By Dave Tindall. Last Updated: 16/07/13 8:34pm
The Claret Jug trophy beside the 18th green in front of the clubhouse at Muirfield
Muirfield is the jewel in the crown of some spectacular golfing land in Gullane, East Lothian.
It's hosted the Open 15 times and never thrown up anything other than a top-quality winner.
The list includes revered names such as Harry Vardon (1896), James Braid (1901 & 1906), Walter Hagen (1929) and Henry Cotton (1948) while the last six men to lift the Claret Jug at Muirfield were Gary Player (1959), Jack Nicklaus (1966), Lee Trevino (1972), Tom Watson (1980), Nick Faldo (1987 & 1992) and Ernie Els (2002).
More recently, Watson returned to win the 2007 Senior British Open there, reinforcing the idea that the cream rises to the top.
Muirfield's 18th hole: Looking good in practice on Tuesday
Jack Nicklaus once called Muirfield "the best golf course in Britain" while Tiger Woods said ahead of the 2002 Open: "It's one of the most fair golf courses we play. It presents itself right in front of you. There are no hidden agendas, no tricks." Most links courses have a front nine running out along the coast and a back nine coming back towards the clubhouse but Muirfield has two concentric rings of nine. The outward nine run clockwise around the perimeter of the course and the inward nine run anti-clockwise and sit inside the outward nine. The result is that the wind direction constantly changes so it's a real mental challenge. Winning scores can vary. Player shot even par to triumph in 1959 while Watson posted -13 in 1980. Faldo triumphed with -5 in 1987 but five years later needed -12 to win. This year the course will play at 7,192 yards - 158 yards longer than in 2002.
The weather at Muirfield can have a huge effect on scores. Most memorable was the infamous third round in 2002 when appalling weather saw scores balloon in the afternoon. Monty shot an 84 the day after returning a second round 64 while Tiger, who also got the worst of the weather, crashed to an 81. Before the weather turned so viciously, Justin Rose and eventual joint runner-up Steve Elkington fired 68s and watched their positions get better and better as the day went on. This year, like the rest of the UK, it's been hot and dry in the build-up and should continue that way this week. Winds should be modest so all in all the course will be bouncy and fast-running.
Last time at Muirfield
Ernie Els: The champion 11 years ago.
Ernie Els opened 70-66 to share the halfway lead with Padraig Harrington, Shigeki Maruyama, Bob Tway and Duffy Waldorf before gutsing out a brave 72 in the carnage of round three to open up a two-shot lead. A brilliant bunker shot at 13 in Sunday's final round kept him in front before a double at 16 allowed the chasing pack another chance and the South African eventually had to endure a four-man play-off with Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby. The Aussies were eliminated after the four-hole play-off before Els got up and down from sand to beat Levet in sudden death.
The leading contenders
Tiger Woods (9/1): On face value, it seems as if Tiger played averagely here in 2002. At the time he was chasing a Grand Slam after winning the first two majors of the year so was at the very peak of his powers. However, his tied 28th included a third round 81 when he was victim to the terrible weather. In calmer conditions on the Sunday he fired a 65 to prove what he could do here. Woods is a four-time winner this year and heads the PGA Tour Money List by a distance but there are a couple of question marks. First, he seems to be finding it harder and harder to win majors (2008 was his last) and, second, he's not played since the US Open where he aggravated an elbow injury and has since had to undergo treatment.
Phil Mickelson (18/1): For so many years, Mickelson appeared to be bamboozled by this event and bookies were probably delighted to take any money on him. But in amongst the failures he finished third at Troon in 2004 (just one shot outside the Hamilton/Els play-off) and runner-up at Royal St George's in 2011 when he made a thrilling charge on the final day. Now, for the first time, Mickelson heads into an Open Championship on the back of a victory after landing the Scottish Open on Sunday. Muirfield will be much tougher but having ticked 'winning on a links course in Scotland' off his bucket list, the left-hander could be a big threat. Sunday's final round at Castle Stuart was played in windy conditions so having carded the second best round of the day, a 69, Mickelson clearly has the tools and shots to do well in an Open. In 2002 at Muirfield he finished tied 66th after rounds of 68-76-76-70.
Justin Rose (18/1): England's first major winner since 1996 is now aiming to update another Faldo record and become England's first Open champ since Sir Nick won here at Muirfield in 1992. Rose, who was 13th at the Travelers in his only start since Merion, won twice in three starts on the PGA Tour in June/July 2011 so does have some history of a quick follow-up and clearly he's absolutely flowing with confidence at the moment. Apart from his famous fourth place as an amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998 he's not done better than a 12th (Carnoustie) in 10 Open starts. Interestingly, he did sit third with a round to go at Muirfield in 2002 before finishing tied 22nd but it's worth remembering that he shot 68 in the best of the weather on Saturday before others carded 80+ when the storms came.
