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Magnificent Muirfield – Golf, Haggis, and the Open Championship (British Open)


“Now you have to try the haggis, she’ll be insulted if you don’t,” my girlfriend cooed soothingly, as if that would make the ordeal any more bearable. Yes, it’s my favorite time of year again, the Open Championship: sparkling seaside links, brisk winds wreaking havoc on poorly played golf shots, the ground game back in vogue, and the brightly gleaming Claret Jug standing sentinel in lonely eminence silhouetted against a leaden slate sky and a stormy seas.

It’s also haggis…Scotland’s contribution to world cuisine.

“Gramma spent six hours slaving over a hot stove today, chopping up the lungs and heart, mixing the beef fat suet, scrubbing the sheep’s stomach, and mincing the liver,” she explained. “She’s been pricking the stomach bag for hours to release the gas build up and, yes, she lets the windpipe hang over the side of the pot to allow the impurities to pass out freely.”

“What impurities??!! Pass out freely into where??!!” I asked, horrified, my eyes searching rapidly for the nearest drug store and a mega-sized bottle of Pepto Bismol.

Some golf journalists are having the same feeling about Ernie Els right now. Els comes to this year’s Open Championship at fabled Muirfield as a double defending champion: he not only found a Claret Jug on the ground last year at Royal Lytham when Adam Scott bogeyed the last four holes in a row to lose by one shot, Els also won the last time the Open was at Muirfield, in 2002 when he beat a cast of thousands in a four-hole playoff.

But Els also has failed to live up to his “Big Easy” nickname of late. Abusive behavior towards journalists – some asking hard questions, others asking perfectly innocuous ones – have presented a side of Els less gracious than the one painted by fawning television broadcasters. First, at last year’s PGA Championship Ernie exploded at a reporter who asked him about Pete Dye golf courses, “Don’t ask me about that! Ask me about winning the British Open!”

Then after the final round of this year’s U.S. Open, when a Philly TV broadcaster asked Els to reconsider his pre-tournament “prediction” that Merion would be wet, soft, and defenseless to scoring, Els acidly snarled two of the three most vulgar four-letter words in the English language at him, (one of which was broadcast to millions of viewers worldwide), and then stormed off, fleeing the interview like Jerry Lundegaard in the movie Fargo.

Sounds like Ernie needs to let the windpipe hang over the side to let the impurities pass out more freely too, but I digress…

Ernie’s surliness aside, with his victory in 2002 Els joined an All-star cast of Hall of Famers who won the Open at Muirfield. Indeed, perhaps no other Open Championship venue save St. Andrews has as much history as Muirfield. Turnberry may be the prettiest, Carnoustie the toughest, and Birkdale the “fairest,” but magical Muirfield gives us what U.K. golf fans call “a proper champion” every time the Open returns. With the exception of Alf Perry in 1935, there hasn’t been a single “off-brand” winner at Muirfield in the 15 previous Open Championships it has hosted. Look at this Murderer’s Row lineup of champions: Harry Vardon, James Braid, Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, Harry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, (twice), and Els, all celebrated champions, not a head-scratching name in the bunch. You can’t say the same about Troon, (Todd Hamilton and Mark Calcavecchia), St. George’s, (Bill Rogers), Turnberry, (Stewart Cink), Royal Birkdale, (Ian Baker-Finch and Mark O’Meara), or Carnoustie, (Paul Lawrie).

Muirfield’s all but incomparable history doesn’t begin and end with its list of winners, but hearkens back to the formative years of golf itself. While the course dates from an original Old Tom Morris layout from 1891, Muirfield is also home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, founded 1744, the august group who assembled and published the first codified rules of golf. That alone was enough for British golf writer Nick Edmund, author of the seminal work Strokesaver’s Classic Golf Courses of Great Britain and Ireland, to ask the question, “What’s more famous? The club or the members?”

Edmund’s frankness didn’t stop there. Writing in the mid-1990s, he also candidly and astutely noted that, “The Muirfield of today bears little resemblance to the Muirfield of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Old Tom Morris designed the original links in 1891, and the course was so well received, it was selected to host the Open Championship for the following year, when amateur Harold Hilton won. It hosted the Open again just four years later, in 1896, when Old Tom made his final appearance in the event as a player. That year Harry Vardon bogeyed the final hole to fall into a tie with two time defending champion John Taylor, but then beat him by four shots in a playoff.

Harry Colt and Tom Simpson made considerable changes in the early 1920s, while Martin Hawtree made other more recent and controversial changes. Some say lengthened and strengthened the golf course, others say he homogenizes, (or, worse still, Americanizes), links courses, smoothing out all the capricious bounces so critical to the allure of classic links golf.

Whichever the case may be, Muirfield is almost universally respected by players, architects, critics, and fans alike. It’s routing is critical to both its defense to scoring and its charm. Sitting on the south side of the Firth of Forth, the course is roughly shaped in the form of a triangle: the front nine runs clockwise outside of an inner loop, the back nine, which runs in a counter-clockwise direction. As a result, the golfer must confront the prevailing wind from every conceivable angle.

