GULLANE, Scotland – The 142nd Open Championship isn’t about Man vs. Mother Nature, the normal undercard at golf’s oldest title bout, so much as it is a clash of conventional wisdom against the competitive realities of the modern game.
The weatherman will have his say – he always does when the game’s best descend on the ancient links – but this Open is shaping up to be a collision between Muirfield’s historical legacy and the capriciousness of parity in the modern game.
In one corner looms Muirfield’s major marquee. In short, the East Lothian gem doesn’t do flukes. The list of Open champions at Muirfield is a World Golf Hall of Fame roll call – Nick Faldo (twice), Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els, Walter Hagen.
If you refer to a player in hushed tones, he likely won an Open at Muirfield. Unlike many of the other Open rotation layouts, the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers eschews bad bounces and quirky breaks.
“Look at the list of past champions. The number of Hall of Famers that there are who have won here,” said Tiger Woods, one of the few greats who hasn’t claimed a claret jug at Muirfield, but Mother Nature did have a say in that in 2002. “It just goes to show you, you really have to hit the ball well. You have to be able to shape it both ways.”
But Muirfield’s almost flawless cast of championship characters stands in contrast to the uncertainty that has become the norm in Grand Slam golf. Eighteen of the last 20 major champions have been first-time members of the Grand Slam club.
Some attribute the eclectic list of recent major champions to Woods’ fall from grace which has corresponded with an 0-for-16 Grand Slump for the world No. 1. That void has been filled, at least to some degree, by relatively surprising winners.
For Woods, who was quick to remind the press on Tuesday that he has won four times this year, his drought is the byproduct of injury and the pressure-filled realities of major championship golf.
“I think it's very simple, there's a lot of pressure in major championships, and you're also playing under the most difficult conditions,” said Woods, who has been sidelined since the U.S. Open with an elbow injury. “Generally in these majors you're probably getting close to the top 100 players in the world. And you combine the strength of field with the most difficult conditions and with the most heightened pressure, you're going to get guys making mistakes.”
The only mistake Woods may have made in 2002, the last time the Open was played at Muirfield, was playing his way into an afternoon tee time on Saturday. The storm that swept in from the Firth of Forth that day is still considered the worst in modern golf.
“It was like the end of the world,” said Joe Damiano, who caddied for runner-up Stuart Appleby at the ’02 Open.
Woods signed for a third-round 81, one of 10 cards in the 80s that dark day, and yet a Hall of Famer (Els) still emerged from a playoff a day later. It seems not even a proper Scottish gale can deny Muirfield a champion who was beyond reproach.
A similar hoolie doesn’t seem likely this year. A particularly dry and hot spring has produced a bouncy layout that is reminiscent of Hoylake in 2006 when Woods bunted his way to the claret jug.
The more pressing concern is what impact the wind will have on play. At the core of Muirfield’s greatness is a rare out-and-back routing for each nine that creates a circular loop that most Open courses lack.
At St. Andrews and Royal Troon, for example, each nine travels away from the clubhouse and then back, leaving, effectively, two winds for players to deal with. At Muirfield, one hole may play into the wind and the next will have a cross wind.
“Muirfield or Troon would offer the two best chances (to win an Open); because of the way the holes move, it's very comfortable for me off some of the tees, getting the ball in play, as well as around the greens,” Phil Mickelson said.
Although Woods is the consensus favorite for this week’s Open, Mickelson would have to be considered a close second.
Before 2011, when he finished runner-up at Royal St. George’s, Mickelson described his relationship with links golf as a “hate-love” affair.
“I used to hate it and now I love it,” Lefty said.
That affinity likely grew on Sunday when he won the Scottish Open on what is widely considered one of the country’s top new links courses at Castle Stuart (it’s also worth pointing out the last three Open champions played the Scottish Open the week before).
Mickelson certainly has the pedigree to join the who’s-who list of Muirfield champions, as does Els – for a second time – who will be vying for a unique double this week. The defending Open champion is also the last player to hoist the claret jug at Muirfield.
On paper, however, Graeme McDowell may be the player with the most up-side this week.
Having grown up in Northern Ireland at venerable Royal Portrush, McDowell is uniquely suited to links golf and claimed two of his three titles this year – the Volvo World Match Play and French Open on the European Tour – on links-like courses.
“The links-style golf is in my blood and I always feel like I revert back well to it. I naturally and instinctually can play well in the wind,” McDowell said.
But then the disconnect between favorites and major champions has been profound for the past half-decade or so. From Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA) to Trevor Immelman (2008 Masters) the Grand Slam script has become much more improvisational.
Whether Muirfield can alter that legacy and stay on script may be the week’s most intriguing matchup.