- 2013 Open Championship: Preview
Scotland's coast braced for a Tiger chargeAlex Dimond July 17, 2013
Golf's finest and most historic tournament returns to perhaps the best and most-loved venue on its rotation.
Carnoustie might just be harder (weather conditions being equal), and St Andrews might have more history, but the consensus among the professionals might just be that Muirfield is the most honest and exacting links on which players contend for the Claret Jug.
"It's one of the most fair golf courses [that host the Open] because everything is right in front of you," Tiger Woods said on his first visit, back in 2002. "It presents itself right in front of you, there are no hidden agendas, no tricks.
"It's one of those golf courses that's very fair."
It's membership policy might not be quite as fair - expect to hear and read a lot about the golf club's strict male-only admittance this week - but Muirfield remains highly regarded among those who play her. There's a reason Jack Nicklaus, the game's most successful golfer, named his own course in Dublin, Ohio after the Gullane links, the place where he won his first Open title.
Muirfield is perhaps unique among major championship venues in that it can claim that its winners are only of the very highest echelon. When Ernie Els won in a play-off 11 years ago, he joined an illustrious group that includes Nicklaus, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Sir Nick Faldo.
Even Els's record, with four majors to his name, pales in comparison to that sort of roll call.
The question, of course, is who will join that cohort come Sunday evening. The South African, defending champion after last year's victory at Royal Lytham & St Annes, returns as one of the favourites to do so - understandable considering his history with both the course and the competition.
The Open has had a number of 'older' winners in recent years (Els was 42, Darren Clarke was the same age a year prior to that, and Stewart Cink was 36 when he overcame Watson in 2009), suggesting experience and patience are two necessary requirements of any potential winner.
Links golf also demands a greater array of shot-making than a normal event - especially if the weather picks up. An ability to flight the ball high or low, left or right is often a massive advantage - while the hard and fast conditions expected this week means control of yardages (particularly off tees and running balls into greens) is more important than almost any other week of the year.
That is why Tiger Woods will perhaps fancy his chances this week. The world No. 1 was utterly dominant last time conditions were so dry for an Open (at Royal Liverpool in 2006 - he missed similar conditions at Turnberry in 2009 due to injury), primarily due to his ability to hit his two-iron 'stinger' in the exact spots he wanted to on almost every fairway.
The problem now for the 14-time major champion, of course, is that seven years on there are far more players capable of aping his gameplan. The original, however, may remain the best.
The critics are generally united when it comes to Muirfield - consistently ranked among the top ten golf courses in the world by a number of top industry magazines.
It is a distinctive test, too, with its layout (an outward loop around the edge of the layout, and then an inward loop inside it) meaning the wind poses a different challenge to most other links course.
Monitoring the wind will be the primary concern for caddies and players this week (again, assuming the weather remains generally acceptable) - expect many to express frustration as the continually changing direction of holes makes it impossible for them to accurately ascertain which way the breeze is blowing.
Muirfield, like many of its ilk, is heavily bunkered, with over 160 potted around the course to make navigating just that little bit more difficult. At 7,245 yards, it is about average length for a modern major championship layout - uniquely enough, more holes have actually been shortened than lengthened since 2002 (although overall it is still a longer track). There is just one blind shot - the 11th - which also separates it from a number of other Open hosts, while it does not really rely on changes in elevation.
There are a number of standout holes - starting with the ninth, a par-five up against the club's boundary road, demanding a precise tee shot to have any chance of going for the green in two. The 13th is also a tester, an uphill par-three with bunkers around the green that demands precision on the putting surface.
Then comes the last hole, where the tournament has been won and lost before and will likely be won and lost again. A tight landing area will dissuade a number of players from using a wood off the tee, but a longer approach increasingly brings the treacherous greenside bunkers into play..
Leading on the tee come Sunday, two solid swings will be needed if that protagonist is to end up with the Claret Jug.
As previously outlined, Muirfield has an enviable record of identifying only the very greatest of champions on its illustrious links. While there is no reason to expect that to change this week, with more top-level players than ever plying their trade in the professional ranks the greatness of the eventual champion may be less obvious than in editions past.
