British Open Championshipcontenders beware, Tiger Woods could be having a Hoylake moment here at Muirfield.
Restored to his No 1 position in the world rankings and back in the groove with four wins on the PGA Tour already this season, the reasons to install the 14-time Major champion as favourite for the 2013 British Open, which begins here tomorrow, are plentiful and obvious, not least the condition of this links course running flat alongside the Firth of Forth.
For the first time in seven years, the keepers of the Auld Claret Jug are preparing an Open examination on a layout that is sun-burned, rock hard and long running, all of which bodes well for Woods, the man who won at Hoylake — or Royal Liverpool to go by its official title.
It was there on the Wirral Peninsula in 2006 that Woods grabbed the field by the throat and squeezed hard, outscoring nearest rival Sergio Garcia by six strokes to win his third and most recent British Open title.
Ominously for this week’s hopefuls, a windless Muirfield reminds Woods a lot of Hoylake back then.
“I only hit one driver that week,” he recalled yesterday. “This golf course is playing similar to that. It’s quick. And so far I’ve played a couple of days now, three days, and I’ve only hit a couple of drivers here.
“Some of the holes, four-iron was going 280 [yards]. Three-iron is going a little over 300 yards. So it’s quick. That’s on this wind. So obviously it could change. Like what we had in ’02 [at Muirfield], it could come out of the north-east and it could be a totally different golf course.”
Assuming the forecasts are correct this time around and the skies do not open as they did in that third round 11 years ago, when Woods shot a career-high 81 in the worst of the weather, then conditions are going to be considerably more benign during this tournament and the course will play as it has during practice.
For golfers who ply their trade for the most part by getting their ball high in the air, the switch to links golf is particularly challenging, requiring different skills and approaches, not least the ability to know where to land one’s ball in view of its extra run on the hard fairways.
“It’s being able to control that as best you possibly can,” Woods said. “Downwind holes, I’ve hit three-wood, I’ll run probably close to 80, 90 yards, sometimes a little bit more than that. And you can chase balls that can go a long ways.
“On 17 [a 575-yard par-five] yesterday I hit three-iron, three-iron over the green. And granted, it’s just all in the run. It all depends on where you land it. It could land into a slope and get killed or land on the backside and it could shoot forward another 40, 50 yards. And that’s the neat thing about links golf, is that it’s predictable, but also unpredictable at the same time.”
A Woods victory this weekend will break his five-year drought in the Majors, add a fourth British Open title to his haul and see him join a list of post-war winners at Muirfield that reads Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo (twice) and Ernie Els.
“The number of Hall of Famers that there are who have won here, I think it just goes to show you that you really have to hit the ball well. You have to be able to shape it both ways.
“Because you’re not playing, like you are at St Andrews, out and back, or Troon. You’re playing almost in kind of a circle, in a sense, because you’ve got so many different angles and so many different winds, you have to be able to manoeuvre the ball both ways.”
For a golfer who has achieved everything in the game, Woods still seems genuinely excited when asked what this event means to him.
“I love this championship,” he said. “I just think it’s so neat to be able to play this type of golf. And here and probably the Aussie Sandbelt courses are the only places where we can truly play links-type golf.
“I fell in love with it 17 years ago when I first came over here and I got a chance — my introduction to links golf was Carnoustie at the Scottish Open and St Andrews were back-to-back weeks. That’s as good as it gets. And I absolutely fell in love with it, to be able to dink a five-iron from 150 yards and bump it on the ground. Or vice versa, have 260 out and hit a four-iron and it bounces over the green. That to me is pretty neat. Because we play generally everywhere around the world an airborne game where you have to hit the ball straight up in the air and make it stop. Here it’s different. A draw will go one distance, a fade will go another, and they’re so dramatic. And I just absolutely love it.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved