Adam Scott learned to get tough to win a Major, Justin Rose’s perseverance earned him a US Open title and for Pádraig Harrington, it was understanding that nothing mattered except for the last nine holes on a Sunday.
All but a very few major champions attain that status purely by luck and nowhere is that more the case than here at Muirfield, where the names of the last eight champions read like a who’s who of the game’s post-war history.
Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo (twice) and Ernie Els; not one of them a chancer or one-hit wonder, possessing 79 Major victories between them.
Fields may be deeper as we creep further into the 21st century with 18 of the last 20 majors having produced different champions, 15 of them first-time winners, but a return to Muirfield and its tough but fair links by the Firth of Forth for the first time since 2002 suggests there may be something more seasoned about the make-up of the man who raises aloft the Claret Jug on Sunday evening.
None would be more seasoned than Tiger Woods, for whom victory would increase that Muirfield champions’ tally to 94 Majors, breaking a five-year drought stretching back to the 2008 US Open.
After two years of false dawns in the majors following his return to the game following the implosion of his private life and his decision to remodel his swing with Sean Foley, Woods could not be in a better position to re-ignite his quest to match and then surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 Major victories.
The doubt that remains about the 37-year-old’s ability to land a 15th Major of his career are his failure to get the job done having got himself into serious contention and his record in recent Opens is stark reminder of that failure to close out the deal, Woods having failed to break par on a weekend since his third-round 69 way back in 2007.
Today, however, Woods will tee it up alongside Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen having resumed his occupancy of the world number one ranking thanks to four PGA Tour victories already this season and, significantly Muirfield’s slow-baked, bone-hard course and the forecast of more dry weather is eerily reminiscent of sun-parched Royal Liverpool back in 2006, when Woods won his third and most recent Claret Jug by outscoring final-round partner Sergio Garcia by six shots in a masterclass of links golf.
He may no longer command the air of invincibility of those days and the queue of realistic rivals is clearly longer than it was back then but the American is still the player to beat this week.
But who might be capable of finishing a shot ahead of Woods? It would be no surprise if great ball-strikers of the class of this year’s current major champions, Scott and Rose, where in contention on Sunday, the latter bidding to become the first golfer since Woods in 2000 to win the US Open and British Open in the same year.
Rose’s Open record is an anomaly, given his best performance in his home championship came on his debut as an amateur with a tie for fourth in 1998 but his Major breakthrough last month was, like Scott’s a hard-earned coming of age, the result of a slow and steady build to golfing greatness and the Englishman has the game to kick on and win more. So too does Scott, who showed remarkable resilience to recover from his collapse over the last four holes at Lytham last July and win this year’s Masters.
The twin pillars of last year’s disappointment and his new-found major-champion’s status bode well for the Australian this weekend.
The balance of probabilities would suggest that as good as Phil Mickelson’s form has been in recent weeks, his victory last Sunday at the Scottish Open means lightning is unlikely to strike twice. Yet if anyone can upset the odds it is Mickelson, the most recent man to win a Major a week after winning a regular tour event, which he did in 2006, when he landed the BellSouth Classic before the Masters.
And after winning a tournament on a genuine links for the time in 22 attempts, who is to say he cannot strike again, having finally cracked the code?
Rory McIlroy has not enjoyed the heights in this championship his talents clearly deserve, a tie for third at St Andrews in 2010 his best effort and that blighted by an horrendous second-round 80. This year’s poor form and lack of success since his switch from Titleist to Nike clubs and ball indicate the wait for a third career major will continue into next month at least but low expectations, reflected in his relatively long odds of 28-1, and an emphasis on creative shot-making at Muirfield could be the combination to free McIlroy from his current woes.
Of course the real acid test will be what unfolds on Sunday afternoon. That is when the cream really rises to the top and players like two-time Open champion Harrington really show their mettle, regardless of their current form.
“I would have no interest in being right in it on Saturday, couldn’t care less,” Harrington said yesterday. “I have an interest in being right in it on Sunday and winning this. I’m not looking for anything other than winning.
“I’ve nothing to prove... it is all about winning here. That means getting into contention with nine holes to play and feeling it through those nine holes to get the job done.”
Those are words that will resonate with Harrington’s fellow major champions as they prepare for the ultimate test today. For a week like this on a quality course is a perfect endorsement of the old adage that form is temporary and class is permanent.
