The Open: Time for players to take centre stage

Tiger Woods is the bookies' favourite to lift the Claret Jug, but he'll have to overcome a 156-strong field. Picture: Jane Barlow
Tiger Woods is the bookies' favourite to lift the Claret Jug, but he'll have to overcome a 156-strong field. Picture: Jane Barlow
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LISTEN carefully and you’ll probably hear a collective sigh of relief as a golf tournament breaks out at Muirfield today.

Since 4 May, 2009, the day it was announced the Open Championship was to be staged here for the 16th time, the world’s oldest major has been shrouded in controversy over the men-only policy of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the hosts this week.

Criticism of the R&A has been cranked up to new levels in the past few days over its alliance with such a club – one of the three on the Open rota to exclude women from their membership – but, for the majority of people heading for the East Lothian coast over the next four days, it is now time to focus on golf matters.

All but one (Steve Stricker didn’t enter as he’s celebrating his 20th anniversary with wife, Nicki, at home in the United States) of the top 75 players in the world are here for the 142nd Claret Jug joust. The 156-strong field, which includes 15 past Open champions, is made up of players from 27 countries and all have been enjoying a rare taste of a Scottish summer.

Hot and dry for nigh on a fortnight now – it has not rained since four Local Final Qualifying Tournaments were played in miserable conditions at neighbouring courses – it has come at the perfect time for the world’s top players paying their first visit to “Scotland’s Golf Coast” for the first time since Ernie Els claimed the coveted crown in a four-man play-off in 2002.

Driving eastwards from Edinburgh, you get a sense of what’s in store when you turn round the last corner in Aberlady and get a first sight of Gullane Hill. Normally green, it has turned light brown. From Luffness New along past the three Gullane courses, it is a picture of how links courses used to be before those summers turned sour and thousands of pounds were forked out on irrigation systems.

Looking like that, Muirfield is majestic. Course manager Colin Irvine, a Gullane boy, and his team have done an incredible job in bringing it to the boil. “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,” declared chief executive Peter Dawson on the eve of the event.

“On top of Muirfield being a wonderful golf course, the course changes [seven new tees have been put in and the course lengthened by around 200 yards since the world’s golfing circus last came to town] have been very effective and the course is just as we want it. It’s hard. It’s fast. It’s in wonderful condition. The rough is right. I think the players are enjoying it. We are absolutely delighted with it.”

It’s making players think more than they do in their bread and butter events, the majority of which are played on soft courses where balls are lobbed full toss on to greens and can stop on a sixpence. Here, the targets will be anything between 50-100 yards from the putting surfaces so as to take into account the run balls are getting on the baked surfaces.

“On 17, I hit 3-iron, 3-iron over the green,” reported world No 1 Tiger Woods of how he had played the 575-yard longest hole on the course, in one of his practice rounds. “It’s all in the run and it just depends where you land it. It could land into a slope and get killed or land on the backside and shoot forward another 40-50 yards.”

In similar conditions, Woods hit his driver just once en route to winning at Hoylake in 2006. It is likely to be used lightly here, too, while Phil Mickelson, the newly-crowned Scottish Open champion, might resist the temptation to put a big stick in at all, relying instead on a 3-wood he raved about at Castle Stuart and is hitting out of sight.

From a distance, the rough looks brutal. It is nowhere near as thick as it was for the 2007 Senior Open here, though, having been burned out a bit by the sun. Getting hot under the collar is a recipe for disaster. Though one was soft and the other hard, the test is similar to when Justin Rose won the US Open at Merion last month.

“They’re polar opposites in the sense of how the ball is reacting on the ground, but they’re similar in the sense of strategy in them,” said the Englishman who, buoyed by his major breakthrough at the age 32, is confident he can finally improve on his fourth-place finish in this event as an amateur in 1998.

“At Merion, I hit a lot of irons off the tee. I played defensively, sort of conservatively and I felt that was the best way to approach it. Even when I saw there was talk of 14-under and talk of 62s, that’s the way I saw the golf course and my gameplan turned out to be exactly the right one.

“That’s my challenge this week, to see the golf course the right way, to set a gameplan that not only keeps me out of trouble but is aggressive enough to make the most of the opportunities when they come around.”

Rose, who completed his preparations yesterday by playing nine holes with Sir Nick Faldo, the winner here in 1987 and 1992, predicted a winning total of eight-under 276. That’s right in the middle of the two aggregates posted by his compatriot and two fewer than Els, who is now enjoying the rare honour – James Braid in 1906 here as well, ironically – of returning to a course where he has won the event before as the ­defending champion.

Will Els do a Faldo? Will Woods end a five-year wait for his next major. Will Rory ­McIlroy click into gear and produce a major masterclass? Will Mickelson complete a dream double in the home of golf? Will someone in a ten-strong Tartan Army get the home fans ­excited? Let the golf begin.