The Open: How will Muirfield survive in the Inverdale stocks?
Open Championship host club is still closed to women, and a week after tennis presenter's insult to Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon it comes under the spotlight of the world
We are living in unusual times. The Open Championship returns to an institution that does not permit women members, and a 77-year-old golfing icon poses naked for a magazine. The latter was unthinkable when Gary Player won his first Open at Muirfield in 1959, the former unthinkable now.
The world continues to recoil at the comments of BBC presenter John Inverdale, who dismissed Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli on the basis of her looks. It was a monstrously offensive regression that identified him as man deeply out of step with the times, and therefore, you might argue, an ideal candidate for Muirfield membership.
Player's flirtation with nudity, as the oldest of 20 sporting figures posing in the buff for ESPN's annual "body issue", is a marvellous touch of eccentricity which encourages us to look differently on the grey community. There is life after the bus pass, clearly.
In one shot the old boy mimics Atlas, hoisting aloft a giant golf ball. In another he holds that distinctive follow-through as if he were 21 again. At that we can smile.
Muirfield's position is as potentially damaging to golf's reputation as Inverdale's was for his. Golf's ruling body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, are sensitive to the delicate position in which they find themselves re Muirfield, a classic course with a long Open history, and talk optimistically about something called "the direction of travel" in society. In other words the R&A are hoping that Muirfield sorts itself out before the Open rotation comes around again. It is hard to see how the award of the oldest major in golf can be bestowed on Muirfield a 17th time should the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers continue in their antique attitudes towards women members.
Defending champion Ernie Els has a profound attachment to the old place, as well he might having won his first Open Championship there 11 years ago. Yet even he is incredulous at the female bar.
"It's going to be an issue. It's weird, isn't it? We've got presidents, prime ministers, who are women. Should The Open be there? All I can say is it is weird in this day and age but it is what it is. We are sportsmen. If you put a hole down on the M25 we'd go and play. You guys judge. But it is weird."
Muirfield has escaped relatively lightly thus far in a summer of sporting goodies. But the world is on its way and is not for turning. Let's see how honourable those gentlemen feel after a week in the Inverdale stocks. They act within the law but that might not be enough to spare them.
About the course there are only good things to say. Merionesque in its commitment to precision over length, Muirfield presents a more traditional test. This is not a links of blind shots over intrusive dunes but one of long grass and wind. The looped layout, with its outer clockwise flow of the front nine encircling a back nine that runs against the clock, ensures the wind is encountered from every direction. Six new tee boxes have been added to vary the challenge, and new bunkers introduced to snare the overambitious or wayward. Four par-fours under 400 yards offer genuine risk and reward if conditions are fair. If not, this place is as hostile as a course can be. Witness how Colin Montgomerie followed 64 in 2002 with an 84 in the tempest 24 hours later.
Tiger Woods went 81, 65 across that weekend, which brings us to the great theme of the age. When might Woods snap back into major mode in pursuit of the magic 18 held by Jack Nicklaus? His 14th major triumph came five years ago. Hell and high water have washed over him since Torrey Pines but he is out the other side now. This year bad luck robbed him at the Masters, injury at the US Open.
His four wins this year, including the Players Championship, point to a happy ending soon. If the left elbow has recovered and the weather does not lob in a climatic curve ball, Muirfield could just be it.
There is more going for that line of thought than any argument championing Rory McIlroy's cause. McIlroy came within an ace of playing the Scottish Open this week. That shows the pickle he is in.
McIlroy's ills are rooted in the driver, the key to his game and his confidence. Golf is a quirky business. McIlroy will inevitably find the cure, and when he does the world will once more fall at his feet. But none can say when.
And what of the defending champion? Els showed his class by winning in Germany last month. His victory at Royal Lytham a year ago was part inherited, part ripped from Adam Scott's grasp, completing the back nine on Sunday in four under par. That is how you win a major.
At 43, he is no less a prospect than when he last won here via a play-off 11 years ago. "It is great to play on the classic courses," he said. "You always get classic winners. Look at Justin [Rose]: beautiful technique, an old-style player. I see that continuing in Scotland. Merion was set up properly, enticing you into mistakes. It will be the same at Muirfield."
Els returned three weeks ago for an early peek. Inevitably the memories of 2002 flooded back. "The first hole still looks so daunting. Just grass everywhere, with a narrow strip of fairway. It has not really changed, a bit more length. Some shots came back to me, like 16, where I pulled it left, and 13, of course. The bunker shot at 13 I didn't replay.
"I somehow got out of it. It was the best escape shot of my career, a get out of jail shot if ever there was one. I don't know how I survived that one. A lot of very fortunate things happened to me that day."
Five to watch
England's first US Open champion for 43 years has unfinished business at this event. Maybe Muirfield will be the place he converts on the promise of that chip-in for fourth as a 17-year-old at Birkdale.
Still looking for major No 15 five years after winning his last. Injury subdued him at the US Open, bad luck at the Masters. Will take some stopping if he can tap into early-season form.
Ripped it up on the opening day at the Scottish Open, led every round bar the last at Merion, loves the links challenge and can play in all weathers. Sounds like a winner?
The thinking man's golfer. Showed at Wentworth he can handle the pressure at a big tournament, claiming his fourth tour title in a play-off. Muirfield is made for his scalpel round the greens.
No form to speak of. Yet to win this year. His game is in there somewhere and when he finds it he will win big again. Needs a bit of luck more than anything, and his driver to work.
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