“It never blows in the same direction for even two consecutive holes,” stated Arnold Palmer.

The wind, which blows with the player, against the player and, most often, in numerous insidious crosswinds is one reason why Muirfield is considered one of the most difficult Open Championship venues. It’s murder hitting wasp-waisted narrow fairways in a crosswind. Just ask anyone who played at Muirfield in 2002, Birkdale in 2008, or Turnberry in 2009.

The other strong defenses at Muirfield are 1) the length and thickness of the rough – hip high or taller in places – which guards narrow, wasp-waisted fairways; 2) the severity and depth of the 150 bunkers, (players will rarely be able to reach the greens from a fairway bunker); and 3) the relatively small size of the greens, made tougher still if the hole in question played in a crosswind, which happens constantly due to the circular nature of the routing.

As a result, though the course measures only 7209 yards, par-71, with three par-3s measuring under 200 yards and several par-4s under 400 yards, Muirfield, like Merion, shows you don’t need unearthly length or ubiquitous water hazards to properly and effectively defend a golf course. Again, smaller greens are a better, cheaper, and fairer defense to scoring than rough, water, and length. The par-3 13th hole, for example, only measures a scant 180 yards, but the green is a mere 15 yards at its widest point, while the back-to-back par-4s at 11 and 12 are both under 400 yards, but taper sharply in the landing zone and have huge shaggy, rough-covered mounds adding further defenses to the hole. Similarly, the par-4 eighth doglegs in awkward place, again much like the short par-4s at Merion. Are you paying attention Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, and Rees Jones?

Still, experts debate Hawtree’s somewhat rudimentary changes to the golf course, including shifting fairways closer to hazards, making the already slim fairways even narrower, adding bunkers in driving zones (the first hole, for example), and moving greenside bunkers closer to the putting surfaces, (at the second and other greens).

“The course isn’t as penal as Oakland Hills, but it’s getting there,” remarked one architect who asked for anonymity due to the frankness of his opinions. “Hawtree is the Rees Jones of the U.K. He’s not exactly the most strategic designer or known for clever or fair solutions to defending to a golf course. But he does know Peter Dawson well.”

Even so, Muirfield has some fascinating holes. The par-4, 377 yard third, a Bottle Hole in the lexicon, tapers to next-to-nothing at the 300-305 mark, effectively forcing players to club down off the tee. Similarly, two cross bunkers bisect the par-4, 470 yard 10th hole, and also cut across the lay-up zone on the 576 yard, par-5 17th, definitely not a likely birdie since it plays into the teeth of a prevailing bitter crosswind. By contrast, the two par-5s on the front, five and nine the two birdie ops, reachable with a drive and a long iron or hybrid and running with the prevailing wind. Also keep an eye on the 15th green and its “Camel Back” feature, a Mae West-sized breast in the green, part of what’s called a “Maiden feature” in the lexicon, which sends putts scurrying every which way.

The final and perhaps most effective defense to scoring is provided by Mother nature. Capricious Open Championship weather can lead to a leader board with more strange things in it than a pot of haggis.

“Stop hating on haggis already!” my girlfriend interjected, reading the article over my shoulder as I typed. “Haggis has come a long way. You can have it in a breakfast sandwich or in haggis meatballs or even haggis burgers!” she mewed vacantly.

Oh good, a lung and heart burger, I’ve always wanted to try one of those. That’s as much fun as watching Alfie Craigburn, Henry Ciuci, Al Brosch, and Les Kennedy fight it out down the stretch for a Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool.

2002 wasn’t that bad, but it was pretty close. Tiger Woods’s hopes for a true, calendar Grand Slam were dashed by a maelstrom from which even King Lear would have had the sense to seek shelter. Winds blew over 40 miles an hour and with the wind chill, the mercury bottomed out at a ludicrously cold 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

“You wouldn’t even leave your mother-in-law out in this,” moaned one shell-shocked pro.

Colin Montgomerie followed up a 64 with an 84, Woods carded a dismal 81, (Hey Tiger! Sergio shot 72 in it!), and the last 32 golfers that day played Muirfield in a shocking 179-over par. Els, who also shot 72, got lucky with the draw on that fateful Saturday. He only had to play nine holes in the storm, which abated slightly as the day declined. After a 70 to close on Sunday, he got into a four-way playoff with two PGA Tour B-listers and a “Who’s he?” – i.e. Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington, and Thomas Levet, for those of you scoring at home. Though Elkington and Appleby shot sterling middle-60s rounds on Sunday, they were eliminated after the four-hole playoff, which Els then won in sudden death over Levet.

