British Open: A Real Horse Race

If this year’s British Open at Muirfield is a matter of “horses for courses,” all we have to do is figure out which horse. That’s not an easy matter because the leaderboard is clumped with the best golf talent on earth and, in the end, it probably won’t come down to their talent.

It will come down to the quirky vagaries of the course and who can handle it the best. Adam Scott does his best to describe the variabilities he saw in the course over ten practice rounds. He’s in 4th at Even par and will be paired with Tiger Woods on Sunday: 

Yeah, I’ve seen it change almost every day I’ve been here, including the three rounds I’ve played in the tournament. But I think you’ve just got to have a good understanding of it. And for me it means playing it and hitting enough shots and different kinds of shots in different winds. Maybe I don’t visualize it as well as some other people can after just one or two practice rounds.

But I thoroughly enjoy coming to a Major venue the week before when no one is here, and I get to play a beautiful golf course by myself pretty much. It’s an enjoyable week for me and it’s quite productive, as well. As far as appreciating it, you know, it doesn’t take long once you play Muirfield in any conditions to appreciate the genius of the golf course. It’s the best one on the Open rota.

So that’s the baseline for what might happen on Sunday, the golf course is smarter than the humans, and at the genius level at that. For a golfer, it’s one of the most apocryphal experiences in the game: in a world that requires control and precision, you can only achieve moderate control and there is no precision. How can there be precision when on hole after hole, the strategy on approach shots is to guess how far back in the fairway to plan your first bounce into the green?

Even the great Tiger Woods, T2 at 1-under with Hunter Mahan, found a certain resignation in his approach to the final round:

I was just plodding along, just be patient, play my own game. Whatever happens at the end of the day, it happens, just play my own game. And it changed quickly. And the guys made a run from behind us, as well. There’s a lot of guys in there with a chance to win and anything can happen.

If we get another different condition, another different day and with these bounces and the way things are going, and these are really tough hole locations. They’re putting it on sides of slopes. It’s really hard to make birdies, it’s hard to get the ball close. We’ll see what they do tomorrow.

For me I was trying to grind along and play my own game, regardless of what Lee was doing or what anyone else was doing. This golf course is a tough test and I was just trying to execute my own game plan. And wherever that ended up, it ended up. And I ended up 1-over par, which wasn’t too bad.

While there may be resignation in how he has to surrender to vagaries of the course (and like it!), he’s enthusiastic about the opportunity:

I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the challenge of it. I’ve been in this position before, in the past five years, and I’ve been in that hunt, in that mix. And I’m in it again. Hopefully tomorrow I can play well and win the tournament.

Hunter Mahan posted his 1-under score before Tiger posted his, so he gets the privilege of playing in the last group with the leader, Lee Westwood, on Sunday. Not only is this becoming familiar territory to him — he was paired in the last group with Phil Mickelson in this year’s U.S. Open — he’s developed a sort of Zen-like philosophy to the task. He talked about how he arrived there and how he’s going to approach the day:

I don’t know. Probably doing the right amount of practice, right amount of work, right amount of kind of rest and mental kind of preparation.

I’m just trying to play golf. I’m not trying to add to anything and make it more than it is, just enjoying kind of the opportunity of playing in a Major, playing in a British. I enjoyed it playing at the U.S. Open. I enjoyed playing with Phil. I didn’t think that was a distraction or a hindrance or anything. You just kind of accept things and appreciate them.

He also has a healthy approach to some of the shibboleths of the game regarding the level of experience you must have to win a Major. Are they sometimes true? Yes. But are they always true?

I don’t think so. I don’t think you need to. I think you can go out and win a Major without anything, without any sort of successes. Does it help? I think it does. Because I think it can be overwhelming at times. Being in the first or second, last groups there, to have everybody following you and seeing all the scores and everything, it can be overwhelming. But there’s no rules in this game, you can kind of do whatever you want.

But there are some helpful prerequisites, the greatest being that you believe you can do it:

I definitely think you kind of have to believe before you can win. You’ve got to have that confidence knowing that I can play well and I can win a Major. You have to believe before it can actually happen, because you actually have to see it happening. I think once you start believing and actually trusting yourself, you can go out and do all kinds of stuff.

And the other thing he has learned to do is put the past behind him. In Great Britain, he’s always going to be asked about his collapse in the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor and whether winning the Open would be some sort of redemption:

No, I don’t need any redemption or anything like that, [I’m] just playing golf. I don’t play golf for revenge or to make up for anything. I’m playing because I really like to play, and it’s the ultimate challenge playing Major golf. So that’s the only thing I’m worried about.

But the star of the final round will be Lee Westwood, Great Britain’s very own and, from their point of view, a worthy winner who has paid his dues and into whose hands the Claret Jug should finally be delivered.

Well, actually I’m not in a high-pressure situation, because I’m going to go have dinner, and I’m so good with a knife and fork now that I don’t feel any pressure at all. (Laughter).

I’ll think about winning The Open Championship tonight at some stage, I’m sure. I don’t see anything wrong with that, picture yourself holding the Claret Jug at the final [green] and seeing your name at the top of the leaderboard. When it comes to tee off around threeish, I should be in the same frame of mind as I was today. I didn’t feel any pressure today and felt nice and calm out there and in control of what I was doing.

But there is a critical line of demarcation to these visualizations of holding the trophy, night and day:

Well, like I said earlier, you try and picture yourself winning The Open Championship tonight, but forget about it tomorrow and go and tee off down the first, and focus on [the ball] in the middle of the fairways with the first tee shot and then go from there.

The way this golf course is set up, it is a very strategic golf course. You have to plot your way around it. Most Major championships are like that. They grind you into the ground, even your game plan, and the way you attack the golf course. It tests that to the limit, as well, not just the way you’re playing. Mentally and physically it’s draining, and you just have to focus on the job at hand, and pile the pars up and try to make birdies wherever you can.

And finally, as if he needed any more pressure, was he aware that with so many of Great Britain’s sports heroes doing so well, most recently Andy Murray at Wimbledon and Chris Froome in the Tour de France, an enthusiastic nation is looking for another such moment?

Hopefully I can give it. But the pressure comes from the expectation I put on myself, not — I was trying to explain earlier on to somebody, that I don’t really live my life outside in. I don’t live it and run it according to what other people think. I live it the other way around. So I have my own ideas and my own dreams and my own plans.

The way he phrased this, it sounds as if it comes from essence — that unshakeable certainty of who he really is — rather than ego. Living life without the necessity of eyes in the back of your head is a very healthy way of being.

And, of course, it helps when you start with a two-stoke lead.

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