Hole by Hole: Muirfield lives up to Open rep

The Claret Jug trophy beside the 18th green in front of the clubhouse prior to The Open Championship at Muirfield.
The Claret Jug trophy beside the 18th green in front of the clubhouse prior to The Open Championship at Muirfield. ( Getty Images )

Sunday, July 14, 2013

— Muirfield is like some elegant colonial outpost of the British Empire. It's about a century out of date with the modern world, which makes for ideal golf but lousy cultural politics since for some ridiculous reason the club does not allow women as members. But then again, they don't even have a pro shop, so it's obvious the club abides by its own rules.

What they do have is an amazing golf course, one that is ideal for championship play. The routing is rightly famous in golf: a front nine forming an exterior clockwise loop that wraps around a counterclockwise interior back nine.

This will be the 16th time the R&A is setting up the Open Championship here on the lovely East Lothian coast along the Firth of Forth. Here's what you'll be seeing during what promises to be a compelling week on this par-71 layout, 7,192 yards long.

• • •

No. 1: Par 4, 447 yards

Straight into the prevailing breeze out of the west, this medium-length par 4 has gotten tougher since the last Open Championship here in 2002, with the addition of a deep bunker 306 yards out on the left. The effect of this and about half a dozen other new fairway bunkers throughout Muirfield is to narrow the landing areas – so much for the freedom of classic links golf. The fairways are not overly narrow – about 28 yards across in average. But lose it a little and the ball winds up in extremely thick rough that affords only the slimmest chance of planned recovery beyond a pitch out. The place looks beautiful but can be brutal. The greens here, as with so much links golf, are low-lying and relatively simple. They have to be to remain playable in the wind. A bit of a deflection mound introduced into the front, left edge of the first green makes a run-up marginally more difficult from the left side.

• • •

No. 2: Par 4, 364 yards

Muirfield's shortest par 4 is also its most overlooked hole. A new back tee lines up with out-of-bounds to the immediate left of the tight, well-bunkered fairway. The hole, while straightaway, plays into a prevailing wind from the left, which means that players have to line up outside of the fairway corridor to get their ball to come back into play – and world-class players who hit the ball straight hate to align at a hazard. The tendency thus is to lose the ball to the right, which is a very bad place here because of sand, dense rough and four deep bunkers greenside on the right. The left side of the green opens up slightly, but with the boundary wall only 15 feet left of the putting surface and the back of the green expanded to recapture an abandoned hole location, there's every chance this little hole will prove surprisingly tough. It's your classic "sleeper" hole.

• • •

No. 3: Par 4, 377 yards

At the third tee, golfers start a three-hole stretch that's straight downwind – a good scoring opportunity, and also the only case in Muirfield's otherwise textbook routing of constantly shifted playing angles where consecutive holes run in the same direction. Previously, the third hole was a basic layup to avoid a pair of steep bunkers opposite each other 289 yards out where the fairway narrows and passes through a defile – a narrow path between towering mounds. But lately, the prevailing winds from behind, from the west, have been stronger this season than previously. Players armed with aerodynamically certified equipment that allows for longer, straighter drives and with less side spin, as well as boldness in some instances (Nicolas Colsaerts, Alviro Quiros, Charl Schwartzel, Bubba Watson), might well have a go at the green. They could thread the neck – a 10-yard-wide runway that runs the last 60 yards in as it bellows out – and not worry if the ball winds up on the green or in one of three front bunkers. Given the density of rough and the apparent ease of simply playing safe, we're likely to see a wide range of scores here, with anything from 2 to 6 in play. In other words, an ideal short par 4.

• • •

No. 4, Par 3, 226 yards

Five-time Open Championship winner Peter Thomson likes to say that the trick in links golf isn't hitting greens, it's staying on them. That's the problem here at the downwind fourth hole, especially from an elevated back tee that's slightly misaligned with the axis of the green. There's precious little ground for a proper approach. The green surface functions like a convex plateau that deflects everything outward and makes it very hard to hold a surface where most players will be trying to bounce or run the ball on.

• • •

No. 5, Par 5, 559 yards

From the highest, best vantage point for a panoramic view of the region, the hole here almost feels like an intrusion upon the scene. The angle of the tee on this, the easiest hole at Muirfield, sets up for a tee shot that rides the prevailing wind over the left shoulder. Three bunkers flanking the fairway between 285 yards and 310 yards are a decided hazard that will cost a player 30-40 yards of roll and at least half a shot. Downwind, a fourth bunker, 344 yards, will also catch drives on the run out. Yet for a green so heavily surrounded – seven bunkers protect it – this is the most accessible putting surface on the golf course for holding a run-up shot, especially the middle irons that many players will use for their second (approach) shot. If players struggle here, it'll only be because they missed the fairway or did not hit a controlled second shot while laying up.

