Room for only the best at Muirfield

GULLANE, Scotland -- Like the language, the food and the driving, golf is different here, especially as it pertains to the Open Championship.

English is spoken, though sometimes it's indiscernible. Fine dining is a matter of debate. Cars travel on the left side of the road.

And at the Open, they play golf on nothing but links courses, far different from the layouts featured across most of the world, especially in the United States. Gone are the lush, green conditions, replaced by hard, brown fairways and unrelenting rough.

That certainly will be the case this week at the 142nd Open Championship, to be played for the 16th time at Muirfield. The venerable course has produced an all-star cast of winners and promises to offer plenty of obstacles when the world's best begin pursuit of the Claret Jug on Thursday morning.

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The players will need a little luck at Muirfield, but more than most Open courses, skill is the biggest factor.

Not everybody embraces this kind of golf, however. Tom Watson, a five-time winner of the Open, famously despised the links game even while winning in two of his first three attempts, needing time to embrace its various intricacies. There was a time when many of the game's top players took a pass, whether because of the high cost of travel, the relatively (then) low purses, and -- for some -- their disdain for the style of play.

Unlike America, where long, soaring tee shots are in vogue and sky-high approaches often are required to hold the greens, the links courses that host the Open -- as well as numerous other links through the United Kingdom and Ireland -- offer a unique challenge.

"The sound is different. The divot into the fairways are different. The whole experience is different than anything else around the world," said defending Open champion Ernie Els, who took home his first Claret Jug from Muirfield 11 years ago. "It's something you're either going to really like or you're not going to like. I was fortunate enough that I really fell in love with it."

And yet, Muirfield offers differences from the other eight courses in the Open Championship rota. The Old Course in St. Andrews might be the most historic; Carnoustie the most difficult; Turnberry the most scenic.

Muirfield simply could be the best in terms of the stern yet straightforward test it offers. It measures just 7,192 yards, plays to par-71 and likely will require few drivers off the tee. Pleasant weather has led to near-perfect links conditions, with the wind adding a bit of intrigue.

But Muirfield offers the typical links pitfalls, such as pot bunkers, punishing rough and rock-hard fairways and greens.

Still, the element of luck that is so necessary at some of the other venues is not as apparent here.

Perhaps that is why the winner's list at Muirfield going back to World War II boasts nothing but Hall of Famers, starting with Els and continuing with Nick Faldo (twice), Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. There are 51 major championships among them.

(Nicklaus, who won here in 1966, loved it so much he named the hometown course he designed in Ohio after it, Muirfield Village. And he fashioned a logo that looks like the Claret Jug.)

In all, 13 players have won the Open at Muirfield, and 11 are in the Hall of Fame.

"That's not a fluke," Faldo said. "It's just a good, solid, honest golf course. It's a good mind game. You have to know where you're going to land it, where the next bounce is and where the run is."

And then, the ability to hit the ball precisely enough to make a game plan work.

"Where to land the ball 20 yards short of the green, which way it would kick and obviously where it would stop," he said, recalling his strategy. "That's part of the calculations. But you've got to land the ball from A to B first. And that has to be a solid shot. If that's a mishit, the ball doesn't react close to what you intend. You look at all those guys ... we all hit it pretty solid in our era."

And therein lies the beauty of links golf. It is why Watson, at age 59, could nearly pull off the unthinkable four years ago at Turnberry. It is why length is often trumped by solid, managed shots.

According to Golf Digest, a links is "a course on oceanside sand dunes that were formed by a receding sea and covered by fertile soil from a river estuary."

Robert Louis Stevenson, writing in 1880 (but not about golf), said that "links is a Scottish name for sand which has ceased drifting and become more or less solidly covered with turf."

The key is that these links courses are always within view or earshot of the water, they drain impeccably -- meaning they are almost never soft -- and Mother Nature plays a significant role in how they play.

Here, the nearby estuary is the Firth of Forth, within view from most of the holes. But unlike several of the other links, Muirfield is not an out-and-back course.

"You're playing almost in kind of a circle, in a sense, because you've got so many different angles and so many different winds, you have to be able to maneuver the ball both ways,'' said Tiger Woods, who was 10-under-par for three of his rounds at Muirfield in 2002 -- and 10 over in the third round, his score of 81 the worst as a pro.

AP Photo/Scott Heppell

Tiger Woods has had success at Muirfield. He's also had one heartbreaking round that cost him the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield.

"You have to hit the ball well here, shape your shots. It's very similar to look at the list of winners at our last major, the U.S. Open at Merion. All wonderful ball strikers. And I think it's the same here."

Not to be dismissed is the role bunkers play in an Open. Unlike in the United States, where sand traps are more of an annoyance than a hazard to the best players in the world, here they are pot bunkers with severe penalties.

Remember the situation Woods found himself in a year ago in the final round at Royal Lytham, when he had no room to maneuver his shot out of a pot bunker, saw it nearly hit him, then had to perform gymnastics to play the next shot while still in the bunker -- his body completely out of the bunker as he tried to hit the shot -- leading to a triple-bogey.

"Bunkers are like water hazards on a links golf course," two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington said. "You're chipping out. Avoid at all costs."

Tell that to Adam Scott, who couldn't keep his 3-wood tee shot from a fairway pot bunker on the 72nd hole a year ago, leading to a fourth consecutive bogey.

Without the proper precision, a links course can be maddening.

"There's a massive adjustment to links golf," Harrington said. "I can't explain to people the difference of hitting the golf ball, off links turf, beside the seaside ... The temperature compared to playing golf on a sunny golf course, pristine, the ball sitting up.

"It's incredible just the difference in density of the air, because it's cooler and you're beside the sea. There's a varied amount of shots, but it's just really getting used to chipping off the turf and controlling your distance off a different turf which we don't play that often."

Muirfield first held the Open in 1892 after the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers decided to build themselves a new course and move it from Musselburgh (a nearby nine-hole layout still in existence) to the present location.

It was the first Open to be contested over 72 holes, with 36 holes played on consecutive days.

The tournament and the venue have come a long way, with numerous tweaks and changes made over the years.

But its soul remains, a strategic links that has tested and identified the best in the game. Another opportunity awaits.

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