Of all the courses on the Open rota you are least likely to hear a bad word from the game’s best players about Muirfield. This East Lothian links is the antithesis of quirky, as Herbert Warren Wind eloquently explains: “Muirfield’s great quality is its frankness – its honesty. There are no hidden hazards, no recondite burns, no misleading or capricious terrain. Every hazard is clearly visible.”
Where Turnberry is stunning, Muirfield barely offers a sea view. Where Birkdale has huge spinal dune complexes, Muirfield is essentially flat. Where St George’s fairways are often fiery and rumpled, Muirfield’s are a touch greener and even. Where the Old Course calls for several blind or semi-blind shots, Muirfield’s fairways and greens are almost invariably visible. Where Carnoustie has the sinuous Barry and Jockey’s Burns to tiptoe around, Muirfield has no water hazards.
Where Lytham’s bunkers are deep and prolific, Muirfield’s are less intimidating. Where Troon is an in-and-out links, Muirfield constantly changes direction. Where Hoylake has some internal out-of-bounds, Muirfield has none, indeed only on the 2nd and the 9th do you have any feeling of being on the perimeter of a large and almost circular piece of land.
“It’s a great golf course,” says Nick Faldo, twice Open champion here, in 1987 and again five years later. That puts him and James Braid in a little group of their own as the only men to to achieve that feat. Indeed, only the best have even won once round here – the list of Muirfield champions includes the likes of Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.
“All of them: even Trevino, Els, they’re great champions. I love it, I love all that. It’s fun to be part of that group of guys.”
So what exactly is it about Muirfield? Why does it have the definitive list of champions (though Tiger Woods might have something to say about that) and why is it universally regarded as the best in the eyes of those who will be contesting the Claret Jug?
“It’s got everything but, at the end of the day, it’s the fact that I walked up that 18th fairway twice and won two Opens there in a row, which means for a while I dominated Muirfield,” says Faldo.
“It was a very cool time in my career, and time of my life. So it had a big effect.
“It’s so natural, it’s a different style because all the bunkering’s cut into the hollows whereas, generally, we build them up.
“So it’s all these funny little shapes, that always act like magnets, and when you’re down there they’re only three, six-feet wide. It always makes them awkward, like little saucers. So, it’s a serious test.”
With one supreme hole after the next, every part of your game will be tested and it is virtually impossible to pick fault with any aspect of the playing experience.
“It’s demanding because of the wind. Because the golf course turns so much it’s almost like a double figure of eight. So you’re always getting cross-breezes right to left, left to right, smack into you, so that’s quite unusual." “It demands a little bit of everything,” says Faldo. “Obviously a bit of strategy, you’ve got to keep it out of that hay, you’ve got to keep it out of the bunkers and play to the right side of the greens.”
Its famous choreography sees the front nine run in a circular sweep around the perimeter, returning to that famous red-roofed clubhouse in time for an inward loop that is exactly that.
The result of this ingenious design is that you never play more than three consecutive holes in the same direction. The angles are constantly changing and so too is the wind, and that is what makes Muirfield such a formidable and complete test.
“It’s demanding because of the wind. Because the golf course turns so much it’s almost like a double figure of eight. So you’re always getting cross-breezes right to left, left to right, smack into you, so that’s quite unusual.
“It’s fair as well, you get rewarded. The fairways are tough to hit but, if you hit them, you’re rewarded, simple as that. You play fairways, middle of the greens, there, you’re going to do great but that is quite a challenge.
“The greens are amazing because they’re so natural. I didn’t appreciate them then and then when I went back in 2002, when I went down and saw the greens, I thought, ‘it’s so difficult, there’s not a single flat spot, there’s not an obvious slope, they just turn and twist’, so actually reading them, I don’t know how I did it so good in my day. But I thought they were really difficult, I didn’t appreciate how many small little twists and turns there were.”
To stand on the 1st tee, looking at the gentle curve of the fairway to the right, the tall grasses shimmering in the breeze, is one of golf’s greatest pleasures. It’s also one of the most demanding opening holes on the Open rota.
“You know darn well if you touch that rough, you’re just wedging it out so that’s always tough to handle on an opening tee shot,” says Faldo, who turns 56 on the first day of the championship.
“Then, even if you hit a decent shot, generally, in the good old days, we were hitting 3 irons into the 1st.”
Muirfield was originally laid out by Old Tom Morris but what stands today is largely the result of the remodelling carried out by Harry Colt in the 1920s. His peerless design never stops posing demanding questions.
“There’s a good nine of the holes that are tough,” says Faldo. “I mean, we talked about my 18 pars on that Sunday but, hang on a minute, there’s nine holes out there you’d be blooming lucky to make a par on the Sunday of an Open.”
Many of them come in a closing stretch that builds towards the iconic final hole, a long, straight par 4 played gently uphill towards the clubhouse.
“I wouldn’t really know where you’d say it begins, maybe from 14 in, after the par three up the hill and you turn. They’re all tough from there. CONTINUED HERE…