• • •

No. 6, Par 4, 461 yards

The sixth hole, at the farthest reaches of the golf course to the northeast, is fascinating because a driver just brings all sorts of trouble into play. Players will have some considerable range of options off the tee on this hole, a dramatic dogleg left featuring a landing area that is a guess since it's blind. The wind prevails from the right, favoring a tee shot that rides it to the left. But if the ball goes too far, it runs through the dogleg; and if it turns too much, it takes the low road into serious trouble that involves an old stone wall that intrudes across the line. The smart tee shot is a low-running long iron or rescue club – ideal for Tiger Woods' stinger when he's at his peak. The putting surface falls away, very dangerously long and left, and favors a smartly played run-up or shot landing front right, just past an intruding bunker, so that the ball rolls out to the middle of the green. It's a hole that promotes defensive play, which often means missing it on the high side, right, and inadvertently approaching the hole from an awkward angle. Though one writer we know, throwing caution to the prevailing downwind while playing the hole at 444 yards, hit his customary draw to within 55 yards of the green – after which he suddenly became very cautious and putted it to 12 feet, alas missing his birdie.

• • •

No. 7, Par 3, 184 yards

Among Muirfield's many virtues is the ideal spacing out of its par 3s – the fourth, seventh, thirteenth and sixteenth holes. This one turns toward the inward part of the course and plays uphill, into the prevailing breeze. From the championship tee, it's only 168 yards to fly it to the front of the green. But come up a foot short and deep revetted bunkers loom, as well as a very nasty downslope. With the back of the green 205 yards away and some 15 feet above the tee, it's not uncommon to see players hitting utility clubs here – which makes for great theater once the ball gets up in the air and subject to the whims of the day's breeze.

• • •

No. 8, Par 4, 441 yards

This is one of those awkwardly shaped holes where the helping wind is no help. The eighth bends right at about 300 yards, just at the point where the last of five bunkers on that side juts out perpendicular to the line of play. The safe drive steers left, but downwind it's easy to drive it through the fairway on that line and run into terribly thick rough. The only thing worse is coming up short on the inside of the dogleg, or flying it so far that it reaches yet another bunker on the inside at 337 yards off the tee. Most players will hit less than driver off the tee, as firm ground along the ideal line is the surest way to wind up with a short-iron approach. The target here is another one of those frustrating greens that invites a run-up, but is shallow in depth and half way back falls steadily away. It offers far more trouble behind (in the form of bunkers, mounds and high grass) than at the entrance. A weirdly shaped quartet of bunkers well short of the green might seem out of play, but they become relevant for approaching golfers who misjudge their run up and hit it a touch lightly.

• • •

No. 9, Par 5, 554 yards

Muirfield's most distinctive hole is also the one most altered. The par-5 ninth hole plays along a very tight boundary wall on the left that's out of bounds and fronts the golf course from Greywalls Hotel. A land swap enabled the club to build a new championship tee 45 yards back, so that this slightly double-dogleg hole, now 554 yards, requires a much more demanding tee shot to thread a minefield of fairway bunkers. It then calls for a very carefully placed second shot. With the wind pushing everything left, the lay-up has become unusually tough – as is a bold second shot to a green where the ideal opening is close to the stone wall. Nowhere at Muirfield is the treachery of its sunken bunkers more evident than on this hole. Each of the three clusters of bunkers – the fairway landing area, the second-shot zone and greenside – function as giant suction cups capable of drawing in golf balls that seemed destined to skirt past the sand. The vortex action makes one very mindful that however small the bunkers seem, they act as if they are 4-5 times that size.

• • •

No. 10, Par 4, 469 yards

The technical architecture term for moving an entire links golf hole is "chutzpah." The R&A and its consulting architect, Martin Hawtree, are masters of the art; witness how they moved the central axis of this hole about 15 yards to the length to make room for an expanded practice range to the right. The putting surface, greenside bunkers and approach zone didn't change, just the alignment of the tee and drive. With the prevailing wind quartering against from the left on a hole that runs due north, there's actually more room available than seems the case when you look out upon the fairway and see three bunkers 25 yards apart (245, 270 and 290 yards away) and two yawning cross bunkers at 350 yards that cut off the fairway altogether. Unless the wind flips around, this is still a driver hole.

• • •

No. 11, Par 4, 387 yards

This is most uncomfortable driving hole on the course, blind, over a 20-foot hill, to a fairway where the flanking bunkers at 290-320 yards are decidedly in play when the wind comes up from the west or even the east. The green here is the smallest on the course and, while open through the front, is tightly framed by seven bunkers that will get a lot of play all week. There's a particularly well-defended pocket of the putting surface back right that brings a lot of trouble into play and makes for extremely difficult recovery from anything that wanders long. Even for those playing safely to the left of this flag, work remains in the form of a very fast, up-and-over, downwind putt that can easily get away from you.

• • •

No. 12, Par 4, 379 yards

Now begins the toughest stretch at Muirfield, four holes where the fate of any round – and of the championship – is almost certainly to be decided. The 12th hole plays into a prevailing headwind and affords the narrowest landing area at Muirfield for the tee shot. Even into the wind, something less than a driver is common simply to keep the ball in play. There's a lone fairway bunker on the left, very punitive at 285 yards out, that squeezes in the driving zone where the fairway shrinks to Barbie-waist width. The right side, while marginally more open, affords a very awkward angle in to a green that's covered with bunkers on the right and that falls away to the left. The ideal approach is a left-to-right short iron that holds against the wind and the ground slope. This is one of those holes where we are likely to see some very wayward approaches, and thus recoveries played (or attempted) from very gnarly lies and uneven stances.

• • •

No. 13, Par 3, 190 yards

This is one of the toughest par-3s on the Open Championship rota. It plays uphill to a green perched 30 feet above the tee, nestled into billowing dunes. It is extremely well defended by a false front, five darkly steep bunkers and winds that throw the ball around like a shuttlecock. It's just as hard to hold the green downwind as it is to reach the green into a headwind.

• • •

No. 14, Par 4, 475 yards

Long and straight into the prevailing wind, here is arguably Muirfield's hardest hole. The fairway landing area is very well defended by deep bunkers 260-305 yards off the tee; the launch pad tee, set in the dunes, makes it hard to keep the ball low. From there, it's a mid-iron in to a perched green that falls away all around. A simple hole, and also simply difficult.

• • •

No. 15, Par 4, 448 yards

This is the last of the holes that brings the Firth into view – and one of the most dramatic, as its tee shot directs to a vast open space where the fairway looks ribbon-thin thanks to echelon bunkers well short left and then sand hazards staggered throughout the drive bunkers that come into play no matter the wind direction – though it prevails quartering against from the left. The cross-breeze also makes it hard to keep an approach out of the bunkers that line both sides of the large, well contoured green.

• • •

No. 16, Par 3, 186 yards

The last of the three-pars proves far harder than it seems at first glance. The shot is slightly uphill and usually downwind. The putting surface is unusually hard to hold because five front bunkers prevent running the ball in; anything landing longer than about 5-6 yards on tends to scoot on back along the most intensely contoured green on the course – with multiple levels and a very elusive back-left hole location that's a Sunday special. The exposed open part of the ground here means that wind is a powerful factor in putting, especially on 3-4 footers perpendicular to the breeze.

• • •

No. 17, Par 5, 575 yards

There's probably been more tournament history made here than on any of Muirfield's holes. Back when he won his first Open Championship in 1966, Jack Nicklaus played the hole downwind with a 3-iron off the tee and a 5-iron to the green. In 1972, Lee Trevino dealt a fatal blow to playing partner Tony Jacklin here by hacking his way down the fairway and chipping in for a laughable par while the Englishman was left so stunned he three-putted. In 1987, Paul Azinger made the classic mistake of driving into a deep fairway bunker left and lost his lead to Nick Faldo. If the hole seems to tempt fate, that's because it plays downwind, is wide and very reachable in two – if you avoid the morass of deep bunkers that line the left side of the driving zone, and if you can bring yourself to flight a perfect approach over the wall of bunkers 100 yards short of the green that hide a view of the putting surface. It's just a dramatic hole, with an amphitheater green set in a little bowl that always makes for great spectating.

• • •

No. 18, Par 4, 470 yards

Like too many links 18th holes, this one is a bit boring, as if an excuse to get to the bar – think Troon, Turnberry, Royal St. Georges and Lytham. The chief hazard is a tight driving zone protected by two bunkers left, the last one 296 yards out, that intrude into the landing area. There's an elegant horseshoe-shaped bunker right of the green as well that can cause some headaches given the problems posed by a ball up finishing up against one of its walls. Still, its chief virtue is that it caps off a brilliant, demanding and lovely golf course. And when it's lined by stands for 20,000 spectators, the 18th acquires a drama that it otherwise lacks on an everyday basis.