As a side note, Els better win a playoff for an Open Championship against the likes of Thomas Levet. A loss like that would taste like ashes in his mouth for a while. That would be as terrible as losing a Claret Jug to the likes of Todd Hamilton. Oh, wait…

Another Grand Slam was thwarted in 1972 by a different kind of storm, the affable and animated Merry Mex, Lee Trevino The man who famously met the Prime Minister of England and then puckishly asked him, “You ever shake hands with a Mexican before?” used up seemingly a lifetime of good luck to frustrate both Jack Nicklaus (who, like Woods, won the Masters and U.S. Open earlier in the year), and England’s great hope, Tony Jacklin. In the third round alone, Trevino made five consecutive birdies with three long putts and two laughably-ridiculous chip-ins. In fact he holed out from off the green or from the fairway a whopping four times that week, the silliest coming when penned up against a bunker lip. He sculled a line drive out of the trap that dove into the cup on one hop by accident. If he did that in a Texas money game, they’d have shot him on general principal, and if he ever did that to Ky Laffoon, it would have been Trevino that Laffoon famously dragged behind his car, instead of Laffoon’s putter.

But it still took more miracles the following day to finally break free of Nicklaus and Jacklin. Playing together in the final group, Jacklin and Trevino had to watch what Dan Jenkins calls the most annoying sight in golf, a player in front of you holing every putt he looked at. Most worrisome, it was Nicklaus, who specialized in gargantuan Sunday charges to victory. Before anyone could blink, Jack played the first 11 holes in 7-under and actually held a one-shot lead.

Jack had tried to play smart, “Ben Hogan golf,” (as he called it), for the first three days, but his conservative approach left him seemingly too far back to contend.

“I fell too far behind playing Hogan golf,” he explained,.

But on Sunday, Jack took out driver and attacked the golf course. In benign conditions he closed with a rousing 66 that electrified even the knowledgeable U.K. golf fans.

“Those were among the three loudest roars I ever heard on the golf course in my career,” he later reminisced about his momentary surge into the lead. “The others were St. Andrews in 1978 and Baltusrol in 1980.”

“Look at this!” moaned a shell-shocked Trevino to Jacklin. “Nicklaus has gone crazy. We’re out here beating each other up and Jack’s done caught and passed us!”

“Let’s get in on this too,” countered the plucky Jacklin. “He might beat one of us, but I don’t think he can beat both of us,” and he was right. Both of them then eagled the par-5 ninth.

But it was Trevino and his trademark magical short game that outlasted Jacklin in the end. At the 17th, Mex improbably chipped in from greenside rough yet again, turning a double bogey seven into a par.

“If I was playing against my wife I’d try to beat the daylights out of her too,” he later joked, cradling the Claret Jug in his arms. Jacklin, meanwhile, was more maudlin.

“I had the heart ripped out of me. I was shattered and broken by what happened,” and he never again contended in a major championship.

Muirfield has given us other time capsule moments as well. All three of the “Great Triumverate” of the Golden Age of Golf won at Muirfield – Harry Vardon, James Braid, and Ted Ray. Tom Watson won his third of five Claret Jugs there in 1980, dusting the field by four shots. Nick Faldo famously carded 18 pars on Sunday en route to his 1987 victory.

Of course Faldo was the Ernie Els of his day, famously telling the assembled media, “I’d like to thank you all from the heart of my bottom,” after his 1992 Open Championship victory, once again at Muirfield.

As Dan Jenkins once said, “you’d be surprised at how much grace and class we can attribute to major championship winners”…for good or for ill, as Tiger Woods proved to all of us. Heck, even Gary Player has been acting strangely recently. He won his first major championship at Muirfield, in 1959. Player closed with a weekend 70-68 to make up an eight shot deficit on co-leaders Fred Bullock and Flory van Donck, (who both make the All-Name team), but thought he fumbled it away with a closing double bogey at the 72nd hole. It held up however, with the help of a sparkling 11/12 in sand saves, and Player went on to win the first of his nine majors.

Now, however, the 77-year old is prancing naked in a lowest common denominator sports magazine “special issue.” Why? Why naked, in particular? Qui bono? (Who benefits?) Not golf, that’s for sure, (nor women looking for nefarious excitement, for that matter. He was still a little flabby…)

“It’s a terrible thing when a friend goes crazy,” quipped our unnamed source, who again begged for anonymity.

All that silliness aside, Muirfield, baked to a golden biscuit brown by the summer winds is fast and firm and ready to crown another champion, one who most likely will be as celebrated a Hall of Famer as all the rest when all is said and done. International players always have an advantage at the Open Championship, so your author’s favorites include Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Jason Day, and Adam Scott. Of the Americans, Bill Haas is rounding into form, Webb Simpson can win any time, anywhere, and Hunter Mahan has tested in the crucible of both majors and the Ryder Cup.

So cue the bagpipes, grab your mackintosh, and remind Gramma to let the windpipe hang over the edge of the pot to let the impurities pass out freely. It’s Open Championship week, the de facto world championship of golf. And that will make even haggis look good.

This article also appeared at Cybergolf.com