The Muirfield experience, done properly, is unique. It begins in the stylish locker rooms where you don your jacket and straighten your tie in anticipation of the most famous lunch in golf. There is no table plan in the dining room – you sit next to the most recent arrivals and are joined by whoever follows you in. The carvery can only be described as immense and when you finally look up from your plate the view out of the bay windows is of the storied links, the 18th green in the foreground and the fairway snaking away into the distance.
Contrary to popular misconception, visitors are welcome at Muirfield. On their website you can even check availability. With a bit of advance planning (and a spot of economising for some of us), you can arrange to play what is many good judges’ idea of the best course in the British Isles.
Certainly, most top players would agree that Muirfield is the examination paper on which they would most like to be tested in the Open Championship. Yet it is not jaw-dropping, you can only rarely see the sea, the terrain is largely flat and it has no one hole by which it is instantly recognisable.
“Muirfield is unfailingly ranked in the world’s top 10, yet it is neither thrilling (Pebble Beach is) nor spectacular (Ballybunion is) nor breathtaking (Royal County Down is) nor dramatic (Pine Valley is).
“There are no hills, no trees, no water hazards, no unnerving forced carries over gorse or heather-studded ravines.”
Going further you may suggest, as Herbert Warren Wind did, that Muirfield is a blend of linksland with a hint of meadow. Meaning it is flatter, less harsh and fairer than, say, Sandwich or the Old Course. By and large, you can see exactly what you are doing. Good shots are rewarded, solid ones tolerated and poor ones punished. Time and again, you are asked to execute a shot of difficulty, but the demands are always clear.
By and large, you can see exactly what you are doing. Good shots are rewarded, solid ones tolerated and poor ones punished.
Muirfield tells you exactly what is required; the rest is up to you. For those unused to playing by the seaside, this is likely to fit the eye more easily than perhaps any other Open venue. Originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1891, Muirfield is actually the third home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.
They began in Leith (on a five-hole course) then moved to Musselburgh Old (nine holes) before continuing east away from the city until they reached the small town of Gullane. Some 20 years later Harry Colt built seven new holes and extensively redesigned the rest. It is his work, largely, that we see today. Unusually for the time, the course is in two loops – the first nine played clockwise around the perimeter and the inward half travelling anti-clockwise inside it.
The genius of the design is that the direction of play is constantly changing, so much so that on only three occasions (the 3rd, 4th and 5th on the front nine, and the 10th and 11th coming home) are consecutive holes played in the same direction. It is a wonderful driving course, as is apparent from the very first shot of the day – the 1st fairway curving right and surrounded on both sides by tall, swaying rye grass.
The pick of the short holes, all excellent, is surely the 13th. Slightly raised, the green at what is by no means a long par 3 is narrow and surrounded by pot bunkers, one of which Ernie Els famously got up and down from in the last round of the 2002 Open.
The South African, who won in a play-off against Steve Elkington, Stuart Appleby and, eventually, Thomas Levet, was at the time the latest in an outstanding list of Muirfield champions. He is preceded by the likes of James Braid, Harry Vardon, Henry Cotton, Walter Hagen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo.
When The Open returned again in 2013, that list got greater in many senses when the modern legend Phil Mickelson claimed the title that many thought he never had the game to win. The course will be slightly different however when The Open next returns.
A parcel of land has been acquired behind the 9th tee that adds 50 yards to a great hole that had been emasculated by technology to a degree. Playing into the prevailing wind, it now measures 558 yards, and all the strategy of the lay up, with the wall up the left and Simpson’s Bunker 65 yards short of the green in the middle of the fairway, is restored. Eagles may still be possible, but expect sixes and even a few sevens as well.
Also significantly longer is the 17th, where a new tee is not too far from the 2nd fairway. At 578 yards, it takes some drive to bring the green into range. In total, the course now measures some 7,245 yards from the championship tees.
Elsewhere, the challenge is very much as it was. At the short par-4 2nd a 3-wood and skilful pitch can set up a birdie while only the straightest of drives allows a view of the flag between the two dunes on either side of the next fairway.
Perhaps the hardest hole on the way out is the 6th, a dogleg left the angle of which is uncomfortably far away from the green. It presents a dilemma: play to the corner and have an easier tee shot and a clear view of what is left, or aim over the corner of the wall, hitting across the angle of the fairway into a hollow, and, if successful, be rewarded with at least three clubs less for the approach.
The back nine begins with consecutive par 4s climbing gradually uphill and towards the Firth of Forth. The 11th green is probably the prettiest spot on the course, offering views across the links. It also offers the chance of a birdie, as does the next, with both under 400 yards.
After that, Muirfield’s magnificent closing stretch begins in earnest, the dangerous 13th a hole where par is always an acceptable outcome. The 14th is where Nick Faldo challenged himself to play the best five holes of his life and recover from a mid-round wobble to take his third Open in 1992. Along with the next, it forms a pair of unrelenting long par 4s, before the final short hole starts a classic 3-4-5 run for home.
The 17th has seen birdies and eagles over the years, its green at an angle and both sheltered and protected by a mound front right. A drive down the left, flirting with the bunkers, is rewarded by a much easier angle for the second, and allows the pros to chase a wood on to the putting surface.
As far as final holes go, Muirfield’s is perhaps the defining example. It is over 470 yards, slightly uphill, almost perfectly straight and the green sits in front of that famous white and red clubhouse. Make four here when in contention and the wind is blowing and you have earned your prize, whether that be a Claret Jug or merely the admiration of your playing partners.
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