2002: Newsmakers - The hardest piece?

Muirfield is not Augusta National. It is not Bethpage Black. It is not bomb-away golf. That means two things. The British Open will be Tiger Woods’ stiffest test in his quest for the 2002 Grand Slam. And the rest of professional golf is delighted to finally play a major championship not suited for a slugger.

Woods is the strong Open favorite, and he should be because he’s better and more motivated than anyone else. But this Open will be far different than the year’s previous two because of the course.

Muirfield has narrow fairways, knee-high rough, doglegs, cross bunkers and firm, fast fairways. Think Carnoustie, 1999. That nullifies Woods’ length and brings 30 to 50 – or even more – players into the hunt for the claret jug.

“At least half the field has a chance,” David Frost said. So don’t be surprised if an obscure player or two contend. Think Paul Lawrie and Jean Van de Velde.

“I don’t think Tiger has an advantage with his length or strength over others on that golf course,” said Jack Nicklaus, who counts the 1966 Open at Muirfield as one of his 18 professional major titles. “He won’t be able to advance it far from that rough. He’ll play the whole golf course with a 2-iron or 3-iron (off tees). The only advantage he has is he’s a better player than anybody else, and that’s a pretty good advantage.”

Woods actually has other edges. He can hit his 2-iron at Muirfield as far as many hit their drivers. He knows how to win majors, having bagged seven of the last 11, including the first half of the ’02 Slam. He knows he can win four consecutive majors because he has done so before. And he’s in other players’ heads.

“These guys are out there playing Tiger,” Nicklaus said.

The par-71, 7,034-yard Muirfield is about shotmaking. The par 5s are reachable for most players. That means Woods should be in the hunt. But it also means he should have plenty of company.

“I’m excited that more guys can win there,” said John Cook, runner-up by one stroke to Nick Faldo at Muirfield in 1992 after bogeying the final hole. “It makes for exciting golf if there are 25 guys up there. I can still compete on golf courses that suit a lot of players, not just four or five.”

Cook is hardly alone in arguing that the typical PGA Tour course favors a bomber because it features soft fairways and hard greens. Carry the ball 300 yards without the worry that it’ll roll into rough, then hit a high approach. Those are Tiger conditions.

“It used to be you’d find pitch marks on the greens,” said Bob Estes, one of the top pros the past year. “Now you find them on the fairways and not the greens. That just plays into the hands of guys like Tiger and Phil (Mickelson). Course setups go a long way in determining the best (players) in the world.”

The Tour’s nonbombers prefer classic courses such as Harbour Town, Colonial, Westchester, Riviera, TPC at Sawgrass and Waialae. Accuracy, shotmaking and playing to spots are more important than length on those layouts as opposed to, say, Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., where the 2004 PGA Championship will play at a record 7,600 yards. Or, for that matter, 7,360-yard Hazeltine, next month’s PGA site.

“When you go to 7,400 yards, you’re eliminating 75 percent of the field,” former PGA champion Hal Sutton said. “They’re not changing golf courses for the 275-yard hitter. They’re trying to eliminate that guy from the game. When Tiger sees that they’re supposedly Tiger-proofing a course, he licks his chops.”

Now other players are salivating. They know they won’t have to carry a drive 265 yards at Muirfield just to reach the fairway.

“It’ll be nice to play a golf course like that where you have to control the trajectory of your ball and not just tee it high and let it fly,” Estes said. “There’s not just one way to play and do well. So more guys will have a chance to win.”

Look for some low-ball hitters to join Woods on the board at Muirfield. Estes lists Jose Maria Olazabal, Craig Parry, Paul Azinger and Sergio Garcia among those likely to excel.

“Tiger will have to be on his game,” Cook said. “At Bethpage he had to beat three or four guys. Augusta was the same. But Muirfield will bring in at least 30 guys. There’s nightmare rough, and if he’s loose with his swing, he could have a long week.”

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