Ernie Els: Defending Open Champion Scouts Muirfield For Us

Ernie Els has the honor of returning to the British Isles to defend his 2012 British Open Championship won at Royal Lytham. This year’s edition is being played at Muirfield in Gullane, East Lothian, Scotland. And, as luck would have it, his other Open Championship was won in 2002 on the very same Muirfield course he faces this year.

In his media room interview which was quite extensive, he went into some detail about how much different links golf is and how demanding it will be for the players to prepare for Thursday’s first round. For those who’ve not had the challenge of playing a links course, there was a wealth of material to understand just how the players have to go about preparing. 

He also played Muirfield in 1992 finishing 5th, so he has those two pieces of ammunition:

Nice coming back to Muirfield, staying at Greywalls, again, and obviously played here in 1992, finishing 5th.  And then 2002, prevailing in the playoff.  So, yeah, it’s a wonderful time to come back, seeing the course.  The course looks very similar to what it did in ’02.  It’s a little firmer, but very similar golf course, it’s a great golf course.

The course is on the North Sea and basically plays as two concentric loops. The front nine is the outer loop and moves clockwise and the back nine doubles back inside and moves counterclockwise. Because of the movement of the holes within their loops, the player is exposed to many different wind directions even though the wind might be from a single direction.

It reminds me a little bit of Lytham.  But where Lytham goes in and comes back out, this course goes out, out south side on the front nine, and it moves a little different directions each shot that you play.  And then obviously the back nine you play more in the middle of the course.  And it’s just a wonderful design.  And the par‑3s are unbelievable.  The par‑5s have been changed a little bit; they’re longer.  Each and every hole is a little bit different.  There’s left to rights, right to lefts, and it all happens out there.  Every links shot that you can imagine, you’re going to play it this week.

The list of contemporary great players who have won at Muirfield is very impressive: Gary Player, 1959; Jack Nicklaus, 1966; Lee Trevino, 1972; Tom Watson, 1980; Nick Faldo, 1987, 1992 (two of the reasons why they now call him Sir Nick Faldo); and Els in 2002.

The course is intricate enough that it pays to get plenty of practice rounds in on it:

I’ve had some extra time coming into the event.  But I’ve played quite a few practice rounds, feel quite good about my game.  I feel like I’m striking it nicely.  There’s a lot of good things happening in my game.

I came in last night, played nine holes last night, very quietly.  It was beautiful, just to get another look.  And we’ll start out a real build-up from today.  I really can’t wait for Thursday to come.  I really have a good feel about it.  Since I’ve played my first practice round two weeks ago to last night, it’s amazing how the course has changed.  Your weather has been unbelievable.  The course is getting firmer and firmer and faster.

So you have to keep your thumb on things.  Things are changing quite rapidly out on the course every day with the weather.

Because they’ve had their share of rain, while the course is firming up, the rough is lush:

If you have a lot of rain, obviously it’s green, lush, the rough is very thick and obviously you can’t really go there, like last year at Lytham.  But this week is getting very firm, there is lots of rough.  So accuracy is going to be at the premium and your shot making is going to be really tested.  You’re going to have to come in high sometimes, you’re going to have to come in with bump-and-runs, your short game will be tested.  Everything about it.  This one is right up at the top of the list [of Open courses] for me, right at No.1.

And then there are the stark differences that “hard-and-fast” makes in judging club distances. When does a 3-iron act like a 3-iron?

But obviously getting used to the bounces, that’s the big thing.  You’ve got to envision that a 3‑iron could go 280 yards downwind, and into the wind it’s probably going to go 180.  Those are the things you have to really take into consideration and learn, the bounces and stuff.

Although Els acknowledges that players who don’t get to play links can come in and adapt fairly well, there’s just so much value in links experience:

But, yeah, your memory serves you well.  That’s why experience, I feel, is a big part in playing these championships is to know the way to miss it, especially at links courses. There are certain places where you just cannot go.  And I’m sure I’ve been to some of those places, as I mentioned.

And another positive note is that I’ve missed it in places that I know I can get it up and down.  So that’s where experience plays a big part.  Some of these young players come here the first time, they still have to learn that under duress, you know.  There’s no learning curve like under a lot of pressure.  You can play as many practice rounds as you want, but unless you haven’t played it under a lot of stress, you don’t know exactly how you’re going to react.  So that’s where experience comes in, and that’s what I’ll probably try to draw from playing this tournament.

It’s even down to different aesthetics in the actual ball striking on links courses:

The sound is different.  The divot into the fairways are different.  The whole experience is different than anything else around the world.  So it’s something you’re either going to really like or you’re not going to like.  I was fortunate enough that I really fell in love with it.

And finally, how Els’ round unfolded in 2002 is a perfect example of the razor’s edge elite players work on. One minute you think you’ve thrown it all away, only to be rescued by your own heroic charge:

You’ve just got to go watch the tape, to [see me] win by not hitting it in the perfect positions.  I had quite a few opportunities that year to pull away from the field a bit.  But I didn’t take those opportunities.  I hit it into the bunker on 13, got it up and down, which is probably the shot of the tournament for me.

Then I think I pulled it into the bunker on 14, the next hole.  Made bogey there.

And eventually made the biggest error of them all on 16 when I pulled my tee shot left there, left of the green and made double.  And then I had to birdie 17 and par 18 just to get into the playoffs.  It shows you how close I was to having a really nice win, and then really screwing it up, in many senses.

So that’s the expert scouting report from a two-time British Open winner and most recently last year. His experience should stand us in good stead as we watch the runs and the bounces over the coming four days…and Els too as he tries to recreate the best of his memories.

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