Muirfield's history meets modern reality in 142nd Open

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2013, 11:39 am

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.

142nd Open Championship: Articles, videos and photos

“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.

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Miller's biggest on-air regret: Leonard at Ryder Cup

By Jason CrookOctober 17, 2018, 12:00 am

Johnny Miller made a broadcasting career out of being brutally honest, calling golf tournaments exactly like he saw them.

His unfiltered style is what kept him on the air for nearly 30 years, but it wasn't always the most popular with players.

After announcing his upcoming retirement, Miller was asked Tuesday if there were any on-air comments he regretted over the last three decades. One immediately came to mind.

"I think that I didn't say the right words about Justin Leonard at Miracle at Brookline about he should be home watching it on TV. I meant really - I did say he should be home, but I meant the motel room. Even then I probably shouldn't have said that," Miller recalled. "I want so much for the outcome that I'm hoping for that I actually get overwhelmed with what I want to see. Almost the kind of things you would say to your buddies if you were watching it on TV, you know? He just couldn't win a match."

After struggling on Friday and Saturday in team play, Leonard ended up the U.S. hero after halving his Sunday singles match with José María Olazábal by holing a 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole - one of the most famous shots in Ryder Cup history.

"Of course he ended up - after the crappy comment I made that motivated maybe the team supposedly in the locker room, and he ends up making that 45-, 50- foot putt to seal the deal," Miller said. "Almost like a Hollywood movie or something."

Not only did the putt seal the comeback for the U.S., but it also earned Leonard an apology from Miller. 

"I apologized to him literally the next day; I happened to see him. I tried to make a policy when I go over the line that I get ahold of the guy within 24 hours and tell him I made a double bogey, you know. That's just the way I have done it through the years."

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Love him or not, Miller's authentic style stood out

By Doug FergusonOctober 16, 2018, 10:11 pm

The comment was vintage Johnny Miller, raw enough to cause most television producers to wince.

Miller was in the NBC Sports booth at Doral in 2004 when he watched Craig Parry hit another beautiful shot to the green. Miller said what he saw. That was his job.

He just didn't say it like other golf analysts.

''The last time you see that swing is in a pro-am with a guy who's about a 15-handicap,'' Miller said. ''It's just over the top, cups it at the bottom and hits it unbelievably good. It doesn't look ... if Ben Hogan saw that, he'd puke.''

Parry got the last word, of course, holing out a 6-iron from 176 yards in a playoff to win.

Except that wasn't the last word.

''I was in Ponte Vedra going back to the Honda Classic, and my phone is blowing up,'' said Tommy Roy, the longtime golf producer at NBC. ''It started percolating down in Australia, and you had radio stations demanding Johnny Miller be fired.''

Miller could make golf more fun to hear than to watch.

''He doesn't have a filter. That's why he's so good,'' Roy said. ''What he's thinking comes out. And 99.5 percent of the time, that was a great thing for viewers, and for me. And 0.5 percent of the time, it was a problem for our PR department and for me.

''And it was worth it.''

Roy was in Wisconsin on Monday night for his first look at Whistling Straits for the 2020 Ryder Cup. It will be the first Ryder Cup since 1989 that doesn't have Miller in the booth weighing in on good shots and bad with thoughts that immediately become words.

He often entertained. He occasionally irritated. He was rarely dull.

Miller is retiring after three decades calling the shots for NBC. His last tournament will be the Phoenix Open, the perfect exit for a Hall of Fame player once known as the ''Desert Fox'' for winning six times in Arizona. Miller was so good for so long that it was easy for younger generations to forget about that other career he had.

Miller to retire from broadcast booth in 2019

Best of: Photos of Miller through the years

And to think that was nearly his only career in golf.

Miller said he wasn't interested when NBC first approached him, but then his wife stepped in and told him it would be nice to have a steady paycheck. Even then, it took time for him to realize his audience was in the living room, not the locker room.

He made his debut at the Bob Hope Classic in 1990 and it didn't take long for him to leave his mark. Peter Jacobsen faced an awkward lie to the 18th green with water to the left.

''The easiest shot to choke on,'' Miller said.

People thought about choking. Miller said it because that's what he was thinking.

''What came into his brain came out of his mouth,'' said Mike McCarley, president of golf for NBC Sports. ''He was the first to really talk about the pressure. It's the most important element of the game, especially in those really big moments. He was doing it at a time when others weren't.''

It wasn't just the word ''choke.''

Phil Mickelson was getting up-and-down from everywhere at the 2010 Ryder Cup when Miller suggested that if Lefty weren't such a good putter he'd be selling cars in San Diego. Justin Leonard and Hal Sutton were losing a fourballs match at the 1999 Ryder Cup when Miller blurted out, ''My hunch is that Justin needs to go home and watch it on television.''

During the 2008 U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines that Tiger Woods won in 19 holes over Rocco Mediate, Miller suggested that guys named ''Rocco'' don't get their name on the trophy, and that Mediate looked like ''the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool.''

