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Horses for golf courses: seven players who have prospered at Muirfield

by Aidan Elder | July 16, 2013
ON EASY STREET? - Could his local knowledge see the Big Easy retain the Claret Jug?

ON EASY STREET? – Could his local knowledge see the Big Easy retain the Claret Jug?

By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer

As the pros stand on the first tee at Muirfield, the 18 holes in front of them are won’t have them shaking in their golf shoes and silly pants. In terms of difficult layouts, hazards and yardage, the East Lothian course is a bit run of the mill. On the spectrum of ‘toughness of challenges’ this is one on the easy side of things. More ‘deciphering Graeme McDowell’s accent’ rather than ‘liking Sergio Garcia’ in terms of toughness

But this is the Open and we’re on the North Sea. It’s never that simple. Mother Nature’s input will ensure the players get a rigourous examination. The wind will blow and its ferocity will determine just how familiar the players get with the combination of bunkers, thick rough and undulating greens.

Previous experience of playing the course and handling the changeable winds could be the difference and with that in mind, here’s a look at seven players who – to radically differently degrees – have done either well at Muirfield or at least not looked completely hapless in East Lothian.

#1 Ernie Els – 28/1

Muirfield record: Won 2002 Open, finished tied 5th in 1992

He’s the defending champion and he’s already won at Muirfield – if Els ever gave the impression he gave a shit about anything, he’d probably be a much shorter price. He tends to meander around seemingly not too flustered by things going well or going badly and if someone like Adam Scott wants to choke spectacularly, he’ll be there to pick up the pieces and – more importantly – trophy.

The Big Easy has made two professional appearances at the course, finishing tied for fifth in just his second major appearance ever back in 1992 as a spritely and chilled out 22 year old. He followed it up with a win on his second visit as a slightly less spritely but still quite chilled out 32 year old. The South African plays the track very well and for the second year in a row, he may have some very welcome excess baggage charges to pay when he leaves Scotland.

#2 Sergio Garcia – 30/1

PRIZE JACKASS - Sergio picks up his trophy for 'Best Inappropriate Joke on Tour 2013' (pic: Inpho)

PRIZE JACKASS – Sergio picks up his trophy for ‘Best Inappropriate Joke on Tour 2013’ (pic: Inpho)

Muirfield record: Won 1998 British Amateur Championship and tied 8th (two shots off the lead) in the 2002 Open

Making an ill-conceived joke with racist undertones often seems like a better idea than backing Sergio Garcia in a major, but his decent record at Muirfield might be the catalyst to end years and years of heartbreak. Rather amusing heartbreak admittedly, but heartbreak nonetheless.

At the age of 18, Garcia won the British Amateur Championship at Muirfield way back when people hadn’t yet realised he was a bit of a dick and his eighth placed finish in 2002 was only two shots short of heading into a playoff in which he almost certainly would have choked like he does most of the time. It’s a leap of faith backing Sergio, but he does have some good course form.

#3 Nick Faldo – 1000/1

NICK FALDO - If this picture speaks 1,000 words, they'd nearly all be 'cock' (pic: Inpho)

NICK FALDO – If this picture speaks 1,000 words, they’d nearly all be ‘cock’ (pic: Inpho)

Muirfield record: Won Opens at Muirfield in 1987 & 1992, tied 14th in 2007 British Senior Open

Yes Nick Faldo is pretty much only turning up to Muirfield because his previous wins save him from having to buy a ticket, but his record at the course is mightily impressive. Far better than his record at building a successful marriage.

Sir Nick won two Opens at the course in 1987 and 1992 becoming the first man to win two majors at the venue since 1906 – a time when giving women the vote seemed more laughable than your typical Ian Poulter outfit. Although it’s far less important and at the time he was far more concerned with exporting his smugness to the other side of the Atlantic, he managed a half-decent tied 14th at the 2007 Senior British Open.

Barring the sudden onset of kleptomania, he’s hugely unlikely to get his hands on the Claret Jug this time around, but a speculative each way bet on him being First Round Leader at 250/1 is worth a shot.

