Golf / The Open Championship 1992: Stage is set for a big entrance: Muirfield has a history of dramatic contests to live up to this week: John Hopkins looks for a new name to join the roll of honour

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WHATEVER other imponderables surround the 121st Open, one aspect of it verges on being a certainty. This year's event will be highly significant in golf's grand scheme of things. Why? Because Opens at the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers nearly always are.

Royal Lytham is notable because an American professional has yet to win there. Opens at St Andrews generate drama and are unforgettable because of the sense of history that envelops the historic town. Opens at St Andrews are like Passion Plays at Oberammeragau.

At Muirfield, the wheel of fortune traditionally turns to create an Open that is eventful, exciting and significant. Is it the air off the Firth of Forth, the high standards demanded by a membership largely made up of the Edinburgh legal establishment or the outstanding test presented by a most honest and fair course? Any or all of these reasons could be why Muirfield Opens are the reference points of history.

There have been six Opens at the home of the HCEG since the war (and 13 in all). In 1929 Walter Hagen was the last man to win the Open using hickory-shafted clubs. In 1948 Henry Cotton missed only four fairways all week and his accuracy won him his third Open.

It is not always what happens at Muirfield that makes Opens there so significant. Sometimes it is what does not happen. In 1957, the Open scheduled for Muirfield was transferred to St Andrews because of the Suez crisis and subsequent petrol rationing.

In 1959, Gary Player became the youngest Open champion since the event was played over 72 holes. The name of Player, 23, was unfamiliar at that time in his own country of South Africa, never mind Britain. Now, after victories in eight more Major championships, Player is, in terms of Major championship titles, the fourth most successful player of all time.

Seven years on, Muirfield presented a terrifying sight to competitors in the 95th Open. The fairways were as narrow as church aisles and the rough was so fierce that Harold Henning remarked: 'You take a search warrant to get in and a prayer and a sand wedge to get out.' Jack Nicklaus won the first of his three Opens, using his driver no more than four times each round.

In 1972 the Grand Slam was on, for Nicklaus had already won the US Masters and the US Open when he arrived at sun-drenched Muirfield. The central heating could not be turned off in Lee Trevino's rented stately home, rendering it so hot that Trevino said, 'The oil is dripping off the ancestral portraits.' An ultra-conservative Nicklaus was six strokes behind after 54 holes and a fantastic charge on the last day was too late. Tony Jacklin looked to be the winner only for Trevino, his playing partner, to sink an improbable chip on the 17th (71st). Jacklin was so disheartened he bogeyed this hole and the 18th as well. Some Open this one. Trevino won, Nicklaus should have done so and Jacklin's nerve was shattered and he was never the same thereafter.

Fewer Americans than expected arrived in 1980. No matter. With Nicklaus having won his fourth US Open just weeks before and with the defending champion, Seve Ballesteros, also holding the US Masters title, there were sufficient points of interest. In the event, Tom Watson won his third Open comfortably, equalling Bobby Jones's and Nicklaus's records.

And so to 1987 when Faldo scored 18 pars in his fourth round to win his first Major title. The significance of such a steady round hardly needs to be emphasised. What should be mentioned is that he put the coping stone, so to speak, on Europe's structure of dominance. Since Europe's narrow defeat in the 1983 Ryder Cup in Florida, new men had stepped forward and joined Ballesteros as players of world class, especially in 1985. Bernhard Langer won the US Masters, Sandy Lyle became the first Briton since Tony Jacklin in 1969 to win the Open, and Europe regained the Ryder Cup for the first time for nearly 30 years.

Faldo's victory at Muirfield emphasised the strength of European golf, a fact that was confirmed two months later when Europe were victorious in a Ryder Cup in the US for the first time. European players won four of the 16 Major championships between April 1984 and August 1987.

One shot that contributed significantly to Faldo's triumph was from a bunker 35 yards from the eighth green. Long bunker shots are among the most difficult in golf and taking two to complete the hole from one of the course's 150 bunkers represented golf of a very high standard. When stuck in a bunker at Muirfield, Bernard Darwin, who had a fearsome temper, is alleged to have shouted to the heavens: 'And don't send your son down. Getting out of here is a man's job.'

Coping with the bunkers is indeed a man's job and might be more than half the secret of suppressing Muirfield's challenge. Player got up and down 11 times out of 12 in 1959. Its bunkers are different, small, deep and lovingly crafted. 'They were, incidentally, the most fastidiously crafted bunkers I had ever seen, the high front walls faced with bricks of turf fitted together so precisely you would have thought a master mason had been called in,' Nicklaus said after his first visit.

For Watson, they represent a type of hazard with which he is unfamiliar. 'Hitting the ball into a fairway bunker (at Muirfield) is like hitting into a water hazard. You can't advance the ball to the green. That is the type of golf we don't see much of in America and I like that.'

Current form indicates that Europe's dominance has ended. For the first time since 1987 no European golfer currently holds a Major title. Indeed, how many will win another? A sporting, if rather unpatriotic, bet is that Ballesteros, Langer, Lyle and Ian Woosnam will never again hold the US Masters, Open or PGA, or the Open.

Muirfield could be the place where a new champion is crowned as Player was more than 30 years ago. Jose-Maria Olazabal is long overdue. So is Payne Stewart. Colin Montgomerie has the game. So do Fred Couples, whose Open record is very good, Tom Kite, Davis Love and Paul Azinger. Should one of them win, then all four Major titles will belong to Americans. One thing is certain. We are in for no ordinary championship.

Eamonn Darcy, of Ireland, has withdrawn from the Open because of a back injury.

----------------------------------------------------------------- MUIRFIELD CARD OF THE COURSE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Hole Yards Par Hole Yards Par 1st 447 4 10th 475 4 2nd 351 4 11th 385 4 3rd 379 4 12th 381 4 4th 180 3 13th 159 3 5th 559 5 14th 449 4 6th 469 4 15th 417 4 7th 185 3 16th 188 3 8th 444 4 17th 550 5 9th 504 5 18th 448 4 Out: 3518 36 In: 3452 35 Total: 6970 71 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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