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British Open: Muirfield is stuffy, pretentious, difficult - and proud of it

By Ron Green Jr.

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GULLANE, Scotland The Open Championship, with its big yellow scoreboards and the scent of fish and chips in the air, has arrived this week at Muirfield.

Nice of the place to let us in for a few days.

Muirfield is home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which hints at the pretension of the place. When asked if the club is as stuffy as its reputation, a local said, “Positively – and they’re proud of it. They honestly don’t care what anyone else thinks.”

There’s something obnoxiously admirable about that, unless you’re progressive, female or both.

When Muirfield allows guest play, it asks that the interlopers arrive in coat and tie to check in.

Once the club gives its approval, golfers can then change into suitable golf attire, which means no cargo shorts, no Rickie Fowler-styled hats and please no plus-fours. After playing, guests are then asked to change back into their coats and ties for lunch. Enjoy the neeps and tatties.

This Open begins as most major championships do these days – with an abundance of analysis on the state of Tiger Woods’ elbow and the state of Rory McIlroy’s psyche. Those questions will be answered on Thursday when play begins with a frighteningly good weather forecast.

The Open Championship at Muirfield is a reminder that golf was originally played more on the ground than through the air, a concept lost on Americans. With Muirfield’s fairways and knee-high rough now the color of a nice latte, this championship will be played in classic firm and fast conditions.

The fairways are so firm – unlike Charlotte, it hasn’t rained significantly in Scotland for a few weeks – Woods said he’s allowing for 70 to 80 yards of run after his 3-wood shots land. Such brown, bouncy conditions would send American golfers on a march to the course superintendent’s office, demanding the fairways be green enough to mow a tartan design into them.

Imagine that, Americans worried about how something looks.

Then there is the wind. It isn’t a matter of whether it will blow but a question of how hard. A gentle day will ruffle your shirt. A breezy day will ruffle your insides. There aren’t many gentle days here, though there’s been a nice run of them.

The conditions add to the puzzle that is Muirfield, considered by virtually everyone who considers such things to be among the world’s finest courses.

It’s straightforward, which means hit it between the fields of hay, avoid at all cost the bunkers as dangerously deep as empty swimming pools, and pray the golf god in charge of bounces looks favorably upon you. Part of its magic is the way the holes keep changing direction, so that golfers aren’t consistently playing into the same wind, thereby giving them different questions to answer.

“It’s just a good, solid, honest golf course. … It’s a good mind game,” said Sir Nick Faldo, who is teeing it up in his final major championship.

Muirfield’s brilliance may be summed up in the list of winners in the past seven Opens played here: Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Faldo (twice) and Ernie Els.

This Open Championship is not without a bit of controversy, perhaps not the saucy Fleet Street kind, but the kind of public/private battle that has already been fought in the States.

Neither the R & A, which oversees the game on this side of the Atlantic, nor Muirfield allows female members. Sound familiar?

It’s a centuries-old policy in a place where centuries-old buildings or their remains still dot the hills and glens. A Scottish caddie in my group at Nairn last week joked about the rules at one of the local clubs, saying in his thick brogue, “No four-ball games allowed until after 9 a.m. and no women allowed until after dark.”

Who says the Scots don’t have a sense of humor.

Need more evidence?

Four of us played Carnoustie on Monday, the dark dragon of Open rota courses. It revels in its reputation as “the world’s most challenging links,” which you can find inscribed on a variety of tourist-styled trinkets. The course, the toughest I’ve ever played, is set on the edge of a grim, gray town, and even on a sunny, 70-degree July day, the thought of a Carnoustie winter can send a chill.

When our wind-blown round was over – 5 hours, 40 minutes after it began – pints of beer were ordered. The tap for Belhaven Best, a Scottish treasure, had run dry.

“Carnoustie disappoints,” one of our group said.

Without looking up, Georgina the bartender said, “Try living here.”

Ba-dum.

The no-females fire was stoked recently when Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond announced he would not attend the Open at Muirfield because of its membership policies, a stand that isn’t likely to change.

Perhaps knowing he wouldn’t be here this week, Salmond spent last week in the highlands at the Scottish Open where he seemed to spend more time at the spectacular Castle Stuart links than eventual champion Phil Mickelson.

When he finally pulled himself away from microphones and handshakes, Salmond walked the final round with Mickelson’s group, going the full distance with them, without any evidence of a security detail. He did have an aide with him in case a news conference were to break out.

The Open Championship at Muirfield is a rare treat because of what it is and where it is. We should enjoy it – and make sure we’re gone by Monday.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post (www.globalgolfpost.com) and a contributor to the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at rongreenjr@gmail.com.
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