British Open offers test that is tough to pass
In most PGA Tour events, the pro asks his caddie for the yardage to the pin, figures for one hop forward or makes allowances for backspin and then grabs his weapon of choice.
Add a little, subtract a little. Just simple math.
This week at The Open Championship in Scotland, its more like advanced algebra with a little geometry thrown in. Nothing simple about it.
Links golf always forces a different style of golf than Americans are accustomed to. Lower-trajectory shots, bump-and-runs instead of flop shots and snaking around penal bunkers. That makes it a fun challenge for many but a source of consternation for others.
But this week, with the sun shining and the fairways and greens baked out, Muirfield has become an algebra test on steroids with tee shots rolling more than 100 yards after landing and putts rolling at Augusta National speeds. The course is playing more like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway than the home of the Masters.
To me it's been fascinating to watch the world's best grapple with how to much roll to play for -- 300-yard 5-irons aren't exactly the norm, even for these guys -- and who can mentally handle bad bounces and miscalculations the best. Today should be quite a show, especially with a leaderboard that includes Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson. I can't wait.
No doubt another interested observer will be Wyantenuck Country Club member Jack Dezieck, who has played Muirfield many times and makes annual summer pilgrimages to Great Britain to plays its legendary links courses. He just returned from playing six rounds at another British Open course -- Royal Lytham & St. Anne's. And yes, he said, the weather was "absolutely gorgeous" like it is this week at Muirfield.
"I didn't care where anybody was [in relation to par] yesterday," Dezieck said on Friday. "I knew they were all going to fall back to par. Whoever ends up at par is going to win."
Heading into the final round it looks Dezieck's prediction will be right, or close to it, with only three golfers -- Westwood at 3 under and Woods and Mahan at 1 under -- entering today below par. Dezieck knows what its like to play Muirfield when its dry and fiery.
"The east coast of Scotland actually gets 25 less inches of rain than the west coast," he explained. "So I have played it when it is like it is this week. It's really tough. Muirfield is a great golf course."
Dezieck finds the challenges of avoiding the deep bunkers on links courses and playing different kinds of shots than are required in the U,S. to be a blast.
"It's a great game," he said. "You really have to be careful in trying to avoid those bunkers. You go in and you know you are going to have to play the ball out sideways. At Muirfield, every fairway is contoured in such a way that everything eventually slopes toward a bunker."
During one of his days at Royal Lytham, he praised his playing partner well into a round for having avoided all the bunkers to that point.
"He was in four of them on the next hole," Dezieck recalled. "After he got over being mad at me, we had a great laugh about it. ... That's the name of the game over there, it just is. You have to expect at some point you are going to hit it in a bunker and won't be able to go at the hole."
Some of the pin positions on day one came in for criticism from Phil Mickelson -- he said the R&A needed to put its ego aside in setting up the course -- and Ian Poulter, who said No. 18 needed a windmill and clown's face.
To me, Mickelson's comment showed that he still hasn't embraced links golf despite his win in the Scottish Open, and that has colored his grip on golfing reality. There's no doubt the U.S. Golf Association has put its collective ego into course setups in the past in an effort to produce a winning score near par (a success this year at Merion, not so much when Rory McIlroy destroyed Congressional a couple of years ago).
But the R&A has really never worried about the final score. They set up a fair test and then let the Mother Nature help dictate the winning score. In many years, when the wind wasn't blowing and the rain wasn't falling, the winner has gone very low. Could you imagine a shoot-out at the U.S. Open to match the 1977 Duel in the Sun at Turnberry when, tied after 36 holes, Tom Watson (65-65) on the weekend outlasted Jack Nicklaus (65-66) for one of his five British Open titles? I can't.
"This is a different type of golf," Watson told the Wall Street Journal earlier this week. "You don't play by the yardages. You have to play by the feel. That's the beauty of this type of golf, but I hated it when I first played it. It took me four years before I began to understand that you have to have a different mind-set. You can only take what the course gives you."
So who will have that right mind-set -- and perhaps avoid a few bad bounces -- and get the job done? There are plenty of good candidates, but considering the last seven winners at Muirfield are all in the World Golf Hall of Fame -- Els, Faldo (twice), Watson, Trevino and Nicklaus -- history suggests it might be the right time for Tiger's major roar to return.
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