The 142nd Open Championship starts Thursday at Muirfield, located in Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland, overlooking the Firth of Forth. Although Muirfield is a links course and is set upon elevated ancient land claimed from the sea highlighted by its sandy base and small sea shells in its bunkers, it has an unusual layout which was designed by Old Tom Morris.
Most links courses run along the coast and then back again,leading to two sets of nine holes, each of which will roughly face in the same direction. One nine goes out and the other comes back in. Muirfield, however, was among the first courses to depart from this arrangement and is set up as two loops of nine holes, one clockwise and one counterclockwise. This means that, assuming the wind direction remains the same throughout a round, every hole on the course has a different apparent wind direction from the tee. No more than three consecutive holes follow the same direction at any time.
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, now based at Muirfield, holds the claim of being the oldest verifiable organized golf club in the world, although the game of golf is several centuries older. The club's records date back continuously to 1744, when it produced thirteen "Rules of Golf" for its first competition, which was played at Leith Links for the "Silver Cup."
The club played on five holes at Leith Links for nearly a century, but overcrowding forced a move in 1836 to Musselburgh Old Course's nine holes. Musselburghh, like many prestigious Scottish courses, is open to the public. However this course also became too crowded for the liking of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
In 1891, the club built a new private 18-hole course at Muirfield, taking the Open Championship with them. This situation caused some ill feeling at Musselburgh, which lost the right to hold the Open from that point forward. Because Old Tom Morris had designed Muirfield, it met with wide approval from the start. It has been modified and updated several times as late as the 1920s, but not touched since. Muirfield held its first Open in 1892 and was the first tournament anywhere contested over four rounds, or 72 holes.
Muirfield cosmetically fits the description of a links course to a tea. Its soil is sandy and because of its lack of moisture, the grass tends to have short blades with long roots. The best way to describe its fairways would be like applying a coating of tightly cut grass on top of concrete. Only 92 of the courses in Scotland (17%) are true "links" courses.
The grass in Muirfield's rough is often the wispy long grass which makes play very difficult even in a good lie. This spring was wet in East Lothian and the recent warm temperatures have made the seaside fescue grasses thick and tough to control shots coming out of it.
The bunkers at Muirfield will prove to be menacing and players will try to avoid them at all costs, particularly in the fairways. Escape from these deep bunkers is only possible if the ball is not close to a sod stacked face. Many times a player will have to hit a shot sideways or even backwards to get the ball out of a bunker.
The locals here are concerned that the dry and fast conditions (referred to as "wee bouncy") will cause the scoring to be unusually low by Open Championship standards. In all likelihood, the wind will make things interesting and create all of the challenge the players need.
"It only takes about 10 mph of wind around here to make Muirfield challenging," Sergio Garcia told me Tuesday night.
With the concrete-like ground conditions, many players are hitting 5-irons off the tee downwind to 250 yards. Garcia admitted that he "only hit three or four drivers" in his practice rounds. At the same time, he was quick to point out that many of the fairways funnel into the bunkers and even with irons off the tee, bounces can present problems and balls will run out into bunkers.
Speaking of Garcia, he was a guest milling around on Tuesday night at the International Golf Writers Dinner. Many former major champions attended the invitation-only affair. Garcia, who has never won a major, circulated during the cocktail hour outside the tent hosting the dinner at Muirfield. The Spaniard was clad in jeans and a golf shirt. He obviously had taken it upon himself to interface with the media and other golf officials in hopes of improving his image following remarks he made about Tiger Woods in late May. In my opinion, it was a classy move on his part.
I'm staying in North Berwick, which is just seven miles up the road from Muirfield. It's the home of the North Berwick Club, which was founded in 1832, some 59 years before Muirfield. Late Sunday afternoon I had a chance to play North Berwick after a couple hours of sleep and a severe case of jet lag. It's a quirky course, very reminiscent of Prestwick.
The 18th hole is a drivable par 4 which plays 277 yards. Interestingly, the green on this hole sits near a narrow street where local golfers park their cars. The view of these parked cars from the 18th tee is imposing from the standpoint that most average golfers hit slices off the tee and the prevailing wind is left to right. On top of that, the North Berwick clubhouse sits behind the green and people gather in the bar upstairs and watch the action on the finishing hole.
I took my weary legs to the 18th tee at approximately 9:05 p.m. and launched my tee shot towards the green. I lost sight of the ball, but my playing partners informed me that it wound up 20 feet left of the flag on the green. With a new bounce in my step, I strode to the green and made the putt for an eagle 2. The cheerful peanut gallery sitting on the clubhouse veranda applauded. It was a golf highlight for me.
A couple of days later I discovered that part of the fee we paid to play North Berwick included a two pound surcharge for liability insurance to cover an errant shot and the potential of a broken car window. Only in Scotland would the powers-to-be implement that policy. Was this one for the purists? Maybe not, but a smart one, which certainly fits the spirit of this great country.