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British Opens at Muirfield tend to produce elite champions

GULLANE, Scotland — From behind the 18th green, Paul Azinger stared out toward a golf course where he nearly won a major title, where so many greats of the game have carved their names on the claret jug.

Sure, it's a classic links layout — right by the sea, filled with inexplicable humps in the fairways, terrifying bunkers stuck in the strangest of spots and knee-high grass ready to punish a wayward shot.

But Muirfield is different.

There are all those quirky elements that make it worthy of a British Open. There's just — uhhh, how should we put this? — not TOO many of them.

"It's not a luck-fest out there," Azinger said Monday, as the world's top golfers arrived en masse to prepare for the third major of the season. "If you make the ball do what you want it to do, you'll play well."

Maybe that's the reason the roster of winners looks more like a who's who of the sport.

Harry Vardon. Walter Hagen. Gary Player. Jack Nicklaus. Lee Trevino. Tom Watson. Nick Faldo. Ernie Els.

And let's not forget Harold Hilton, James Braid and Henry Cotton.

Of the 13 players to win the Open at this course east of Edinburgh, 11 are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Game (and you can make a pretty strong case that another, Ted Ray, should be). Only Alf Perry looks a bit out of place on this elite list, and even he was a three-time member of Britain's Ryder Cup team in the 1930s.

Not a stiff in the bunch.

"That's not a fluke," Faldo said. "You have to have a good mind game. You have to know where you're going to land it, where the next bounce is and where the run is."

And, of course, have the ability to pull it off.

Faldo recalled his second victory at Muirfield in 1992, with Fanny Sunesson on the bag.

"That's what we worked out so well," he said, "where to land the ball 20 yards short of the green, which way it would kick, and obviously where it would stop. That's part of the calculations. But you've got to land the ball from A to B first. And that has to be a solid shot. If that's a mis-hit, the ball doesn't react close to what you intend. You look at all those guys, we all hit it pretty darn solid in our era."

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."

Azinger said Woods' issues are more physical than mental at the moment, all because of a body that seems to be aging much quicker than his still relatively young age (37).

"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.

When Scott captured the Masters in a playoff, McIlroy was never much of a factor on the way to finishing 25th. When Rose held on to win the U.S. Open, the young Irishman limped to the end in 41st.

From Azinger's perspective, McIlroy lost the baseline on his game when he changed up all that equipment. When something goes wrong, he's not sure what might be contributing to the problem — the club or the ball. He's trying to figure it all out again, and that's not easy to do when you're in the midst of the season, even for a player with his enormous skills.

Faldo, meanwhile, urged McIlroy to eliminate some of the distractions that have cropped up since he surged to stardom.

"You have a window of opportunity," the three-time Open champion said. "That's my only words of wisdom to Rory. You have, say, a 20-year window as an athlete. Concentrate on golf, nothing else. Hopefully when you retire, in your 40s or 50s, you have another 40 years to enjoy it. So just concentrate on golf."

Even if Woods falters again and McIlroy continues to struggle, Muirfield will likely produce a worthy champion.

That's just the way it goes at this place.

 

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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