British Open tee times
Starting at hole 1
6.32am: L Saltman, P Senior (Aus), O Fisher.
6.43am: R Karlsson (Swe), T Hamilton (USA), B Stow.
6.54am: T Aiken (Rsa), K Aphibarnrat (Tha), B Cauley (USA).
7.05am: B Koepka (USA), M Ilonen (Fin), A Wu (Chn).
7.16am: D Duval (USA), B Wiesberger (Aut), C Wood.
7.27am: S Cink (USA), S Stallings (USA), R McEvoy.
7.38am: M Jimenez (Spa), K J Choi (Kor), J Walker (USA).
7.49am: B Curtis (USA), S Lowry, R Cabrera Bello (Spa).
8am: B Davis, J Blixt (Swe), G Delaet (Can).
8.11am: R Garrigus (USA), J Senden (Aus), M Warren.
8.22am: M Kaymer (Ger), G Porteous, J Day (Aus).
8.33am: C Pettersson (Swe), J Dufner (USA), D Lynn.
8.44am: B Watson (USA), N Colsaerts (Bel), D Johnson (USA).
9am: T Watson (USA), N Faldo, F Couples (USA).
9.11am: J Rose, E Els (Rsa), B Snedeker (USA).
9.22am: I Poulter, K Bradley (USA), B Horschel (USA).
9.33am: R Sterne (Rsa), G Fernandez-Castano (Spa), N Watney (USA).
9.44am: R McIlroy, H Matsuyama (Jpn), P Mickelson (USA).
9.55am: T Clark (Rsa), S Piercy (USA), K Streelman (USA).
10.06am: S Katayama (Jpn), Z Johnson (USA), T Bjorn (Den).
10.17am: A Cabrera (Arg), C Villegas (Col), T Goya (Arg).
10.28am: K Duke (USA), G Coetzee (Rsa), M Calcavecchia (USA).
10.39am: J Huh (USA), B Jones (Aus), H-sung Kim (Kor).
10.50am: J Teater (USA), S Tiley, J Mullen.
11.01am: K.T. Kim (Kor), S Jeffress (Aus), L Guthrie (USA).
11.12am: G Wright, J Wade (Aus), M Inoue (Jpn).
11.33am: Y.E. Yang (Kor), D Willett, J Wagner (USA).
11.44am: T Wiratchant (Tha), L Glover (USA), O Floren (Swe).
11.55am: B Weekley (USA), S Lyle, N Fasth (Swe).
12.06pm: G Forrest, M Fraser (Aus), M O’Meara (USA).
12.17pm: T Lehman (USA), T Jaidee (Tha), F Jacobson (Swe).
12.28pm: R Pugh, J Leonard (USA), M Leishman (Aus).
12.39pm: K Stanley (USA), A Quiros (Spa), A Noren (Swe).
12.50pm: R Henley (USA), J Spieth (USA), M Fitzpatrick.
1.01pm: M Thompson (USA), P Harrington, R Ramsay.
1.12pm: V Singh (Fij), D Clarke M Laird.
1.23pm: R Moore (USA), H Stenson (Swe), S Fox (USA).
1.34pm: T Olesen (Den), J Furyk (USA), P Lawrie.
1.45pm: H English (USA), G Ogilvy (Aus), S Gallacher.
2.01pm: C Schwartzel (Rsa), L Westwood, S Garcia (Spa).
2.12pm: A Scott (Aus), M Kuchar (USA), L Donald.
2.23pm: M Manassero (Ita), R Fowler (USA), H Mahan (USA).
2.34pm: P Hanson (Swe), H Fujita (Jpn), B Haas (USA)
2.45pm: T Woods (USA), G McDowell, L Oosthuizen (Rsa)
2.56pm: W Simpson (USA), B Grace (Rsa), J Donaldson.
3.07pm: F Molinari (Ita), T Taniguchi (Jpn), B Van Pelt (USA).
3.18pm: B Rumford (Aus), D.A. Points (USA), M Siem (Ger).
3.29pm: G Murray, M Brown (Nzl), J Harding (Rsa).
3.40pm: S Jamieson, G Bourdy (Fra), S Kapur (Ind).
3.51pm: S Brown (USA), S Kodaira (Jpn), G Maybin.
4.02pm: T Hatton, E De La Riva (Spa), K Kuboya (Jpn).
4.13pm: S Dartnall (Aus), D Lloyd (Rsa), D Maruyama (Jpn).
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