The arid outreaches of East Lothian have rarely looked so inviting. Rise above Muirfield’s pre-historic attitude towards women and what remains is a course every mother could love. You might take issue with many of the sentiments expressed yesterday by the chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club but at least one claim made by the game’s leading statesman, Peter Dawson, was indubitably right; no course has looked better in the 13 years he has been running the Open shop.
The R&A’s impromptu pre-Open conference drew the ire and the cant from the day. By late morning the entrenched views of an institution reluctant to sack from the Open rota a club mired in Victorian Britain were already bulldozed, their remains scattered across the ether. The last word of Rory McIlroy’s noon appearance before the media expressed in all its eloquent minimalism what really should not need to be said. “In terms of life in general I think men and women are treated equally for the most part these days. And that’s the way it should be.” Amen to that.
It is fair to say that beyond the media enclave, Muirfield’s misogyny did not appear to be troubling the golfing community. By late afternoon as the last of the starters were setting out on final practice into a stiffening breeze, the old place was bathed in a balmy light and the atmosphere fairly crackled with pre-tournament excitement. Beside the putting green behind the 18th green Ian Poulter shared a joke with Sean Foley. You wonder how that little tête-à-tête might have looked from a distance in the week in which Lee Westwood revealed his association with the camera-toting Canadian coach.
Darren Clarke headed across the footbridge to the driving range in white trousers, which for more traditional observers signalled the end of golfing civilisation. Coming the other way, the venerable Tom Watson was greeted by a fellow traveller from the United States, “Hey Tom, Howard from Huntsville, Alabama, says hello.” Is there no end to the love the world of golf has for America’s Ryder Cup captain? “Hello Howard,” said Tom, waving as he bustled by.
At this point in proceedings everyone is a friend. The players are well disposed towards each other and tolerant of the intrusion of strangers. Out on the course the prep continued. Graeme McDowell chipped to white discs on the 18th green where holes might be. Behind him South Africa’s George Coetzee took an extra drag on his fag while waiting as his practice partner Justin Harding searched for a ball sprayed off the tee. The circles of relief otherwise known as drop zones painted into the edge of the rough are forbidding enough. The fescue forest beyond does not bear thinking about.
In the imagination of golfing romantics all links courses look like this; fairways as hard as roads, baked the colour of hay bales. When the grass dies back under autumn’s advance what bounty will the fairway fringes yield? A king’s ransom in golf balls, that’s what.
Picking a winner is a conversation that might run all day and all night. Tiger Woods takes his customary place at the top of the betting. The case was made during a blistering spring when he won four times, culminating in the swatting of Sergio Garcia at the Players Championship. If we take him at his word and discount his performance at Merion and before that at Muirfield Village on the grounds of a strained elbow, there is no player with a stronger case.
Justin Rose’s effortless grace is hard to ignore, less so the statistical ball and chain attached to winners of the US Open. Only two players in the past 40 years have won back-to-back at the US Open and the Open – Woods and Lee Trevino. Phil Mickelson is another playing into a brisk statistical wind, having completed back-to-back victories at a major only once in his career, seven years ago adding the Masters to the Bell South Classic. The prospect of a repeat after his triumph at the Scottish Open on Sunday led him to the erroneous claim that he was the last to achieve that double. In fact, it was Woods the following year, winning at Firestone the week before the US PGA.
If there is a contender short on form and deep on talent it is McIlroy, who brings to Muirfield an amended driver and an improved demeanour. The concern for his form revealed by the experts is not shared by him. If a poor six months is the price to pay for a career of high achievement in Nike clothing then so be it, he said. McIlroy nurtured his love of the game on tracks like this. At some point golf will feel as easy as breathing again. Thought processes full of clutter will cease their restless incursions and all will be one. The McIlroy that ended last year was unrecognisable from the player that left for America in July. The mojo is out there somewhere.
Westwood and Luke Donald will be hoping that the pattern of the past five years continues to throw up a new winner. The last 20 majors have been won by 18 different players. Westwood is the only player in the history of the game to finish in the top three of all four majors and not win one. He boasts eight top 10s in the past six years. Never has he featured less in the build-up to a major in this period. About this he will let us know should providence lift him clear of the field on Sunday.
Donald is equally deserving, and the conversation around him just as quiet. It is hard to think of a course more suitable to the qualities that took Donald to world No 1. All of this has been said before, of course. Twice in the past four years Donald has finished in the top five. The trend is promising, the weather set fair. Muirfield must make a hero of someone.
Driving forces: Kevin Garside’s three bets for the Open
Tenner on the nose: Rory McIlroy (28-1)
Fantastic value for a current major champion. McIlroy was in the doldrums this time last year too, but recovered to win his second major tournament at the US PGA in August and seal the money list on both sides of the Atlantic. Has a new driver and is happier with his game.
Tenner each way: Henrik Stenson (40-1)
Quietly contending again. After falling off the golfing map, Stenson’s name is once more a feature of leader boards. Finished 18th at the Masters in April and 21st at last month’s US Open. Third at the Scottish Open last week, Stenson is at home in this sort of territory.
Fiver on the nose: Thorbjorn Olesen (100-1)
Slowed a little after a fast start to the year, as runner-up in Abu Dhabi and third in Dubai. Went out in the penultimate pair with Tiger Woods last year, demonstrating his suitability to the links challenge. Might prove why Nike unveiled him alongside McIlroy.
The 142nd Open: Tee-off and TV times
* Selected tee-off times:
(all BST; GB & Irl unless stated)
8.22am M Kaymer (Ger), G Porteous, J Day (Aus)
8.44am B Watson (US), N Colsaerts (Bel), D Johnson (US)
9am T Watson (US), Sir N Faldo, F Couples (US)
9.11am J Rose, E Els (SA), B Snedeker (US)
9.22am I Poulter, K Bradley (US), B Horschel (US)
9.44am R McIlroy, H Matsuyama (Japan), P Mickelson (US)
1.01pm M Thompson (US), P Harrington, R Ramsay
1.12pm V Singh (Fiji), D Clarke, M Laird
2.01pm C Schwartzel (SA), L Westwood, S Garcia (Sp)
2.12pm A Scott (Aus), M Kuchar (US), L Donald
2.45pm T Woods (US), G McDowell, L Oosthuizen (SA)
* Television coverage
9am-8pm BBC 2. Highlights: 12.20-1.05am, BBC 2.
Today Warm, sunny. Max temp: 23C.
Tomorrow Cloudy with sun. 20C.
Sat Cloudy, brighter in evening. 19C
Sun Mostly overcast. 20C.
9-1 Woods; 16-1 Mickelson; 18-1 Rose; 20-1 Scott; 25-1 McDowell; 28-1 McIlroy, Els, Garcia; 30-1 Donald, Westwood; 33-1 Day; 35-1 Schwartzel; 40-1 D Johnson, Snedeker; 45-1 Fowler, Kuchar, Stenson; 55-1 Poulter; 60-1 Grace, Kaymer.