JOHN MCHENRY: Mind control must match ball control to prosper on links

In the world of professional golf, there is a saying “there are no pictures on your scorecard”.

Performance is everything and it doesn’t matter how you get there. Therein lies the beauty of this great sport. Some win with swashbuckling flair while others win ugly. Either way a win is a win or, in the case of Major championships, your resolve assumes even greater importance than your flair.

As the first day dawned yesterday at Muirfield, the players would have been fully prepared with a game plan they believed best suited their ability. The majority would have understood the rigours of Major championships, a difficult and challenging course, the long delays and most of all, the requirement for patience.

As simple as that sounds, Major championships are not like the norm. The courses are set up to frustrate. Quite apart from challenging every aspect of your game, they also challenge your mind; such is the player’s desire to do well.

The first round in particular is a strange mix of watching the leaderboard to see what scores the pedigree players in the field are posting. Crucially, it is a round to stay competitive in the tournament.

Muirfield was presented as a very fair test for the players.

The winds were light and the opportunities to post early birdies were there for everyone, that is as long as they were able to control the spin on their short approach shots from the tight burned fairways.

The firm conditions presented quite significant problems for the longer, less controlled shots in terms of judging the bounce of the ball both into and onto the putting surfaces.

As with most Major championships there were a number of pin positions that were teasers. They placed a high premium on the player’s ability to control his distance and spin. All of the par-fives were more or less reachable and these holes represented the best opportunity for the players to separate themselves from the field.

It was great to see the evergreen Miguel Angel Jimenez’s fantastic start, five birdies in a wonderful run to the turn.

Here was a player with the pedigree to worry others around him.

Here also was a cagey veteran who understood the true challenge the course presented. By keeping the ball mostly on the fairway, by avoiding the penal fairway bunkers and by allowing his approach shots to bounce harmlessly into many of the greens, he took advantage of his greatest assets, namely his experience and his short game.

A 68 ultimately probably wasn’t a fair reflection of his great play, but he would appreciate more than most that The Open was never going to be won yesterday.

Zach Johnson’s effort proved that controlled patience is nearly always a successful formula in Majors. Remember it was Johnson who famously laid up on all the par-fives in the US Masters when going on to win his first and only Major in 2007.

Yesterday he delivered what was an almost perfect game plan. The same could be said for two-time Major champion and Senior Tour player Mark O’Meara who, refreshingly, has reminded us once again that age is no barrier when it comes to competing for The Open on a links course.

Contrast their wonderful play then with the luckless performance of Rory McIlroy. Short in confidence, there is no doubt he is capable of far better than his score of 79 suggests, but a series of silly dropped shots midway through the back nine has meant his championship hopes are now more or less dashed.

While the golfing gods may not be looking down too favourably on McIlroy, at the moment, he should take some comfort from his playing partner Phil Mickelson, especially the manner in which he has spectacularly picked himself up to get back into the winner’s enclosure so soon after his calamitous disaster in the last round of last month’s US Open.

Indeed, Mickelson has even created his own word in the PGA Tour’s dictionary, that of “bouncebackability”, and with a game that closely mirrors that of the Californian, McIlroy might be well advised to seek out some advice from the affable and balanced left-hander.

In my opinion, McIlroy does need advice from an independent source who has his best interests at heart — preferably from someone who has achieved more than the young Irishman himself.

As McIlroy undoubtedly knows, this game is all about confidence. Technical issues are easy to sort out, but more regular competition and some sound mentoring may quickly allow him to realise his full potential again.

Already, it looks like we are going to have a great British Open, but we shouldn’t be too surprised about that.

Links golf has once again proven itself to be a great leveller and this week numerous players will have the chance to win.

Muirfield has produced stellar champions in the past and anyone lucky enough to win will be forever associated with many of the greatest names the game has ever produced.

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