Justin Rose: Looking for back-to-back majors
Adam Scott (20/1): No doubt a return to the Open will bring back some awkward memories for Scott after he blew a four-shot lead by bogeying each of the final four holes at Royal Lytham last year. Then again, he can afford to be sanguine about that experience as those recollections are now trumped by the wonderful and more recent feelings he got from becoming Australia's first Masters winner three months ago. Clearly, Scott has got the recipe absolutely right when it comes to majors now and, after just one top five in his first 11 years at this level, he's reeled off a win, two seconds, two other top 10s and two further top 15s in his last 10 majors. He missed the cut here in 2002 but that would seem pretty irrelevant and if Mark O'Meara can do the Masters/Open double in the same season Scott will surely feel he can too.
Lee Westwood (25/1): One curious record about Westwood and Open Championships is that he plays them far better north of the border. On his native English soil his Open finishes read MC-62-47-MC-31-67-MC-45. But in Scotland he's had a second at St Andrews (2010), a should-have-won third at Turnberry (2009) and a fourth (2004) and a 10th (1997) at Troon. True, he missed the cut here at Muirfield in 2002 but, amazing to think now, he didn't manage a single top 10 during that year to forget. Westwood has racked up seven top threes in majors since 2008 and has finished 8th and 15th in this year's so he's pretty much a constant presence on the leaderboard in the big events. Many will write him off for a major victory now but who would have thought that Clarke and Els would win the last two Opens after the years and years of near misses?
Graeme McDowell (25/1): G-Mac has produced a bizarre mixed bag of wins and missed cuts over the last few months but just about every golfer would agree to some early trunk-slamming if all the ups ended with trophies in the cupboard. McDowell has won The Heritage in America, the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Bulgaria and, probably most impressively, the Open de France in Paris a fortnight ago. His hot and cold form has led to missed cuts in both the 2013 Masters and US Open but usually in the majors he's a big player. The Northern Irishman won the 2010 US Open, was second in it last year and went off in the final group in last year's Open before finishing T5. Overall he has 11 top 20s in his last 20 majors.
Ernie Els: Can win again
Ernie Els (25/1): The big South African finds himself in the fairly unique position of being the defending champion (Lytham 2012) as well as the last man to win on the course (Muirfield 2002 when he won his first Claret Jug). Els also lost a play-off at Troon in 2004 while he has an amazing 13 top 10s to his name in this event. The first was a fifth here at Muirfield in 1992 so the East Lothian course really does hold a special place in Ernie's heart. His last three starts show a fourth in the US Open and a victory in the BMW International Open in Germany so he's in excellent form and it's easy to ignore last week's missed cut in Scotland where he had numerous lip outs. One of the very best Open players of the modern era, Els is likely to be a real threat again.
Rory McIlroy (28/1): Rory seems to have a difficult relationship with this event and said after missing the cut at Royal St George's in 2011: "I'm not a fan of tournaments where the outcome is predicted so much by the weather. I'd rather play when it's 80 degrees and sunny and not much wind." So while others positively enjoy practising low shots under the wind to prepare for Opens, McIlroy says: "No point in changing my swing for one week a year. I'll just have to wait for a year when the weather is better." Add all that to his troubled and winless 2013 in which he's finished 25th at Augusta and 41st in the US Open and he looks one to avoid. Then again, if the sun does shine he would very much fit the mould of former Muirfield winners.
Sergio Garcia (28/1): The Spaniard won the British Amateur here in 1998 and finished just two shots out of the play-off in the 2002 Open so clearly is a huge fan of Muirfield. Ten years ago he said: "I think it's just an unbelievable links course. For my liking, I think it's probably the best one. You have every different kind of shot in a links course, blind shots, you have left-to-rights, right-to-lefts and it's not one of those links courses that just goes one way and comes back the other way. It goes around a little, so you get crosswinds and those are the hardest to control and it's, I think, a very nice test." A lot of water had gone under the bridge since then but seven top 10s in the Open show how suited he is to this tournament and an eighth at Augusta this year forms part of an excellent run of consistency. If nothing else, he must be a strong each-way bet.
Luke Donald (30/1): Donald's Sunday capitulation at Merion, which had actually started with the final two holes of Saturday's round, gave fuel to his critics but the good thing was that he actually put himself in the heat of a major battle - something he's done very little of for a former world number one. There's also been an improvement in his Open form over the last few years. His early record in this event was horrid with his first five appearances resulting in missed cuts but in the last four he's managed two fifths and an 11th. Donald points to a more relaxed approach being they key for these improved efforts so if he can hole the putts - something he's struggled to do on links greens - he could be prominent again.
Best of the rest:
Henrik Stenson (40/1): The tall Swede, who has played in Ryder Cups and won a Players Championship, has made the top three in two of his last four Opens (2008 and 2010) and was also 13th in 2009 and just four shots behind the winning mark. In short, he can thrive on links courses. After a few years in the doldrums he's bounced back with a win in the South African Open last November and has had plenty of good results this year (runner-up Houston Open, 5th Players, 10th BMW International Open).
