The Open 2013: Only the best in the world can conquer Muirfield

The stellar list of players to have lifted the Claret Jug at Muirfield is evidence in itself of what it takes to navigate successfully around one of the purest challenges on the Open circuit.

The last six names engraved on the famous trophy to have won on the East Lothian course are Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Whoever prevails in one week's time will be joining illustrious company.

Rarely, if ever, has an underdog emerged at the leaderboard's summit on a Sunday at Muirfield. It is regarded among the elite as one of the "fairest" tests of a golfer, a traditional links challenge without quirky bounces, where good shots are rewarded and bad ones punished.

Muirfield has twice dashed hopes of golf's grand slam. Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the last two players to have won the Masters and US Open in the same year, have seen their dreams of securing victories at all four majors in a calendar year broken here.

Nicklaus, who once described it as "the best course in Britain", was beaten by a single stroke in 1972 by Trevino whereas in 2002, the year the current champion, Els, lifted the Claret Jug for the first time, Woods suffered a meltdown on the third day and carded his worst-ever round of 81 in atrocious conditions, with gales whipping off the Firth of Forth.

As with any Open it is the wind that will decide the pattern of scoring this year but at Muirfield it has more of a bearing than elsewhere because of the unique layout.

"It's two circles, the front nine loops round and the back nine loops the other way outside it," says Grant Moir of the R&A, who has been working closely with the staff at Muirfield to prepare the course. "You only ever have two holes at most running in the same direction before you change, so you're constantly dealing with different wind conditions.

"That's certainly part of the challenge here and you don't get settled into the same wind direction for four or five holes. It's constant change throughout the round. It's a simple but almost unique layout."

The course holds all the same pitfalls it did 11 years ago, with only a few holes altering slightly and 200 yards being added in length. The fairways are relatively tight but not too penalising, with a short cut of semi-rough of some three yards running into a second cut of rough that appears intimidating but is not too dense, despite the appearance of wispy, tall grass.

Wayward shots that are sprayed beyond, however, are a disaster. "It's just what nature gives you there," says Moir of the deep rough. "In some areas it is difficult to play from and difficult to find your ball. It's stuff that you just don't want to be in."

The weather may determine how many balls are sent flying into the thick stuff but even in favourable conditions there are pitfalls. The opening shot of the round is regarded as one of the toughest among all Open courses, while the par-threes are equally testing, the first of which is the 227-yard 4th, surrounded by undulated hollows and bunkers.

Then there is the wonderful 18th, one of the toughest closing holes on tour, usually played in the face of a prevailing crosswind and requiring an accurate drive before a daunting approach made difficult by two central fairway traps.

"With Muirfield the pros seem to like it because you can see the challenges from most of the tees, you see what you're faced with," says Moir. "There may not be the same humps and bumps in some of the fairways as there are on some of the other Open rota courses.

"But players have had to dig very deep in their final rounds to win here, the examples being Nick Faldo and Ernie Els on the last two occasions where at one point they thought their chances had gone.

"It's so weather dependent. The last time we were here the weather was good in the first few days and the scoring was low. Then obviously on the Saturday we had terrible weather, the scores shot up and anything around par was a great score. If we get four calm days, then the best players in the world will score well.

"We want to see a traditional links game where people have to land their approaches short and think about the bounce so, even if it's not blowing a gale and it stays firm, it will present a traditional challenge."

Powered by article was written by James Riach, for The Observer on Saturday 13th July 2013 20.01 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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