a heartbeat with a few breezy, sunny days. I’ve heard that the fescue rough is quite high in places, but I’d be surprised if these were close to the fairways themselves. I think the R & A have no intention of recreating 1999, I think they’ll trust Muirfield to defend itself just with all the traditional elements that Mother Nature provides.
Biased I may well be, but in my opinion (and that of many others,) Muirfield provides the fairest and most challenging test of all the Open Championship venues. Measuring 7,192 yards this year, the front nine holes is a clockwise loop that surrounds the inner, anti-clockwise back nine. A par 71 course with four very testing par 3’s and just the three par 5’s and 11 beautifully constructed par 4’s. Opened in 1891 and designed by Tom Morris himself, you can just feel the ghosts of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers staring at you as you walk through the gates and it’s a pretty daunting feeling (not unlike stepping on to the 1st tee at St. Andrews).
Vardon, Braid, Hagen, Cotton, Player, Trevino, Watson, Faldo and Els are just some of the players that have lifted the Claret Jug at Muirfield and I think it’s safe to say that the line-up of names is more than just a little impressive. It’s this list that suggests to me that another world-class name will rise to the challenge and I wouldn’t be surprised if an “Els” or a “Woods” figured strongly on the final day.
So whom else do I like to win this year? Well I like the way Matt Kuchar is playing; I think he’s a clever, patient man, solid long game and he isn’t bad with the flat stick either. His demeanour, his game and his experience is built for an Open Championship win. I also like Graeme McDowell. He’s a great wind player, controls his ball flight well and a better driver of the ball, you will not find. If his putting is anywhere near his best, he’ll contend. Having just won the French Open and adding to his tally of two previous wins this year, I’m sure his confidence will be high.
Here is an outside bet for you all… Shane Lowry from Ireland. He’s a stocky lad who likes a pint of the black stuff, steers clear of gymnasiums and isn’t scared of producing the goods in bad weather either. He proved his pedigree just a few years ago when he won the Irish Open as an amateur, and in shocking weather conditions at County Louth GC. He has a great short game and isn’t easily fazed by “superstars”…his mate Rory McIlroy being one of them!
I mentioned Woods earlier and it’s now been 5 long years without a Major victory. Number 15 has clearly been a stumbling block for Tiger. Much water has flowed under the bridge during the past five years and whilst four wins already this year is enough for me to say that he’s back… many people think he will only truly return when Major 15 is in the bank. I like his chances at Muirfield, I think he’s had plenty of time to prepare properly and the course suits his game.
Faldo won here in 1987 and 1992 and his sincere love for the course…a love affair that has caused him to come out of retirement and play one more Open at Muirfield. Personally, I have an issue with this because he doesn’t compete at any level anymore. In my mind, he is taking a spot away from someone who desperately wants to play and someone who is trying to earn a living. To be fair to Nick, he is only doing what he is allowed to do by the rules committee, but maybe it’s time to change the automatic exemption for former winners when they are past their sell-by date.
What It Takes To Win
What makes this Muirfield so wonderful as a course is the variation of shots needed throughout the round. You play holes in literally every direction of the compass, so the breeze will challenge you on every hole. There are no “silly” holes and only the one tee shot at 11, where you cannot see the ball land (as you are asked to drive over a hill head on). History dictates that a patient, disciplined and shot-making player with great imagination will get the job done at Muirfield. Players that have a good command of their ball flight and know how and where to land the ball to let it release up the green will contend. I’m hardly going out on a limb to say that you will not see a “bomber” win at Muirfield. The course asks the player a lot more questions of a player than just how far can you hit it!
One of the keys to predicting who will win the Open Championship is forecasting what the weather is going to do during the week. In 2002, the weather was pretty average all week with just the one horrific day (Saturday) that spread the field out nicely. I recall Woods, Cink, Montgomerie and many others shooting scores in the 80’s and boy was that a tough day on the links! Mother Nature doesn’t care about reputation and nobody cares whether it’s pretty or ugly, it’s about shooting a number as low as possible. So if the weather is good, it will be harder to pick a winner. If the weather forecast is poor, look for the experience to rise to the top.
Personally, I’m gutted that I’ll not be pegging it up myself purely because I just love the place (in case you hadn’t got that already!). I came close to winning the event the last time it was held at Muirfield in 2002, finishing just a shot outside the four-man play-off. A bogey at the 1st, a bogey at the last and a lost ball on the 17th cost me dearly, but 65 on Sunday was still a fair effort under the circumstances. I’m looking forward to my return to Scotland and once again feeling the butterflies that surround this historic and brilliant event.
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