The Open 2013: Muirfield course is rough enough to test the very best
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The concern at Muirfield two months ago was that the course would not have enough significant rough to do justice to the 142nd Open Championship after a tough winter and with the UK in the grip of a cold north-easterly for four weeks or more – seriously delaying the start of the growing season.
The long grass is there now, thankfully, straw-coloured and dry and looking like something of a throwback as it presents an altogether more typical links hazard than has been the case at some recent Opens, notably the verdant Lytham last year which, after a wet and warm spring, began on the Thursday with a handful of bunkers still under water.
"The rough is intimidating-looking off the tee here but when you get out there it's not that bad," said Martin Laird, the US-based Scot who is busying himself re-learning old tricks and getting used to the once familiar conditions. "I hit a couple in there and it's not like you have to hack out. You can't hit it 200 yards but you can get 170 yards and on most holes you get close to the green. You've got to land it 40 or 50 yards short of the greens anyhow and know if it's going to kick left or right and I'm learning those things."
, who memorably won the third of his Open titles on a sun-baked Hoylake course in 2006 and used the driver only once, in his first round, said he had been given early indications that the Muirfield rough would be "high and lush". He had given special attention to resting the injury to his left elbow he picked up at the Players Championship and aggravated at last month's US Open in order to be in shape to win on more difficult terrain.
Two weeks of hot, dry weather across the UK have presented him with an altogether different and very familiar set of conditions and he is preparing a similar strategy to the one he used so successfully on the Wirral those seven years ago, when he replaced his five wood with a two iron. "I've played three days now and I've only hit a couple of drivers here," Woods said. "Downwind holes ... I've hit three wood, I'll run probably close to 80, 90 yards. Sometimes a little bit more than that. And on 17 yesterday [575 yards] I hit three iron, three iron over the green. It's all about the run. It all depends on where you land it. It could land into a slope and get killed or land on the back side and it could shoot forward another 40, 50 yards.
"On some of the holes a four iron was going 280, three iron is going a little over 300 yards. So it's quick. That's on this wind, so obviously it could change. Like that we had in '02, it could come out of the north-east and it could be a totally different golf course."
On the Saturday 11 years ago Woods shot 81, still his worst score as a professional, when chasing a third major in a row and was blown out of contention along with most of the afternoon starters. "That was the worst I've ever played in," the world No1 of then and now added. "We were warned there was a slight chance of a shower so none of us were prepared clothing wise. A lot of guys just had a golf shirt and a rain jacket. The umbrella became useless because it was blowing so hard, you couldn't control the umbrella. The windchill was in the 30s. It was just a cold, cold day. A tough day all round."
Indications are that the weather conditions in East Lothian will remain as they are, dry, bright and sunny, with high pressure dominant and centred over Scotland for the weekend. Though Woods, out in a three-ball at 7am for a spot more due diligence with Hunter Mahan and Mark Calcavecchia, noticed that some watering of the course has been taking place overnight, the fairways are still running hard and fast, with plenty of capability of punishing anything too loose.
Dustin Johnson finished second at St George's in 2011 after he hit his second shot out of bounds when chasing Darren Clarke in the final round, and this time he finds himself in the biggest-hitting three-ball of the lot, out with Bubba Watson and Nicolas Colsaerts, though he reckons he, too, will not be getting into a power game unless things change.
"There are a lot of different ways you can attack this golf course," Johnson said. "If you want to hit drivers and attack it, I think you can. It gives you room to do that. Me, depending on the wind, I might not hit any. There's not really any need to, it's not that much of an advantage. We [three] all know we can hit it far we all hit it about the same distance, but I want to hit it on the fairway more times than they do. I don't need to hit it further than them, just straighter.
"I like my chances, it's a good golf course for me. Like any Open it really just depends on the weather, how tough it's going to be. It's crucial to have a good short game on links courses. You don't attack these golf courses as much as you do back home, with drivers. In the States I'm trying to get it on the fairway and that's what I'm trying to do over here. If you are putting well, you are playing well. It's simple. If I'm putting well, I'm going to contend every week."