House of champs: Even if Woods, McIlroy falter, expect worthy British Open winner at Muirfield

  • Article by: PAUL NEWBERRY , AP National Writer
  • Updated: July 16, 2013 - 3:00 AM

GULLANE, Scotland — From behind the 18th green, Paul Azinger stared out toward a golf course where he nearly won a major title, where so many greats of the game have carved their names on the claret jug.

Sure, it's a classic links layout — right by the sea, filled with inexplicable humps in the fairways, terrifying bunkers stuck in the strangest of spots and knee-high grass ready to punish a wayward shot.

But Muirfield is different.

There are all those quirky elements that make it worthy of a British Open. There's just — uhhh, how should we put this? — not TOO many of them.

"It's not a luck-fest out there," Azinger said Monday, as the world's top golfers arrived en masse to prepare for the third major of the season. "If you make the ball do what you want it to do, you'll play well."

Maybe that's the reason the roster of winners looks more like a who's who of the sport.

Harry Vardon. Walter Hagen. Gary Player. Jack Nicklaus. Lee Trevino. Tom Watson. Nick Faldo. Ernie Els.

And let's not forget Harold Hilton, James Braid and Henry Cotton.

Of the 13 players to win the Open at this course east of Edinburgh, 11 are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Game (and you can make a pretty strong case that another, Ted Ray, should be). Only Alf Perry looks a bit out of place on this elite list, and even he was a three-time member of Britain's Ryder Cup team in the 1930s.

Not a stiff in the bunch.

"That's not a fluke," Faldo said. "You have to have a good mind game. You have to know where you're going to land it, where the next bounce is and where the run is."

And, of course, have the ability to pull it off.

Faldo recalled his second victory at Muirfield in 1992, with Fanny Sunesson on the bag.

"That's what we worked out so well," he said, "where to land the ball 20 yards short of the green, which way it would kick, and obviously where it would stop. That's part of the calculations. But you've got to land the ball from A to B first. And that has to be a solid shot. If that's a mis-hit, the ball doesn't react close to what you intend. You look at all those guys, we all hit it pretty darn solid in our era."

At the other eight courses in the Open rotation, that's not always the case.

A crazy bounce here. An unexpected roll there. Suddenly, the door is open for an improbable winner, someone like Ben Curtis or Todd Hamilton.

Muirfield is more straightforward, with few blind shots, and the way it's laid out — with two loops of nine holes running in opposite directions — evens out the devilish breezes, assuming they don't suddenly change directions during the course of a round.

"It's not going to bad luck you to death," said Azinger, who made that assessment even though he bogeyed the final two holes of the 1987 Open and lost to Faldo by a single stroke. "It's a terrific course."

Given what has happened here before, this would seem the most appropriate spot for Tiger Woods, ranked No. 1 in the world, to end the longest major-less drought of his career — more than five years and counting. If not him, how about second-ranked Rory McIlroy, just 24 but already a two-time major champion and less than a year removed from his runaway victory at the PGA Championship?

But Woods is coming back from an injured elbow, so no one is quite sure what kind of shape he'll be in when the shots start counting for real at Muirfield. Even when healthy, the aura of invincibility he once held over the rest of the field has slowly faded away since the last of his 14 major titles at the 2008 U.S. Open.

As for McIlroy, his game is in total disarray after he switched to new clubs and a new ball this season, in addition to dealing with off-the-course issues involving his management team.

"I'm very surprised that just 11 months (since that eight-shot win at Kiawah Island) he would've become an afterthought," Azinger said. "He is adrift."

Woods still draws the biggest crowds, and there's no denying his fellow competitors keep an eye out for him on the leaderboard. But, while he's resumed his dominating ways in regular PGA Tour events since changing his swing and battling through well-documented personal problems, he no longer looks unbeatable on the biggest stages.

"Tiger is in a different mode where he's winning regular tournaments, but he gets to the majors and something happens," Faldo said. "The self-belief you have to have, maybe there's a little dent in there. He hits the wrong shot at the wrong time, where before Tiger would hit the right shot at the right time."

Azinger said Woods' issues are more physical than mental at the moment, all because of a body that seems to be aging much quicker than his still relatively young age (37).

"You can't play good golf," Azinger said, "with a bad elbow."

There's nothing wrong with McIlroy physically, but he's suddenly playing second fiddle to players such as Adam Scott and Justin Rose, the winners of the year's first two majors.

When Scott captured the Masters in a playoff, McIlroy was never much of a factor on the way to finishing 25th. When Rose held on to win the U.S. Open, the young Irishman limped to the end in 41st.

