GULLANE, Scotland — St. Andrews is incomparable because of its history, but when it comes to links courses in the British Open rotation, Muirfield is looked upon as the purest and fairest of them all. What gets even less of an argument is the roll call of champions at Muirfield.
Muirfield has hosted golf's oldest championship 15 times. All but two of the winners — Ted Ray and Alf Perry — are in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and Ray probably should be there. He was a central figure in the great 1913 U.S. Open win by Francis Ouimet over Ray and Harry Vardon, both looked upon as British heavyweights.
So choosing the best Open at Muirfield is similar to choosing the best hole at Augusta National. You can't go wrong. You'll never be right.
Here is one list of the best five Opens at Muirfield:
5. JACK'S GRAND SLAM
Jack Nicklaus was stopped short of a calendar Grand Slam at Muirfield in 1972. Not to be overlooked was his first British Open title in 1966 that gave him the career Grand Slam at age 26. At the time, Nicklaus was the youngest of four players to win all four professional majors, and he achieved it in just 19 majors as a pro. Those records later were broken by Tiger Woods, who was 24 when he completed the Grand Slam in his 15th major as a pro.
Nicklaus had only one close call at the Open, when he finished one shot behind in 1963 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He took the 36-hole lead at Muirfield with a 70-67 start, only to follow with a 75 in the third round that left him two shots behind Phil Rodgers.
This was the first year the Open was held over four days. Rodgers faded to a 76. Dave Thomas of Wales closed with a 69, while Doug Sanders had a 70. Nicklaus regained the lead with a birdie on the par-5 17th, and then he two-putted for par from about 20 feet on the final hole for a 70 to win by one shot.
4. JAMES BRAID
James Braid, part of the "Great Triumvirate" along with Harry Vardon and J.H. Taylor, arrived at Muirfield in similar context to Ernie Els this year. He not only was the defending champion after winning the previous year at St. Andrews, he won the Open when it was last held at Muirfield.
When the 1906 British Open returned to Muirfield for the fourth time, the championship was held over three days for the first time to accommodate a record 181-man field. Braid got the bad end of the draw, going out late in the opening two rounds. He shot 77 the first round, and the next day decided to kill time in the morning by playing a friendly foursomes game at a nearby course. He followed with a 76.
Still four shots behind going into the 36-hole final day, Braid had a 74 to close to within three shots of Taylor, and then closed with a 73 as Taylor and Vardon fell apart. Vardon four-putted the first green and shot 78. Taylor had an 80. Braid's score was progressively better each round, and he wrapped up his third Open title.
It was the third and final time that Braid, Vardon and Taylor finished 1-2-3 (not always in that order) at the Open.
3. THE BLACK KNIGHT'S FIRST MAJOR
No other golfer has traveled the world more than Gary Player of South Africa, and it was at Muirfield in 1959 that he first emerged as one of the game's greatest players. The Black Knight went on to complete the Grand Slam in six years, and it started with a claret jug that he thought he had thrown away.
Player opened with rounds of 75-71, making the cut with three shots to spare and trailing Fred Bullock by eight shots going into the final day. He worked his way up the leaderboard in the morning round with a 70, through that still left him four shots behind Bullock and Sam King.
Over the final 18 holes, the South African made a terrific charge. He needed only a par on the last hole, but Player drove into a bunker on the 18th and then three-putted for a double bogey. He thought that would cost him the Open. But as more scores were returned, no one could match his 284. He wound up winning by two shots over Bullock and Flory van Donck of Belgium.
The 90-man field only had three Americans, none of whom made the cut. A year later, Arnold Palmer made his Open debut.
2. LEE TREVINO'S WIN, TWO OTHERS' LOSSES
Lee Trevino won his second straight British Open in 1972 at Muirfield in a championship equally known for who didn't win.
Jack Nicklaus had his best chance at the calendar Grand Slam after winning the Masters and U.S. Open, and returning to the links course where he won his first British Open. But he had a sore neck in the early part of the week, and along with conservative play, he went into the final round six shots behind Trevino.
Nicklaus made a vintage charge and at one point was tied for the lead, but he missed a short birdie putt down the stretch and shot 66. The main challenge for Trevino came from Tony Jacklin, going for his third major. The turning point of the championship came on the par-5 17th hole.
Trevino was tied with Jacklin, his playing partner, and Nicklaus, who had finished on 5-under 279. Trevino chipped through the back of the green in four, and looked like he would make bogey at best. Jacklin had about 20 feet for birdie. Trevino chipped in for his par, and Jacklin three-putted for bogey. A par on the last gave Trevino the claret jug by one shot over Nicklaus.
Nicklaus never had another shot at the Grand Slam. It was more devastating to Jacklin, who never contended in another major.
1. REDEMPTION AND A MAJOR FOR FALDO
Nick Faldo was an emerging star for England, having won the Order of Merit and played on five Ryder Cup teams. But he didn't feel his game was good enough, and in a risky move, he rebuilt his swing under David Leadbetter and went some three years without winning.
It all started to come together with a win in Spain, and his game was equipped for a week of bad weather at Muirfield in 1987. The wind was so strong that four holes were shortened in the third round to give players a chance to reach the fairway. Paul Azinger had a 71 on Saturday for a one-shot lead over Faldo and David Frost. Faldo plodded his way through the last round making par after par. Like most of his majors, he needed some help at the end, and Azinger delivered.
The American had a one-shot lead when he took bogey on the 17th, and then found a bunker with his approach on the 18th and closed with another bogey for a 73. Faldo kept grinding away with pars, and his 4-footer on the last hole gave him an even-par 71 — a par on every hole.
It was his first major, the start of Faldo winning four of the next 13 majors and rising to No. 1 in the world.