GULLANE, Scotland — This already is shaping up as a yellow British Open.
Golf’s oldest championship returns to Muirfield after a wet spring that was ideal for growing thick grass, followed by a dry summer that has yielded three “F” words that are ideal for a links course.
Firm. Fast. Fiery.
The yellow hue of the fairways and wisps of knee-high native grass framing them make that obvious. The trick is to figure out how far the ball is going — not in the air, but once it starts bouncing on the ground.
Angel Cabrera set out Sunday to learn on the sixth hole, 461 yards and bending to the left with a bunker on the left side.
The two-time major champion from Argentina hit 4-iron with a right-to-left wind and it stopped a yard short of the bunker. Then he hit a bullet of a driver that he thought was ideal until he reached the crest of a slight hill and didn’t see a ball in the fairway. The ball was running so fast that it went through the fairway and into the rough.
“The great thing about links golf is it gives variety and options how to play,” two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington said. “You can have three players taking on a shot from the same place, and you might see three very different shots. You see a little bit of everything.”
He played his first ball just short of a bunker to the right of the green and stared at it for the longest time, taking an unconventional route that makes links golf so different. Instead of pitching over the sand, he bumped a 9-iron on the ground, along the edge of the bunker, and watched it roll up the slope and down toward the pin.
“Bien, Seve,” said his swing coach, Charlie Epps, as high a compliment as can be paid.
Seve Ballesteros was a three-time Open champion who spent a career inventing shots that took circuitous routes to their destinations. That’s what it can take at an Open, especially when the grass is yellow and crusty.
It’s something Tiger Woods tends to do well.
Woods was among dozens of players who used a sunny, warm Sunday to get their first look at Muirfield, which is hosting its 16th Open dating to 1892. He played with Jason Day and Dustin Johnson with girlfriend Lindsey Vonn in tow. The left elbow strain that has kept Woods out of competition since the U.S. Open is not expected to be an issue. Woods said he was “full go,” which is the reason he took three weeks off to let his elbow heal.
Woods is the betting favorite to end his five-year drought in the majors, and for good reason. He already has won four times this year on the PGA Tour. He’s a three-time Open champion. He loves to create shots, and the conditions are favorable.
As players made their way around Muirfield, more than one of them mentioned Hoylake. That was considered the last true “yellow” Open, with a dry, hot spell on the northwest coast of England. That’s the last British Open that Woods won with supreme control. That one was famous for Woods hitting only one driver in 72 holes — on the 16th hole, and the shot wound up in the 17th fairway.
“Did he hit it there on purpose?” Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano said.
“No, that was his normal shot,” Cabrera replied with a laugh.
The 441-yard eighth hole proved to be a great example of playing the ball in the air and on land. Cabrera looked at the pot bunkers that dotted the landscape on the right side of the fairway and chose a 6-iron off the tee to keep left of the trouble, and to keep his ball from running through into high grass. His only other option was to hit driver over the trouble.
Teeing up another ball, he launched his driver high and long — far different from the low, penetrating flight on the sixth hole — and the ball stopped rolling when it went into a cross bunker about 40 yards short of the green.
“There’s no way to know how far the ball is going,” he said to Fernandez-Castano, who opted for a 5-iron off the tee.
The forecast is for dry conditions the entire week, which could make the British Open tougher than usual. Then again, players were quick to remember the last time at Muirfield in 2002. It wasn’t nearly this dry — that was a “green” Open — though the weather was reasonable until a freak storm arrived without warning on Saturday.
The wind chill plunged into the low 40s, the wind approach 40 mph and the rain was relentless. Woods was just enough off his game that he shot 81 that day, ending his hopes of a calendar Grand Slam.
“It’s amazing golf,” Harrington said. “Someone genuinely can hit a drive 400 yards, and then turn around and be able to carry it 240 yards. It suits the guy who can manipulate his golf ball, which is what links golf is all about.”