Muirfield's distinct layout primed to produce fiery Open Championship
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
GULLANE, Scotland -- Get ready for the perfect storm at Muirfield this week.
No, we're not talking about the kind of freak and ferocious volley from Mother Nature that eradicated Tiger Woods' bid for the calendar year Grand Slam when he shot a third-round 81 here in the 2002 Open Championship.
Actually, quite the opposite kind of weather has assured that Muirfield will provide the ultimate links challenge for those 156 players seeking to wrap their arms around the Claret Jug come Sunday.
Bone-dry conditions, ample sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures in recent weeks have the home of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers playing firm and fast like the course on the shores of the Firth of Forth should.
In fact, Muirfield was already so fiery earlier this week that Open officials have been doing some selective watering overnight to assure conditions don't get out of hand. And there is no rain in the forecast so a course that started out slightly green when world No. 2 Rory McIlroy arrived to play his first practice round 10 days ago is definitely trending toward brown -- not unlike a "dust bowl," U.S. Open champ Justin Rose proclaimed.
"It's a great golf course," said McIlroy, who was 13 the last time the Open was contested on these links. "Very fair. Everything is right there in front of you. No little hidden surprises, like a lot of links courses that we play. And obviously with the weather, the conditions are firm and fast and I think that’s the way a links course should be played.
"It's all set up and looks like it's going to be a great week."
Muirfield first hosted the game's oldest major in 1892, nine months after the 16 holes laid out by Old Tom Morris were extended by two. Amateur Harold Hilton won what was the first Open decided over 72 holes. About 30 years later, noted architect Harry Colt revamped the layout into essentially what remains today.
Unlike many links courses that run out and back along the shoreline, Muirfield features two distinct nine-hole loops. The first runs clockwise; the second, which is laid out inside the first, goes in the opposite direction. No more than three consecutive holes head in the same direction at any point on the property.
This dichotomy assures that players will face -- and have to figure out on the fly -- a variety of wind directions during their rounds this week. The prevailing wind, which is never expected to blow more than 10-15 mph, will come from the southwest to west on Thursday, then switch to the east for the final three rounds.
The challenge of the course is also reflected in its list of champions. Thirteen of the 15 Opens at Muirfield have been won by World Golf Hall of Fame members. Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Henry Cotton, Walter Hagen, James Braid and Harry Vardon all have won at Muirfield.
"I think it just goes to show you you really have to hit the ball well," Woods said. "... You have to shape it both ways and really control the shots because you're not playing, like you are at St. Andrews out and back, or Troon. You're playing almost in kind of a circle, in a sense, because you've got so many different angles and so many different winds, you have to be able to maneuver the ball both ways."
So just how firm is Muirfield this week?
Well, Phil Mickelson doesn't have a driver in his bag for the second straight major. Graeme McDowell, who won the Alstom Open de France in his last start for his third title of the season, says the 3-irons he was hitting when he came to Muirfield early last week have become 4- and 5-irons now as the fairways speed up.
Woods, who famously only hit one driver when he won his third Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, says he’s hit only a couple during his practice rounds this week. No matter. The world No. 1 says some of his 4-irons are traveling 280 yards and his 3-irons over 300 because of the hard-packed turf.
"It all depends on where you land it," Woods said. "It could land into a slope and get killed or land on the backside and it could shoot forward another 40, 50 yards. And that's the neat thing about links golf, is that it's predictable, but also unpredictable at the same time."
The fairway bunkers, as is the case on most links courses, are "hack-out material," McDowell said, but find one greenside and there are opportunities to get up-and-down for par. Above all, though, players must avoid the knee-high fescue rough that defines fairways that seem deceptively ample until the mis-hit shot careens into the tall stuff.
"You hit it in the rough here and you've just got to try to get it back into play," McIlroy explains. "And it's wispy, but at the same time, you've got a lie, and you think you can get a 7- or 8-iron on it. And the longer stuff just wraps around the hosel and the ball goes straight left.
"When you put it in the rough here, you've got to take your medicine and get it back into play."
The words most often used to describe Muirfield this week have been "fair" and "straightforward." McDowell says the key is to be conservative off the tee and then the opportunity to be aggressive to the green is presented.
"I think bad golf gets punished and good golf gets rewarded," McDowell said. "... I like it a lot."