“The Tiger requires to exercise judgment and restraint with his tee shot.” So wrote course designer Tom Simpson when describing Muirfield Golf Club – in 1929. That’s sound advice for the entire field, not simply Tiger Woods, who is looking for the third leg of the Grand Slam.
No layout better combines classical links features and modern shotmaking demands than the legendary home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Muirfield, in Gullane, Scotland, sits on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, 23 miles east of Edinburgh. The British Open, to be played July 18-21, will be the 15th Open for this links course, though this time, the par-71 layout will measure 7,034 yards, 1,800 yards longer than when it first played host to the championship in 1892.
The course then was only a year old, freshly designed by Old Tom Morris. It was soon subjected to much reworking and assumed its current incarnation in 1922 thanks to a thorough rerouting by Harry S. Colt. He created the Muirfield we know today: an outgoing nine that loops clockwise along the perimeter of the property and an incoming nine that turns counterclockwise at the interior of the land. Hole direction constantly shifts, as does the wind.
Befitting a layout built on pure sand, the bunkers at Muirfield all are sunken pits that function as devilish vortexes. Their ability to ensnare shots extends far beyond their immediate area of sand, especially around the putting surfaces. Many greens seem to accept run-up shots, except that the bunkers attract shots that deviate only marginally from the perfect line.
If, as usual, the wind howls and the ground remains firm, the most important thing at Muirfield will be keeping the ball in play off the tee. In 1948 at Muirfield, Henry Cotton missed an average of only one fairway per round in winning his third claret jug. In 1966, Nicklaus used his driver only 17 times on the way to his first British Open title.
There will be much excitement at the 508-yard ninth hole. The wind prevails off the Firth of Forth at this par 5, making for a right-to-left headwind. The bunkered fairway provides a narrow landing area on the tee shot. More ominous is the second shot, which must steer clear of a diagonal array of bunkers short of the green on the right and a stone wall marking out of bounds close along the left.
The uphill, par-3 13th always has presented a difficult putting surface to hit and hold. Now measuring 191 yards – 32 yards longer than ever – it will require even more precision.
Historically, the 546- yard 17th has proven pivotal. This relentless dogleg-left par 5 usually plays downwind, but the inside of the tee shot landing area is protected by the deepest bunkers on the course. The green is well within reach in two from the fairway, but the entrance to the green is rock hard and kicks the ball away, making it very hard to keep the ball on the putting surface.
In 1972, Lee Trevino and Tony Jacklin came to the 71st hole all square. After driving into a fairway bunker and hacking his way over the green in four, Trevino chipped in. The shot stunned Jacklin, who promptly three-putted to lose the tournament. Fifteen years later, Paul Azinger also drove into the fairway bunker and ended up making bogey, ceding the lead to Nick Faldo, who was on his way to 18 consecutive pars and his first major championship.
The lesson of the hole is to keep the ball in play. In typical links fashion, control is the most important element of all.