Fast and fiery Muirfield to test British Open field
Hard, dry fairways at Muirfield mean it's set to be a 'Yellow Open' - and that's why many feel Tiger Woods is a good bet to end his major drought
Golf's oldest championship returns to Muirfield after a wet spring that was ideal for growing thick grass, followed by a dry summer that yields three "F" words that are ideal for a links course … firm, fast and fiery.
The yellow hue of the fairways and wisps of knee-high native grass framing them make that obvious. The trick is to judge how far the ball is going - not in the air, but once it starts bouncing.
Angel Cabrera set out on Sunday to learn on the sixth hole, 461 yards and bending to the left with a bunker on the left side.
The two-time major champion from Argentina hit a four-iron with a right-to-left wind and it stopped a yard short of the bunker. Then he hit a bullet of a driver that he thought was ideal until he reached the crest of a slight hill and didn't see a ball in the fairway. It ran so fast that it went through the fairway and into the rough.
"The great thing about links golf is it gives variety and options how to play," two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington said. "You can have three players taking on a shot from the same place, and you might see three very different shots. You see a little bit of everything."
He played his first ball just short of a bunker to the right of the green and stared at it for a long time, taking an unconventional route that makes links golf so different. Instead of pitching over the sand, he bumped a nine-iron on the ground, along the edge of the bunker, and watched it roll up the slope and down towards the pin.
"Bien, Seve," said his swing coach, Charlie Epps, as high a compliment as can be paid.
Seve Ballesteros was a three-time British Open champion who spent a career inventing shots that took circuitous routes to their destinations. That's what it can take at an Open, especially when the grass is yellow and crusty.
Woods was among dozens of players who used a sunny, warm Sunday to get their first look at Muirfield, which is hosting its 16th Open, dating to 1892. He played with Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.
The left elbow strain that has kept Woods out of competition since the US Open is not expected to be an issue. He said he was "full go", which is the reason he took three weeks off to let his elbow heal.
Woods is the betting favourite to end his five-year drought in the majors, and for good reason. He already has won four times this year on the PGA Tour. He's a three-time Open champion. He loves to create shots. And the conditions are favourable.
As players made their way around Muirfield, more than one of them mentioned Hoylake. That was considered the last true "yellow" Open, with a dry, hot spell on the northwest coast of England.
That also was the last British Open that Woods won, with supreme control. That one was famous for Woods hitting only one driver in 72 holes, on the 16th hole, and the shot wound up in the 17th fairway.
"Did he hit it there on purpose?" said Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
"No, that was his normal shot," Cabrera replied with a laugh.
The 441-yard eighth hole proved to be a great example of playing the ball in the air and on land. Cabrera looked at the pot bunkers that dotted the landscape on the right side of the fairway and chose a 6-iron off the tee to keep left of the trouble, and to keep his ball from running through into high grass. His only other option was to hit a driver over the trouble.
Teeing up another ball, he launched his driver high and long - far different from the low, penetrating flight on the sixth hole - and the ball stopped rolling when it popped into a cross bunker about 40 yards short of the green.
"There's no way to know how far the ball is going," he said to Fernandez-Castano, who opted for a five-iron off the tee.
The forecast is for a dry week, which could make winning tougher than usual. Then again, players were quick to remember the last time at Muirfield in 2002. It wasn't nearly this dry - that was a "green" Open - though the weather was reasonable until a freak storm arrived without warning on Saturday.
The wind chill plunged to five degrees Celsius, the wind approach 65km/h and the rain was relentless. Woods was just enough off his game that he shot 81 that day. "It's amazing golf," Harrington said. "Someone genuinely can hit a drive 400 yards, and then turn around and be able to carry it 240 yards. It suits the guy who can manipulate his golf ball, which is what links golf is all about."