By John Huggan
There's still more than two weeks to go before golf's oldest and -- to almost everyone not born in the United States -- most important event tees-off, but already people are talking about the 142nd Open Championship. More specifically, the early chat has focused on the length of the long grass the world's best players can expect to find when they pitch up at Muirfield later this month.
Rory McIlroy got things going when he (mis)quoted defending champion Ernie Els. According to the world number two, the big South African was calling the rough on the famous East Lothian links "waist high" and "ridiculous." Trouble was, at the time McIlroy spoke out, Els was 24 hours from his tour of the course where he won the title back in 2002. When he did get the chance to clarify his position, the two-time Open champion said, "the set up is very similar to 1992 and 2002. The rough is good, the fairways are good and some of the holes have been lengthened."
As ever, Ernie is pretty much on the mark, even if he failed to mention everything the R&A have been getting up to on the course many regard as the finest links on the nine-strong Open rota.
After playing Muirfield exactly a week ago, I can confirm the overall conditioning is indeed exceptional. The greens were simply magnificent, rolling maybe a yard-and-a-half slower than they ideally will be two weeks hence. The fairways were a beautiful pale yellow color and running just fast enough to hint at what a fortnight of dry weather could bring before the championship starts. The ideal scenario of "firm and fast" is still more than possible.
And the infamous rough? Well, let's just say it's healthy enough without being completely out of control. Certainly, the famous comment made by Doug Sanders back in 1966 -- "you can keep the prize money if I can have the hay concession" -- isn't quite appropriate.
Not yet anyway.
Which is not to say everything about the course is as it should be. The R&A, whose public stance is always that the winning score in any Open is primarily a product of the weather leading up to and during the event, stand accused of some slightly underhand manipulation of Muirfield's traditional defenses.
A couple examples stand out. At the 365-yard 2nd hole, a bunker has been built just short and right of a putting surface that slopes steadily from right-to-left. The establishment claim is that the new addition is there so that a front-right pin position can be used; the more cynical view is that the hazard has been placed in such a spot simply to prevent any of the longer-hitters attempting to drive the green.
Whatever, the end result is that one of the most interesting and tempting scenarios has been removed from the list of possible ways to play this delightful hole. No matter the conditions or the position of the pin, it is now more than likely that the vast majority of competitors will play the hole in pretty much exactly the same way: iron off the tee, wedge to the green. Any incentive to try a different approach has been all but eliminated.
Even worse is what has gone on at the 377-yard 3rd hole. Traditionally, this semi-blind par-4 has required the tee-shot to be placed at least left-of-center to allow a look at the flag. Unfortunately, the ideal spot -- one your correspondent has been aiming at for the last four decades or so -- is suddenly covered in thick rough that reduced this mere mortal to a mindless hack back into play. By my estimation, around seven or eight yards of fairway have been eliminated, on both sides, left and right.
Combine that bit of sneakiness with the shifting of the right greenside bunkers closer to the putting surface and we have a hole that is sure to play harder than it ever has before. Could it be the clearly ridiculous (!) six under aggregate posted by Els back in '02 has the authorities worried that Muirfield might not be up to the challenge in these technologically-enhanced times? Just a thought.
Happily, other changes make more sense and are a lot less offensive. The extensions to the rear of the second and sixth greens and to the front right of the eighth green will add challenging and interesting pin positions. The new tee at the fourteenth offers up a superb vista and a thought provoking tee-shot. And, assuming nothing is to be done about the extraordinary distances leading players can now hit 3-woods never mind drivers, moving the championship tees back at the likes of the ninth, fifteenth and eighteenth is both inevitable and understandable.
So that's where Muirfield stands right now. The greens and fairways are in close to perfect condition. The famous bunkers remain just as forbidding and punishing. The rough is penal but manageable. And the links is 158-yards longer than it was 11 years ago. Now all the South East corner of Scotland needs is a spell of half-decent weather. No guarantees there of course.