#4 Tom Watson – 300/1

WAT ARE THE CHANCES? - Watson clutching the Claret Jug while smiling uncomfortably was a regular sight in the 70s and 80s (pic: Inpho)

WAT ARE THE CHANCES? – Watson clutching the Claret Jug while smiling uncomfortably was a regular sight in the 70s and 80s (pic: Inpho)

Muirfield record: Won the 1980 Open, seventh in 1987 and won the Senior Open Championship in 2007

In many ways, his story is similar to Faldo’s – apart from the fact people actually like him and he’s got a small but genuine chance of winning. Watson is the grand daddy of the Open and despite being older than the Colin Montgomerie/Mrs. Doubtfire joke, he is still capable of getting himself near the top of the Open leaderboard.

His general fondness for links golf is a big positive, but when it’s combined with his record at Muirfield, he becomes a very interesting option. He won the 1980 Open and the 2007 Senior Open at the course and even managed a seventh placed finish in 1987. 300/1 is a big price, but with seven places, an each way punt isn’t the most ridiculous thing we’ve ever heard. If you think he lacks the stamina to go all the way, the option of backing him to be First Round Leader at 150/1 is a bit more realistic.

#5 Padraig Harrington – 60/1

IN FASHION - An Ivory Coast flag and Claret Jug were must have accessories for 2008's self-respecting man about town (pic: Inpho)

IN FASHION – An Ivory Coast flag and Claret Jug were must have accessories for 2008’s self-respecting man about town (pic: Inpho)

Muirfield record: Finished tied 5th (one shot off the lead) in 2002 Open

Harrington hasn’t got a huge amount of experience of the Muirfield course, but his one visit as a professional yielded a good result. A tie for fifth place doesn’t sound like he went too heart-breakingly close to victory, but if he managed to trim just one more shot off his total, he would have been heading into a playoff.

After that, it’s gets a bit more ‘clutching at straws-y’ with course form thin on the ground. Obviously the Dubliner has two Open titles to his name. Neither of them came at Muirfield, but clearly he’s capable of success on the links and thanks more than you can say for a lot of players in the field. His recent habit of throwing in at least one stinking round at every tournament somewhat undermines the optimism generated by Pod’s clear fondness for being by the seaside.

#6 Carl Pettersson – 200/1

SWEDE SUCCESS - It's actually quite hard to find a picture of Carl Pettersson with a trophy (pic: Inpho)

SWEDE SUCCESS – It’s actually quite hard to find a picture of Carl Pettersson with a trophy (pic: Inpho)

Muirfield record: Co-leader after 1st Round in 2002 before a third round +5 destroyed his chances

Yeah, if you hadn’t already guessed, the number of places Paddy Power are paying on the Open [in a less than subtle plug, that’s SEVEN] vastly outweighs the number of clear signs of Muirfield form we could dig up from the archives. One crumble comes in the rather rotund shape of Carl Petterson.

He led the Open after the first round the last time it was played at Muirfield and was only a one off the pace at the half-way point. After that, things turned a bit ‘David Duval’ however as a third round 76 saw him tumble out of the charts like Dr. Alban record after the novelty has worn off. He eventually finished tied for 43rd which isn’t great admittedly. If he can rediscover specifically the form of his first two rounds, backing him each way at 200/1 may not be the worst of ideas – certainly better than buying that Dr. Alban’s Greatest Hits album.

#7 Thomas Bjorn – 66/1

LIFE'S A BEACH - Bjorn looked furious when he realised a cheeky golf ball had stolen his place on the beach (pic: Inpho)

LIFE’S A BEACH – Bjorn looked furious when he realised a cheeky golf ball had stolen his place on the beach (pic: Inpho)

Muirfield record: Finished tied 8th in 2002 and the Open is his preferred major

Continuing the theme of taking a vague snippet of Muirfield form and trying to make it sound more important, we have Thomas Bjorn. Unlike Pettersson, the Dane actually managed to keep it largely together. He finished each of the four rounds inside the top ten and if he managed to go around in par on day three rather than the two over he managed, he would have got himself into the playoff.

More generally, the Open is the most successful of Bjorn’s majors as he’s got five top ten finishes in the event. He’s comfortable with links golf and has flirted with major victory in the past. All those previous flirtations ended up with a metaphorical ‘going home alone for a Pot Noodle and a wank’, but at least there was some flirtation.

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