With that in mind, we take a look at the main contenders this week in Gullane…
It's been more than five years since Tiger Woods last won a major championship - a drought few could have possibly predicted he claimed the 2008 US Open on one leg. But golf is a fickle game and, while Woods has rediscovered his touch at regular tour event in the last few years, that extra je ne sais quoi required to rise above the competition in major championship has continued to elude him. Fortunately for the world No. 1, conditions this week might present him with his best opportunity yet to win major No. 15.
Woods has traditionally excelled at hard-and-fast Open Championships; exactly the conditions we are expected to get this week at Muirfield. Nobody plots their way around a layout better than Woods, and few people can control the flight and direction of their three-quarter and knockdown shots better than the American.
The questions remain around Woods' putting - he is back to near his best on PGA Tour event greens, but something seems to slip when in the concentrated atmosphere of a major. If he can get the flatstick working, and continue to work around his slight inability to hit a draw on demand, then Woods should be primed for a low-scoring week.
The 2010 US PGA Championship apart, Woods has not really even contended over the final few holes of a major in these last five years. Expect that to change this week - whether he wins, however, is another matter.
These days there are too many good players out there capable of foiling him, even when he is near his best.
Much of the focus and attention this week has been on Justin Rose, who began his major championship odyssey with a fourth-place finish at the Open in 1997, but more recently won the US Open to become its first English winner in 43 years.
Considering his background, and recent breakthrough, Rose is considered a prime contender this week - although that might be slightly optimistic, considering his biggest victories of recent years have all come on stadium-type US courses and his game seems to have been tailored to those challenges. He may actually find the hard-and-fast conditions of this week harder to deal with than most.
The same goes for Rory McIlroy, who has a similar links background but made it quite clear two years ago at Royal St George's that this is not a style of golf he particularly enjoys. Those words seemed to have an element of the sour grapes of an unhappy performer (he seemed to like Carnoustie plenty when he was finishing as the low amateur there) but perhaps there is a kernel of truth - the Northern Irishman's high and flighty shots surely don't work at as well on links courses as they do parkland layouts.
2013's other major winner, Adam Scott, returns to the Open looking for redemption after blowing a four-shot advantage last year at Royal Lytham. The Australian missed the cut in 2002 but a second round 68, coupled with his recent improvement and consistency, pencils him in as very much a player to watch once again this week.
Phil Mickelson showed last week at the Scottish Open that he has some links ability, picking up his first ever triumph on British shores. The left-hander has a history of winning majors the week after triumphing at a regular tour stop, and had a chance to contend in this event two years ago, so his prospects do not look too bad on paper. Then again, it is hard to imagine his penchant for risky shot selections and erratic short-range putting not coming back to haunt him at some point this week.
First-time major champions have been all the rage in recent years, and so it may again prove this week. Inspired by his close friend Rose making his breakthrough, Ian Poulter - who was in contention at Muirfield 11 years ago - could be one to watch, especially if his X Factor-style search for a new putter has produced a winner more Leona Lewis than Joe McElderry.
The same goes for Sergio Garcia - a perennial contender at Opens who has more creativity than almost any other player in the field. If shot-making really is what Muirfield tests, the Spaniard has a great chance this week.
Some to speculate on
Young Dane Thorbjorn Olesen announced himself to the wider golfing world 12 months ago at Royal Lytham, earning a weekend pairing with Tiger Woods in the process. The Nike-sponsored athlete has continued to grow as a professional over the last year, although a second win has so far eluded him. Nevertheless, he could fare well once again this week.
Another Scandanavian, Carl Pettersson, could also be worth watching out for. The Swede played well at Muirfield 11 years ago, and is a considerably better golfer this time around. At over 200/1 in some places, he appears overlooked by the oddsmakers.
Elsewhere, it is a matter of finding those who have shown a linking for links golf before. Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler fit that bill, although questions remain about key components of their game (the mental aspect for DJ, putting for Fowler).
Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington has a great chance if Muirfield plays far harder than expected, but will probably be outgunned if birdies are a regular occurrence.
All this talk would mean little without a few equally meaningless predictions also thrown in...
Winning score: Ten-under
Lowest round: 64
Low amateur: Rhys Pugh
Top European: Sergio Garcia
Top American: Tiger Woods
Top Rest of World: Adam Scott
Winner: Sergio Garcia