Brandt Snedeker (40/1): The American was the halfway leader at Lytham last year and also made a big run in this year's Masters before fading. Interviewed on Tuesday, he said: "The golf course is fantastic. It's unlike any British I've played before. The ball is bouncing everywhere and it's really firm and fast. It's going to be a lot of fun." He also revealed he's "more of a picker" as opposed to someone who takes big divots so he won't mind the hard turf while those who like a coincidence will enjoy the fact that he's 32 years old - the same age of the two major winners so far this year, Adam Scott and Justin Rose.
So many major winners down the years had already posted a victory earlier that season (or at least within the previous 12 months - Adam Scott had won the Aussie Masters in November 2012). They include shock winners such as Todd Hamilton (2004 Open), YE Yang (2009 USPGA) and Darren Clarke (2011 Open). So there are plenty of 2013 winners at big prices who are candidates for this category. They include European Tour winners Jamie Donaldson, Chris Wood, Stephen Gallacher, Richard Sterne, Thomas Aiken, Marcel Siem and Brett Rumford as well as PGA Tour winners Michael Thompson, Kevin Streelman, Boo Weekley, D.A. Points, Martin Laird, Harris English, Ken Duke, Bill Haas and Jonas Blixt
Since the 2002 Open at Muirfield, the 43 majors played since then have been won by 31 different players. The only multiple winners in that time were Tiger (6), Mickelson (4), Harrington (3), Cabrera (2) and McIlroy (2).
In short, the stats support going for a first-time winner in every major played.
That said, the last 11 Opens have seen three players (Woods, Harrington and Els) win it twice so this is perhaps a more specialist event despite it moving across different courses.
So, with that the case, I'm keen to get with Els again.
Last week's missed cut in the Scottish Open is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things and, if anything, can be viewed as a positive. It gives Ernie two more days to prepare and means his price to win again at Muirfield hasn't crashed.
If you need extra reassurance, he missed the cut before he won the 1997 US Open and placed 50th and 52nd respectively ahead of his two Open wins
Els is an absolute colossus in this event and with a win and a fifth at Muirfield he absolutely loves this course.
Given all his credentials, including a very recent win in Germany, he's more than a fair price at 25/1. Get stuck in.
Talking of South Africans, they do seem to have a habit of producing major winners in their 20s (Els, Immelman, Oosthuizen, Schwartzel) so how about Branden Grace (25-years-old) to be the next cab off the rank?
Grace is no ordinary golfer having, in 2012, become the first player in history to win his first four European Tour events in the same year.
A look at those events and the word "links" appears in two of the tournament name titles.
In January 2012 he won the Volvo Golf Champions at The Links at Fancourt while last October he captured the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship played at St Andrews (two rounds), Carnoustie and Kingsbarns.
Getting fit-again caddie legend Billy Foster on the bag for Muirfield looks a bit of a masterstroke. They looked like they were having an absolute blast in the Scottish Open last week and it was no surprise to see Grace make it to a play-off before losing out to Mickelson.
Branden Grace: Has the pedigree to be the latest South African major winner
Grace has bags of grit, putts well, has the ideal low ball-flight for links golf and in his fledgling majors career he's made two cuts out of two in Opens and finished 18th on his Masters debut back in April.
Thomas Bjorn has been in superb form over the last few months with two second places, a fourth and a pair of eighths since the start of May.
He pulled out of the Scottish Open at the weekend with a neck injury but that's virtually cleared up and, to be honest, the extra rest probably did him good.
So, a fresh Bjorn can head to Muirfield with plenty of hope.
He was eighth there back in 2002 while also in his Open CV are two second places (2000 and 2003), a fourth (2011) and another eighth (1998).
As for demons following his collapse at Royal St George's in 2003? Well, the Open has yielded to past victims Clarke and Els in the last couple of years so maybe Bjorn can complete the hat-trick for those who have paid their dues.
One huge outsider who could pull off something special is Gregory Bourdy.
While many will be seeing the course for the first time this week, the Frenchman has been a regular visitor to Muirfield and describes it as his favourite links course.
Up until a few weeks ago he wasn't in the field but, describing trying to win a spot at Muirfield as a "huge motivation", he came third in International Final Qualifying at Sunningdale to earn his place.
Virtually unnoticed, he's been in very good nick this year. He was runner-up in the Africa Open at East London, 11th in the Malaysian Open, 12th at Wentworth and eighth in the Lyoness Open.
The three-time European Tour winner, who has made the cut in all three of his Open starts, is also a fine player on hard, bouncy courses so it seems that everything has come in his favour to put in a surprisingly big performance.
Finally, the obvious pick from the list of dark horses with a win this year is Chris Wood given his record of back-to-back top fives in this event at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and Turnberry in 2009.
The big Bristolian finally scored his breakthrough first European Tour victory back in February when he captured the Qatar Masters and also on that trophy are the names of Open winners Paul Lawrie and Ernie Els as well as major winners Adam Scott and Paul Lawrie.
Wood tweeted on Tuesday evening: "Good days practice. Played front 9 course is firm rough is brutal.. Some tough tee shots out there! But I love it! #OpenChampionship"
Let's see if he can get in the mix again.
Best bets2pts e.w. Ernie Els at 25/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Gregory Bourdy at 300/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1pt e.w. Chris Wood at 125/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5,6)
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