GULLANE, Scotland – On the eve of the British Open, Peter Dawson sat behind the podium and proudly declared that this year’s setup at Muirfield was the best he has seen in his decade-plus tenure as the R&A’s chief executive.
“The course is just as we want it,” he boasted.
The fairways were firm and fast. The course was in immaculate condition. The rough inflicted the proper amount of punishment.
And it took some of the world’s best players, oh, 24 hours to start kvetching about the setup.
Loudest among them was Phil Mickelson, which was surprising, given his recently acquired love and appreciation for links golf. But after his opening 2-under 69 – a score, remember, that left him just three shots off the lead – he had a message for the R&A.
“We’ve got to let go of our ego sometimes and just set the course up the way the best players can win,” he said. Later, he added: “Hopefully they’ll let go of their ego (Friday) and set it up reasonable, but you just never know.”
Next came Ian Poulter, who tweeted out to his more than 1.5 million followers: “Unfortunately the guys this afternoon will struggle with a few pin positions. 8th hole is a joke, 18th needs a windmill & clown face.”
Even Stewart Cink, a past Open champion, chimed in: “Muirfield greens really baking out in the sun. Overall the greens are the fastest I’ve seen in the Open.”
How quickly we have lost perspective. Mother Nature, after all, still retains a slight lead heading into the back nine of the season. So far this year there has been a wind delay, a fog delay, a snow delay, a derecho delay, and a boring ol’ severe-thunderstorm delay.
And now here we are, at the year’s third major, at arguably the best course in the Open rota, and more than a few players are complaining about conditions being too … dry? In July. In Scotland. Go figure.
Temperatures rose to about 80 degrees Thursday – “There’s a lot of red people out there,” Tiger Woods joked – and the fan was turned on most of the day, blowing a steady 20 mph, perhaps a bit more than expected. It was a lovely day, and turning to look back at the yellowed links, Padraig Harrington smiled and said: “It was perfect conditions for playing links golf.”
Keep in mind the two-time Open champ, who teed off at 1:01 p.m. local time, shot 73 in Round 1, including an inward 38. He used the putter 37 times, and thought that he “putted awesome.” He said it got “exponentially” tougher as the day wore on, as the shadows grew longer, as he fell further behind the early starters.
But unfair? Please.
“If you didn’t expect that going out there this week,” he said, “then shame on you.”
Harrington asked the reporter what time “those lads” teed off. In the morning, he was told.
“Ha!” he replied. “They ought to see it now.”
One of the early starters, Zach Johnson, leads this 142nd British Open, at 5-under 66. Only four of the 14 players who are currently inside the top 10 teed off after 12:30 p.m.
Playing in one of the last groups of the day, Graeme McDowell (75) admitted that he was afraid to lean on his putter to mark his ball, lest it slid out from underneath him. “It’s literally like an ice rink around some holes,” he said.
But considering the kind of weather that can ravage an Open – remember the Round 3 massacre here in ’02? – Thursday’s conditions were far from unplayable. Mark O’Meara recalled past Opens when his driver barely traveled 200 yards, when it was so cold and rainy that he could barely hold onto the club, when it was so windy that his umbrella was rendered useless.
Sure, spectators popped umbrellas Thursday. But it was to shield themselves from the warm sun, not a steady rain.
The opening round here presented a different kind of challenge, no doubt. Six-irons flying more than 250 yards, wedge shots not holding the greens and the fescue around the cups developing a “glassy” hue.
“It’s not unfair,” said Graeme McDowell (75), “but if you don’t hit it in just the right spot you have no chance.”
Of course, all this chatter eventually made its way to Dawson, who steadfastly defended the R&A’s Round 1 setup.
“It’s far from unplayable,” he said, “but we do hear player comment and we’re not so insular as to ignore it.”
How the R&A reacts to it Friday, however, will significantly impact this championship.
What players want to see now is a fair, balanced draw. They want similarly difficult hole locations for Round 2. They want the same standard for the first two days, for the course to play true. No advantages. No dramatic watering overnight.
“It would be disappointing if (Friday) afternoon’s players didn’t see what we saw,” said another late-waver, Geoff Ogilvy (75). “It’s not that crazy. It’s just not what we’re used to on a links.”
Well, they better get used to it soon. Three more grueling days at Muirfield await.