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.
Woods insisted Tuesday that his elbow is fully healed. Even though he shot his worst round as a professional at Muirfield, an 81 in miserable conditions during the third round of the 2002 Open, he has great respect for the course.
“I mean, look at the list of past champions, the number of Hall of Famers that have won here,” Woods said. “You can’t just hit one way. You have to shape it both ways and really control the shots. … You’re playing almost in kind of a circle, in a sense, because you’ve got so many different angles and so many different winds. You have to be able to maneuver the ball both ways.”
That doesn’t bode well for McIlroy. His game is in 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.”
“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.