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Muirfield May Be Soft Touch for Third Leg

Golf: Former director at Turnberry says British Open course has American feel, and the only thing that can stop Woods from winning is the weather.

July 11, 2002|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian Gunson knows British Opens. He knows Muirfield, site of this year's British Open in Scotland, and he thinks he knows Tiger Woods' chances of winning the third leg of golf's Grand Slam there next week.

"If the weather is consistent," Gunson said, "Tiger will win."

Gunson, 41, is the former director of golf at Turnberry Golf Links, site of the 1977, '86 and '94 British Opens. He now holds the same position at Shady Canyon Golf Club, an exclusive private club in Irvine. Gunson oversaw the last two British Opens at Turnberry and attended all four played at Muirfield, about 100 miles away, since 1970.

And when Gunson talks, people listen. He has letters of recommendation from PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, European PGA Tour Executive Director Ken Scholfield, famed golf instructor David Leadbetter, and European players Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance to facilitate his transition to Shady Canyon, a Tom Fazio-designed course.

Gunson said weather is about the only thing that can stop Woods from winning next week.

"It can change so quickly there," he said. "It will be flat and calm, then 30 minutes later it will be a full-fledged rainstorm with strong wind. If he happens to get a bad draw with the weather, that could jeopardize his chances of winning."

Gunson said it rains about 50% of the time in Scotland, but that rain has been particularly heavy this year. In June, there were 26 days of rain, a record.

In turn, the course at Muirfield is softer and slower than when Nick Faldo won there in 1992, which means the traditional links-style course has become more like an American-style, target course.

Woods should benefit because he won't have to rely on the luck of the bounce traditionally associated with British bump-and-run golf.

"He'll be able to control the ball better," Gunson said. "It's a links course, but I don't think it will play like a links course."

History shows that the final two legs of the Grand Slam are the majors most difficult for Woods. Since turning professional in 1996, he has finished out of the top 20 in majors only four times, the 1997 and 2001 British Opens and the PGA Championships the same years.

He won his only British Open title in 2000 at St. Andrews, a course Gunson said wasn't much of a test for Woods.

"Certainly, St. Andrews was a fairly easy course, especially for [Woods]," Gunson said. "There is no rough on many of the holes and the landing areas off the tees are huge."

Muirfield will play at 7,033 yards, tame by today's standards, and has only two par-four holes longer than 450 yards. The longest is 475, but the fairways are narrow and hazards are in play, even for long hitters such as Woods.

The deep, well-placed bunkers could also slow Woods, who did not hit into a bunker when he won at St. Andrews two years ago.

"Oh, you'll see him whacking out of a bunker or two [at Muirfield]," Gunson said. "And if you are in one of those bunkers, it's a sand wedge to get out. You can't get a three-iron on the ball and get it out in those bunkers. At St. Andrews, he could just blow his drives past the bunkers. You can't do that at Muirfield."

Gunson lists Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke among those he thinks will challenge Woods, but adds that the pursuit of the Grand Slam might make all the difference.

"We've seen that Tiger loves a challenge," Gunson said. "He plays better under the gun. The challenge is now set and that will motivate him. Then again, he's got the ability to win any time, any- where."

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