It wasn't all bad.

Roy, who also has produced NBA Finals and Olympics, said he wants analysts who first-guess, not second-guess. The latter is for talk radio. First-guessing means sharing instincts, and Miller had plenty of them.

Woods was playing the final hole at Newport in the 1995 U.S. Amateur when Miller said, ''It wouldn't surprise me if he knocked this thing a foot from the hole.''

And that's just what Woods did.

McCarley remembers how retired NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol used to worry whenever Miller called because he thought it was about retirement. McCarley soon inherited that feeling.

''Every time I'd see Johnny's number pop up on my cellphone, my heart would skip a beat,'' McCarley said. ''Two years ago, he made that call I had been dreading.''

McCarley kept him working a slightly reduced schedule, but no longer. Miller is 71 and has been on the road for 50 years. His 24th grandchild was born on Sunday. He wants to teach them fly fishing in Utah, perhaps even a little golf.

Miller wasn't sure he would last a week when he started. He never imagined going nearly 30 years.

He leaves behind a style all his own.

Most loved it. Some didn't. But everyone listened, and that might be his legacy in the broadcast booth. Roy said what he has heard from viewers he knows is that 70 percent really like Miller, and 30 percent really don't.

''But they all have an opinion,'' he said.

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CJ Cup: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 16, 2018, 9:20 pm

The PGA Tour returns to South Korea this week for the second edition of the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges. Here is the key information for the no-cut event, where Justin Thomas is defending champion.

Golf course: Located on Jeju Island, the largest island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, The Club at Nine Bridges opened in 2001 and was designed by Ronald Fream and David Dale. The par-72 layout (36-36) will measure 7,184 yards for this week's event, 12 yards shorter than last year.

Purse: The total purse is $9.5 million with the winner receiving $1.71 million. In addition, the winner will receive 500 FedExCup points, a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and invitations to the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions, Players, Masters, and PGA Championship.

Last year: Thomas defeated Marc Leishman with a birdie on the second playoff hole to earn his seventh career PGA Tour win.

TV schedule (all times Eastern): Golf Channel, Wednesday-Saturday, 10 p.m.-2 a.m.

Live streamingWednesday-Saturday, 10 p.m.-2 a.m. 

Notable tee times (all times Eastern): 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Thursday: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Sungjae Im; 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. Thursday: Marc Leishman, Si Woo Kim, Ernie Els; 8:25 p.m. Wednesday, 7:15 p.m. Thursday: Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama

Notables in the field: Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Ernie Els, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and last week's winner Marc Leishman.

Key stats:

 This is the third of 46 official events of the season and the second of three consecutive weeks of events in Asia

• 78-player field including the top 60 available from the final 2017-2018 FedExCup points list

The field also includes 12 major champions and two of the top five in the Official World Golf Ranking (highest ranked are No. 3 Koepka and No. 4 Thomas)

Thomas and Koepka both have a shot to ascend to No. 1 in the OWGR this week - they will play their first two rounds grouped together

Stats and information provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit

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Els eyeing potential Prez Cup players at CJ Cup

By Will GrayOctober 16, 2018, 6:55 pm

Ernie Els is teeing it up this week in South Korea as a player, but he's also retaining the perspective of a captain.

While the 2019 Presidents Cup in Australia is still more than a year away, Els has already begun the process of keeping tabs on potential players who could factor on his International squad that will face an American contingent captained by Tiger Woods. Els played in last week's CIMB Classic in Malaysia, and this week received one of eight sponsor exemptions into the limited-field CJ Cup on Jeju Island.

Els played a Tuesday practice round with Presidents Cup veteran and Branden Grace and India's Shubankhar Sharma, who held a share of the 54-hole lead last week in Malaysia.

"It's going to be a very diverse team the way things are shaping up already," Els told reporters. "We've got another year to go, so we're going to have an interesting new group of players that's going to probably make the team."

In addition to keeping tabs on Grace and Sharma, Els will play the first two rounds with Australia's Marc Leishman and South Korea's Si Woo Kim. Then there's Sungjae Im, a native of Jeju Island who led the Tour money list wire-to-wire last season.

"There's so many Korean youngsters here this week, so I'm going to really see how they perform," Els said. "Still a long way to go, but these guys, the young guys are going to be really the core of our team."

Els, who will turn 49 on Wednesday, made only five cuts in 15 PGA Tour starts last season, with his best result a T-30 finish at the Valero Texas Open. While it's increasingly likely that his unexpected triumph at the 2012 Open will end up being his final worldwide victory, he's eager to tackle a new challenge in the coming months by putting together the squad that he hopes can end the International losing skid in the biennial matches.

"The U.S. team is a well-oiled team. They play Ryder Cups together, they obviously play very well in the Presidents Cups against us, so they're a very mature team," Els said. "We are going to be a young team, inexperienced. But that doesn't scare me because I know the course very well down in Melbourne, I've played it many, many times. I feel I have a very good game plan to play the golf course strategy-wise and I'm going to share that with my players."