Golf: The 121st Open: Love hurts and Couples cut up at the last: Ken Jones on the distinguished players who fell victim to the perilous 18th hole

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The Independent Online
VIEWED from in front of the Muirfield clubhouse on a bright day, the 18th fairway stretches back toward a glorious vista of shimmering firth and distant hills. From the tee the perspective is somewhat different. Perilous terrain: cunningly placed fairway traps, ensnaring rough, merciless bunkers guarding a raised green.

Completing his final round in the 1959 Championship at Muirfield with a six, Gary Player walked away in tears, convinced that he had blown his chance of a first major. In fact he had posted the winning score. When Fred Couples departed the 18th green yesterday, six over par after finishing with a triple bogey, the scorer's cabin was merely a detour on the way to the airport: the Masters champion and world No 1 was on his way home. 'I have a car waiting,' he said.

Whatever chance Couples had of making the cut disappeared when the 18th claimed him. He drove into the left-side fairway bunker, took two to get out, put his fourth, a seven iron to 20 feet, and then three-putted. The putts were taken quickly, carelessly, the last of them one-handed. A nonchalant twirl with the club as Couples walked away from the sand had already signalled surrender.

Jack Nicklaus rates the 18th at Muirfield as one of the stiffest finishing holes. Davis Love III, a close friend of Couples, and currently one of the leading money winners on the US tour, knows it. Love took six, going eight over for the tournament. Time to check international departures.

Of the first 42 finishers yesterday, 19 ran into trouble within sight of home, taking bogey or worse. Player, on a sentimental journey, his appearances in the Open spanning five decades, dropped a shot at the 18th; Sandy Lyle, gloomily losing momentum on the back nine, took five after finding a bunker, then declined to be interviewed.

By the time Tom Kite launched his drive, flags on the stands were streaming from right to left, and in not allowing enough for a stiffish breeze, he found sand on the left side. Kite, a percentage player, came out clean and then put his third within 20 feet: one putt for par - a survivor.

Raymond Floyd, stoutly representing the middle-aged men, played the hole conservatively, sensibly coming off a birdie at the 17th to settle for safe par; seven under, still very much in contention.

Come tomorrow, the 18th will be a marvellous theatre of sport, flanked by packed stands, ringing with acclaim before a respectful hush settles on the proceedings: bold attempts to get up and down from the sand, crucial putts.

With some of the greatest names in golf going out late, the 18th had been conquered by only four players when Mark Calcavecchia, the Open champion in 1989, reached the tee. While dining at their hotel the previous night, the Calcavecchias were robbed of jewellery and a wristwatch to a value of pounds 30,000. The American's round proved scant consolation, a mixture of birdies and dropped shots that saw him at three under with the 18th to play. Bogey.

By then it was established that the 18th and the first were proving most difficult, with 4.31 an equal average. They are adjacent, concluding green and starting tee so close that spectators flood between them.

After completing the first hole, Mitch Voges, in his 43rd year, the 1991 US amateur champion, might have wished to be moving in the opposite direction. Going off seven over, he was immediately overtaken by disaster, taking nine shots to get down.

The 18th reeled under a blow from David Feherty, but struck back, claiming Hale Irwin and Anders Forsband. Jamie Spence birdied. From privileged station in and outside the clubhouse, blazered members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and their guests watched the contenders come and go, sparing no sympathy.

When Nick Faldo came to the closing hole, he was not about to be intimidated. The runaway leader took it in his relentless stride, almost picking up another birdie with a 20-foot putt that was only a whisker from dropping.

Then came Severiano Ballesteros. Unable to make a significant move he reached the 18th tee needing a par to survive the cut. The hole did for him. Three putts, double bogey.