From Azinger's perspective, McIlroy lost the baseline on his game when he changed up all that equipment. When something goes wrong, he's not sure what might be contributing to the problem — the club or the ball. He's trying to figure it all out again, and that's not easy to do when you're in the midst of the season, even for a player with his enormous skills.

Faldo, meanwhile, urged McIlroy to eliminate some of the distractions that have cropped up since he surged to stardom.

"You have a window of opportunity," the three-time Open champion said. "That's my only words of wisdom to Rory. You have, say, a 20-year window as an athlete. Concentrate on golf, nothing else. Hopefully when you retire, in your 40s or 50s, you have another 40 years to enjoy it. So just concentrate on golf."

Even if Woods falters again and McIlroy continues to struggle, Muirfield will likely produce a worthy champion.

That's just the way it goes at this place.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Kansas City - WP: J. Guthrie 3 FINAL
San Francisco - LP: T. Hudson 2
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Atlanta
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Arizona
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Cleveland
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Pittsburgh
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Washington 10/27/14 7:30 PM
Dallas
New Orleans 10/30/14 7:25 PM
Carolina
Dallas 117 FINAL
Orlando 92
New York 80 FINAL
Toronto 83
San Antonio 87 FINAL
Houston 96
Miami 104 FINAL
Memphis 98
Minnesota 113 FINAL
Chicago 112
Phoenix 105 FINAL
Utah 100
Sacramento 93 FINAL
LA Lakers 92
Denver 112 FINAL
Golden State 119
Portland 99 FINAL
LA Clippers 89
Dallas 3 FINAL(SO)
New Jersey 2
Tampa Bay 4 FINAL
Winnipeg 2
Vancouver 3 FINAL
Colorado 7
Carolina 3 FINAL
Edmonton 6
Columbus 1 FINAL
Anaheim 4
Connecticut 21 FINAL
(18) East Carolina 31
Miami-Florida 30 FINAL
Virginia Tech 6
So Florida 17 FINAL
Cincinnati 34
Troy 13 FINAL
South Alabama 27
BYU 30 FINAL
Boise State 55
(6) Oregon 59 4th Qtr 4:35
California 35
North Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Rice
UAB 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Arkansas
Rutgers 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
Maryland 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Wisconsin
Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
Minnesota 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Memphis 10/25/14 11:00 AM
SMU
North Carolina 10/25/14 11:30 AM
Virginia
San Jose St 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Navy
Northern Ill 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
(25) UCLA 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Akron 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Massachusetts 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Toledo
Ohio U 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Western Mich
Ga Southern 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Kent State 10/25/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Oregon State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Stanford
Fla Atlantic 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(23) Marshall
Louisiana Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(1) Miss State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Kentucky
Georgia Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Pittsburgh
(22) West Virginia 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(10) TCU
Michigan 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Boston College 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Central Mich 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Vanderbilt 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Missouri
Old Dominion 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Western Ky
UNLV 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Utah State
Temple 10/25/14 4:00 PM
UCF
(15) Arizona 10/25/14 5:00 PM
Washington St
Texas-El Paso 10/25/14 6:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Wyoming 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Colorado State
Syracuse 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(21) Clemson
Texas State 10/25/14 6:00 PM
ULM
(3) Ole Miss 10/25/14 6:15 PM
(24) LSU
(4) Alabama 10/25/14 6:30 PM
Tennessee
So Carolina 10/25/14 6:30 PM
(5) Auburn
(13) Ohio State 10/25/14 7:00 PM
Penn State
(20) USC 10/25/14 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 10/25/14 9:45 PM
Washington
Nevada 10/25/14 10:59 PM
Hawaii
(2) Florida State 10/30/14 6:30 PM
Louisville
Troy 10/30/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
Cincinnati 10/31/14 7:00 PM
Tulane
Tulsa 10/31/14 7:00 PM
Memphis
Purdue 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
(17) Oklahoma 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Iowa State
Oklahoma State 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
(10) TCU 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(22) West Virginia
Texas 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Texas Tech
Northwestern 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Iowa
Maryland 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Penn State
Houston 1 FINAL
Chicago 2
Montreal 23 FINAL
Ottawa 17
Saskatchewan 27 FINAL
Calgary 40
Hamilton 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Winnipeg
Hamilton 10/31/14 6:30 PM
Ottawa
Winnipeg 11/1/14 3:00 PM
Calgary
Brt Columbia 11/1/14 6:00 PM
Edmonton
Toronto 11/2/14 11:00 AM
Montreal
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close