No radical changes to Muirfield, just refining

South Africa's Ernie Els plays out of a bunker on the 13th hole during the final round of the British Open Golf Championship at Muirfield golf course in Scotland Sunday July 21, 2002.

South Africa's Ernie Els plays out of a bunker on the 13th hole during the final round of the British Open Golf Championship at Muirfield golf course in Scotland Sunday July 21, 2002.

GULLANE, Scotland –– The world’s elite shouldn’t expect radical changes when they turn up at Muirfield this year to play the 142nd version of the Open Championship.

The R&A has adopted an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach to a venue staging the game’s oldest championship for the 16th time.

Muirfield is widely regarded as one of the top five courses in the British Isles, links or otherwise. It ranks fourth on Golfweek’s list of classic British and Irish courses.

“Muirfield is often regarded as the toughest but fairest of the Open championship venues,” said Jim McArthur, chairman of the R&A’s championship committee. “Jack Nicklaus said ‘what you see is what you get’ and that’s certainly the case.”

R&A chief executive Peter Dawson agreed. “It’s an immensely popular venue with the players. They like this golf course. Nicklaus’s ‘what you see is what you get’ was perhaps directed at many links courses where good fortune and bad fortune come into play more. Here at Muirfield the golf course is laid out in front of you. The actual ground is relatively flat and doesn’t tend to have the humps and bumps you might get at Royal St George’s and a few others.

“Every hole seems to be going in a different direction as regards the wind. It’s always in fantastic condition. I always say we could play any Open in any year with about three weeks notice as far as the course condition is concerned.”

That explains why this year’s venue has undergone very few modifications. Only 158 yards have been added to the layout since the Open was last held there in 2002.

Ernie Els won that year in a four-man playoff involving Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington. Els and company made the playoff with a score of 6-under 278. That score was seven shots higher than Tom Watson’s winning score of 13-under 271 in 1980.

No wonder the R&A hasn’t gone over the top to change one of the world’s classic links.

The game’s best will find some new back tees this year, most notably at the ninth, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th holes.

The par-4 ninth hole stands out in that quintet. Land purchased behind the tee has made a one-time easy par-5 much more formidable. The hole now measures 554-yards compared to 508 yards in 2002.

The most noticeable added length takes place over the closing stretch. Another 27 yards has been added to the par-4 14th to take it 475 yards. The par-4 15th is now 33 yards longer at 448 yards. Meanwhile, the par-5 17th hole has been extended by 29 yards to 575 yards. Finally, the 18th becomes a 470-yard par-4, 21 yards longer than in 2002.

“It’s only a 2 percent difference on the previous length,” Dawson said. “So if you had to hit it 100 yards in 2002 you now have to hit it 102 yards this time. It’s not too onerous in terms of modern hitting distance.”

Many of the changes are more nuanced. Some approaches have been tightened up to put more of a premium on accuracy.

“There has been considerable tightening of the bunkering around the greens, requiring a more accurate approach than previously.”

Most of the nuanced changes have been instigated to try to stay true to the original intent of architect Harry Colt. Most notable changes in this respect are an extension to the back left of the second green for more variety of hole locations. Meanwhile, the back of the par-4 sixth green has been extended to a form a small plateau with runoffs at either side to put more pressure on the approach.

So Muirfield hasn’t been turned into a monster. The Old Lady of Lothian has simply become more refined.

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