Muirfield: The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
Throughout Scottish clubhouses the argument perpetually wages on over which of the great Scottish Links is the finest. All golfers have a view and are always willing to defend their stance, but without doubt the course most often bestowed with the honor is Muirfield.
However, not only is this famous Open venue cherished by the locals, Muirfield has enjoyed wide spread international acclaim. Perhaps the greatest compliment of all has come from Jack Nicklaus who named his own course in Ohio after the East Lothian links where Nicklaus won his first Open Championship in 1966.
Although praise from great names is always worthy of note, the litmus test for any championship course is the quality of the winners it produces. In this category Muirfield is second to none. Amongst its prestigious list of past winners are the dominant figures of their time; Vardon, Cotton, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, and Faldo.
The reason Muirfield generates such wonderful winners is because although still bestowed with the inevitable nuances that are such a characteristic of links golf, Muirfield is arguably the fairest examination of golf that Great Britain has to offer. Almost without exception all the hazards are visible from the tee and the golfer is confronted with an honest challenge on every hole.
Muirfield, unlike many of the other courses I have played this season does not believe in gentle openers. The first at Muirfield stands at an intimidating 447 yards. A good drive is therefore essential to have any chance of a regulation four. The ideal line is close to the left hand side fairway bunker. Nevertheless, avoiding the sand is an absolute must and if in doubt, aim down the right for there is more room than the view from the tee might suggest.
A good drive leaves a long iron to the green, which is guarded by five bunkers. Three of these traps are positioned well short of the putting surface so be brave and take one more club to insure you are up. Try and keep the ball slightly left of the flag for this green slopes from left to right and anything tailing off slightly will end up in the sand to the right of the green.
Even if your second is fortunate enough to reach the putting surface, the hard work may well have only just begun for this green is 37 yards deep, meaning long puts are not uncommon.
Anyone who makes four has got off to the best possible start and will be the envy of many a professional. Thankfully, the second is a little less demanding, although after the first it is all too easy to be conservative and hence miss what has to be regarded as a genuine birdie opportunity. Most golfers will easily get up in two for the drive is mostly downhill and leaves a second ranging from 100 to 150 yards.
The right side of the green is well guarded by five bunkers, so the left side is preferable off the tee to leave a clear shot at the green.
The tee shot at the third demands a lot less than the first two. Accordingly take the liberty to relax a little and open the shoulders. The real difficulty comes when this hole is played into a prevailing wind, for the green has an exceptionally narrow entrance which starts some 70 yards from the putting surface. Accordingly, only those genuinely confident of carrying the ball all the way to the green should go for this one in two.
Those less gifted would be wise to lay up short of the cross-bunkers leaving a short pitch for their third. This may seem like a slightly timid approach but the rough at Muirfield can be penal and a seventy-yard shot from the fairway is preferable to hacking out of the rough!
Although there are numerous great holes at Muirfield, my personal favorite comes at the sixth, a long 469-yard, slightly dog-legged par four. There are four well placed fairway bunkers which force drives out to the right. The fairway itself is undulating and can generate testing lies from which to hit a long second. Nevertheless, the green is a generous size and good shots are usually reward. Although tough, this hole is a real gem with a touch of everything. It demands both length and accuracy and the added feature of the dry stone dyke adds that little something extra which appeals to me. Enjoy this hole before focusing on the more celebrated eighth and ninth.
The eighth is yet another wonderful par four with over a dozen well placed fairway bunkers. Keep left for there are penal bunkers down the right waiting to catch even the longest hitters. The approach shot is deceptive as the bunkers which appear to protect the front of the green are a good thirty yards short of the front edge. Accordingly, make sure you have enough club for your second as a sand save from thirty yards is a big ask. Shorter hitters would again be advised to play for a five rather than risk the carry.
The ninth at Muirfield has played a pivotal role in many an Open Championship. In 1972 when Trevino, Jacklin, and Nicklaus were jostling for the title, both Jacklin and Trevino made sublime eagle three's, giving Trevino the impetus to hold off the great Nicklaus who had won here in 1966. By contrast, in 1959 Peter Thomson, the defending champion, pulled his second over the boundary wall on the left of the fairway; this put paid to his chances of making it five Open victories in six years.
The tee shot at the ninth is played into a tight bottle-neck protected on the left by two well placed bunkers. Following a good drive, the longer hitters may wish to take on the carry in two, but do so in the knowledge that out of bounds awaits a slight pull and there are five bunkers on the right to gather any shot struck with fear of the out of bounds in mind.
Although most of our American visitors will be use to the ninth greens which nestle by the clubhouse, it is perhaps worthy of note that Muirfield was the first ever course built with two loops of nine.
Muirfield's back nine
Following a fantastic front nine, my own view of Muirfield is that the best holes on the back nine are undoubtedly saved till last with 16, 17 and 18 being finishing holes worthy of such a great course.
The 16th is a 188-yard par three with a slightly raised green which runs off steeply on the left hand side. If in doubt take one more club, for this green is 34 yards long and all the trouble is to the front or right of the green. A three here will set you up well for the 17th.
The 17th standing at a mammoth 550 yards is a definite three shot, par five for us mere mortals. However, playing such a hole makes you appreciate more readily the vast distances the professionals hit the ball. For John Cook made it on here in two before three putting to lose out to Faldo in 1992.
The left hand side of the fairway is well protected by five fairway bunkers, some of which (unusually) are hidden from the tee. But the really treacherous aspect of this hole comes in the shape of four fairway cross bunkers lying some 130 yards from the green.
Only those assured of carrying these traps should go for length with the second shot, for escaping from these bunkers will definitely cost, at least, one shot. Consequently, the shrewd manoeuvre is to lay up short and hope to get the green with your third. Anyone making five here should be pleased, for the seventeenth throws up both physical and mental challenges at every juncture and to emerge with the card unscathed is a monumental achievement.
This brings you to the famous 18th that has witnessed numerous emotional finishes. Gary Player was in tears after taking six to think he had blown his chances of winning the Open in 1959. Thankfully, for him, a double bogey was not disastrous and he emerged victorious. Faldo, too, the man so notoriously cool under pressure, broke down after finishing with a par to win the Open in 1992.
Take time playing this hole; for the cardinal sin at Muirfield is to focus incessantly on the challenge in hand and forget the history synonymous with this famous links.
Muirfield: The verdict
Muirfield is arguably the finest course in Britain, and its architectural qualities are more than matched by its long and prestigious history which seems to mirror the games development.
For Muirfield was home to the first 72 hole Open Championship and is also home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the oldest club on record with documentation surviving from 1744. With such links to the games heritage and a subliminal course included in the package, Muirfield has to be considered a must.
April 11, 2000