GULLANE — The practice round schedule posted each day at Muirfield is not the only way to determine how players are getting ready for the British Open.
Johnson Wagner’s name was on the tee sheet at St. Andrews over the weekend.
Geoff Ogilvy could be found on the other side of the country, on links courses like Turnberry, Royal Troon and Western Gailes. Justin Rose was at North Berwick. So were Bubba Watson and Luke Donald, who got in plenty of golf along the Firth of Forth the week before the British Open.
It’s not unusual for players to take off from their regular tours a week before a major to prepare. What’s different about the British Open — isn’t everything? — is that preparations aren’t limited to the course they will be playing.
“You can prepare for the U.S. Open on the range,” Ogilvy said Wednesday. “But you can only prepare for The Open on the course. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the course you’re playing. The seaside courses here, they’re the only courses with turf like this, with sand like this. There’s something different about the seaside wind in Scotland. … You can fly to Shanghai or Abu Dhabi and work on what you need at home. But you can’t work on what you need at home until you get here.”
Tiger Woods, a three-time Open champion, arrived Sunday morning and has played nine holes a day. There was a time he would leave home a week early and head to Ireland with Mark O’Meara and David Duval, both former Open champions, and play the links courses there.
Woods loves to recall his first experience with links golf in 1995 as the U.S. Amateur champion. He played the Scottish Open at Carnoustie, and then drove down the North Sea shoreline to St. Andrews for the British Open.
“I absolutely fell in love with it, to be able to dink a 5-iron from 150 yards and bump it on the ground, or vice versa — have 260 out and hit a 4-iron and it bounces over the green. That, to me, is pretty neat. Because we play everywhere around the world — an airborne game where you have to hit the ball straight up in the air and make it stop. Here it’s different. A draw will go one distance, a fade will go another, and they’re so dramatic. And I just absolutely love it.”
True, adjusting to links golf can just as easily take place at Muirfield, where the British Open starts Thursday. Defending champion Ernie Els came down from Castle Stuart and has stayed at Muirfield, wrapping up his final practice round Wednesday just after 6 p.m.
But there are no tricks at Muirfield. There are hardly any blind shots. Most of the bunkers are in plain view from the tee. That’s one of the reasons that Muirfield is a favourite of so many players, who use words like “fair” and “honest test,” which aren’t always heard on other links courses.
“I think of all the Open venues, it’s probably one of the least quirky ones,” Donald said Wednesday. “It’s quite straightforward. Obviously with the weather conditions, it’s playing firm and fast. It’s going to be about controlling your golf ball this week. And the weather looks good. The course is set up just the way the R&A would like it. It’s bouncy. It’s a little bit of a breeze out there. Firm conditions are a good protector of the golf course, and we certainly have that this week.”
The forecast is dry for the week, with perhaps some mist on the weekend. Even though officials had the course just the way they wanted it early in the week, they have turned on a few sprinklers in the evening to keep it from getting overcooked.
“I think it’s no exaggeration to say that in my time at the R&A with direct involvement in The Open Championship, which goes back to 2000, factors have combined this year to make this the best course set up we’ve ever had in that period,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. “The course is just as we want it. It’s hard. It’s fast. It’s in wonderful condition. The rough is just right. I think the players are enjoying it.”
It all starts to unfold Thursday morning when Peter Senior of Australia hits the opening tee shot.
Among the early starters are Els, Rose and Brandt Snedeker in one group, with Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama a few groups behind. The afternoon groups include Woods, Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen, along with Masters champion Adam Scott, Donald and Matt Kuchar.
Tom Watson won at Muirfield in 1980 by four shots over Lee Trevino, which was a rarity in one respect. That was the only Open in the last six times at Muirfield that golf’s oldest championship was decided by more than one shot. Els won in a record four-man playoff the last time in 2002.
Muirfield is seen as a thorough examination that requires solid contact in any weather, which might explain why only the best players seem to win here — Els, Nick Faldo twice, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Walter Hagen, Trevino.
Snedeker tied the 36-hole record at the British Open last year at 130 — the same score Faldo had at Muirfield in 1992 — and eventually tied for third. That was at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and he sounds like he loves Muirfield even more.
“There are defined areas where you need to hit it. How you get the ball in that defined area is up to you,” Snedeker said. “It’s a great mix of holes. I chart what I hit in the practice round, and I’ve hit every club in the bag every day. You’re hitting driver on some holes. You’re hitting 5-iron off the tee on some holes. It’s just a really cool mix. And depending on the wind, they can all play completely differently.
“I think it’s a great test,” he said. “There’s no letup out there whatsoever.”
What happens from here is difficult to project. Woods is trying to end a zero-for-16 drought in the majors. Rose is trying to become only the seventh player to win the U.S. Open and British Open in the same year. Els believes he has a chance to win again, which would put him in rare company — Old Tom Morris in 1872 is the only other player in his 40s to successfully defend his title in a major.
“There’s so much to look forward to the way everything has shaped up for this Open Championship,” Scott said. “Very exciting week ahead.”