The Open: Genius not enough to win at Muirfield

Ernie Els at the 131st Open Championship in 2002. Picture: Getty
Ernie Els at the 131st Open Championship in 2002. Picture: Getty
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EVEN now, three months after it happened, Adam Scott’s victory in the Masters is a thing of wonder, a brilliant illustration of the vast difference between very good golfers and great golfers.

Last summer at Lytham, after his bogey-bogey-bogey-bogey finish handed the Claret Jug to Ernie Els, Scott was not only dignified in the depths of despair but also positive. He said he didn’t see it as a sporting tragedy, more like a learning curve.

Most people in the room covered their eyes and assumed he was in denial. It was bad enough seeing his collapse up close – the short par putt he missed on 15, the three-putt on 16, the pulled 6-iron on 17 and the 3-wood off the tee on 18 that bulleted into a pot bunker – but to listen to him attempting to cover up his heartbreak was almost as bad. Only he wasn’t covering it up because his heart wasn’t breaking. He was sore, for sure. Stunned, also. But he got over it in a relative blink. Some players never come back after the kind of experience Scott had at Lytham, but the Australian won the Masters in the fashion of a man who had never known nerves or upset in his golfing life.

The recent history of the Open tells us that there is little point in analysing form and trends in deciding who might make the shake-up and who might not. Muirfield is going to be firm and fast, tight as a drum off the tee and hairy as a gorilla in the rough. There’s not going to be an over-dependence on the driver this week. Many will be hitting off the tees to stay out of the hay, just as Jack Nicklaus did so famously when winning at Muirfield in 1966. And while they’ll have their strategy and their ‘controllables’ in order, it is the great unknown that they will fear. Namely, the draw and whether there is a right side or a wrong side, whether the conditions favour the early guys or the late guys. Genius is required to win an Open, but so is luck. Padraig Harrington, two Claret Jugs to his name, can tell you all about that from Muirfield 2002.

The memory is of that infamous Saturday and the storm that swept Tiger Woods’s challenge away. Having won the first two majors of the year, Woods was caught in a tempest and shot 81. End of Slam. Harrington had an even greater hard luck story. He missed the play-off by one shot in 2002, shooting three 67s and a 76 in the foulness of Saturday.

So many imponderables. Four months before winning the Open last year, Els was being ridiculed for the state of his putting. At the Transitions championship in Florida he looked a certain winner until he suffered a wretched meltdown on the greens in the closing holes. Afterwards, he looked upset and almost close to tears. The day after, David Feherty poked fun at him, saying he’d be as well putting with a live rattlesnake. The Big Easy was anything but. He was hurt by the jibe. Badly. Soon after, he started putting like God and had won the Open again. Hardly anybody saw it coming.

Same story with Darren Clarke in 2011 and Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 and Stewart Cink (and Tom Watson) in 2009. You have to go back to Harrington at Birkdale in 2008 to find a predictable winner and why should this year be any different? We think of Woods and Rory McIlroy, but they are at the head of the betting on reputation alone. Woods hasn’t won a major in five years and hasn’t shot an under-par round on the weekend at the Open since 2007. He’s won four times this year, but he’s also nursing a sore elbow of unknown seriousness.

“If [Tiger’s] hurt, stick a fork in him,” said Paul Azinger, who tangled with Nick Faldo at Muirfield in the past. “It’s [Woods winning that elusive 15th major] not going to happen this week.”

You wouldn’t want to write him off, but making a case for him is getting harder with his run of zero from 20 in the majors since his last victory. Tiger is the lesser-spotted superstar these past weeks, in contrast to Rory McIlroy, who has been everywhere while his game, seemingly, is going nowhere.

McIlroy could jump out of his slump at any minute, but he’s pretty deep in that hole at the moment and you can’t fancy him to get out of it at Muirfield, not with the questions about his Nike equipment and his missed cuts and his temperament, the recent bouts of club-throwing and 9-iron-bending (at Merion). He was 25th and 41st in the year’s first two majors and that, incredibly, is about his level right now. He has gone from global winner to journeyman in a few months. No doubt he will travel back to greatness but Harrington got it right when he called McIlroy an “erratic genius”.

This week, there is no reason to abandon Els, even though he missed the cut at Castle Stuart, for he is still playing wonderfully and has more good karma at Muirfield than anybody else, bar Nick Faldo.

Scott too. If you’re drawing up a short list then the Australian, pictured left, must be on it with Justin Rose and the serial contender, Jason Day.

The Australian has played in ten major championships and has been top-ten five times, or put it another way he has been in the top-three four times, including the Masters and the US Open this year.

Day has no great form in the Open – he has only played in it twice with 30th being his best finish – but he’s got himself to such a level now that it would almost be a surprise if he didn’t contend.

Onwards to Muirfield in the pursuit of a winner to stand alongside the icons who have won there in the past. Some golf course, some history, some galaxy of champions.