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The sweet torture of a British Open at Muirfield in Scotland

Tiger Woods is favored this week as the historic links course hosts The Open Championship for the 16th time. Expect ... more history!

July 14, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • The clubhouse at Muirfield Golf Course, site of the 2013 British Open.
The clubhouse at Muirfield Golf Course, site of the 2013 British Open. (Paul Ellis / Getty Images )

All you need to know about the British Open is that you don't dare call it that when you are at one.

You can get away with typing it in stories back to the States, but don't say it to the guy eating fish and chips at the next table.

It is The Open Championship, and if that sounds like it is meant to brand itself as the only one, then you are catching on.

This year's Open Championship will start Thursday and continue through 72 holes and four grueling days of its usual golf misery and weather wonders.'s Gene Wojciechowski wrote once that the British Open is "supposed to be a four-day weather wedgie."

This year's torture across the Pond takes on additional significance because it will be played at historic Muirfield. The history is a matter of British relativity. All the courses in the British Open rotation are historic. Muirfield is just more historic, probably more than all the others except St. Andrews, which is the most historic.

Muirfield is 20 miles east of Edinburgh, Scotland. That's on the east coast, on a bay of the North Sea called the Firth of Forth. The firth is an estuary of the River Forth.

Due north, and about an hour's train ride around the bay, is St. Andrews, which is known as the birthplace of golf. That is, except if you are from around Muirfield, where you can point out that a golf club was formed here called the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. That was in 1754, or 22 years before there was a good ole' USA.

The HCEG (they would hate being an acronym) remains in place, firm in stances and beliefs and somewhere between welcoming and tolerant of occasionally hosting this huge event. This will be the 16th time since Muirfield's debut in 1892, the year the British Open, by then in its 32nd year, was extended to 72 holes.

Tom Watson won in 1980 at Muirfield. The next night, after dinner and a few cocktails, he and some fellow pros went out to play with old wooden-shaft clubs. A HCEG member tossed them off the course.

Women play at Muirfield, none as members. There are zero prospects of Condoleezza Rice doing an Augusta National-Muirfield double anytime soon. Political correctness resonates less along Scotland's Golf Coast.

Ernie Els is one of the main story lines this year. The 43-year-old South African not only won last year's title at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, but also won the title the last time it was at Muirfield, in 2002.

His victory in '02 was achieved on the first sudden-death hole, after a four-hole, four-man playoff had narrowed it down to him and Thomas Levet of France. To win, Els got up and down out of a greenside trap, after hitting while standing partly in and partly out of the bunker.

Last year, he made a late run while front-runner Adam Scott unraveled over the last four holes, all par fours. Scott's card for those read 5-5-5-5, and when he missed an eight-foot par putt on No. 18, Els was behind the clubhouse on the putting green, learning about his victory from the crowd noise.

His victory speech, a marvel of maturity and empathy for Scott's obvious anguish, only enhanced Els' popularity and fan base.

Els is a 25-1 choice, well behind favorite Tiger Woods at 8-1.

It is hard to know whether oddsmakers really believe their own numbers anymore on Woods. Do they merely heed his world No. 1 ranking, or just make the pick out of habit? He has not won a major since the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, and has not played a round under par on the weekend in a British Open since 2007.

The era of Tiger aura may be dissipating. Paul Azinger, a former PGA champion and a broadcaster for U.S. television on the event, said recently about Woods' chances at Muirfield, "If he's hurt, stick a fork in him."

Woods played an entire playoff round on a broken leg in '08 to win the U.S. Open and nobody would have remotely pondered "sticking a fork" in him then, or for years after.

Muirfield is generally accepted as the fairest, least tricked-up of the British courses. It will play 7,192 yards, to a par 71. But its main hazard, other than the usual pot bunkers and junkyard rough, is a configuration of circles that makes the ever-present wind off the sea a hole-by-hole puzzle. The front nine circles one way, the back nine the other. Expect to see lots of golfers tossing little clumps of grass in the air a lot.

The advance weather report is good: Little rain and temperatures in the 60s. Don't believe it for a minute.

In '02, when Woods was going for his third major of the season and in decent position to get it, the wind howled, the rain swirled and a legendary squall roared in. The wind chill was in the low 40s and Woods went through 12 pairs of golf gloves.

Woods shot 81 on that Saturday, and the undefeated champions of the British Open, umbrella sellers and raincoat venders, won again.

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