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Inside the Ropes: Muirfield brings golf's champions to the fore

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The U.S. Open returning to Merion last month was all about history, from Bobby Jones completing the Grand Slam on the East Course in 1930 to Ben Hogan's iconic 1-iron in 1950 to its distinctive wicker baskets to snake-charmer Lee Trevino beating Jack Nicklaus in a playoff in 1971.

Nice, but the 142nd Open Championship this week will be another reminder to Americans of exactly how young we are.

Muirfield Golf Links, host course of the third major of the year, sits on the East Coast of Scotland overlooking the Firth of Forth and has been there since 1891, when the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers moved about 20 miles out of town and built a new course in Gullane, East Lothian.

The Honourable men boast the oldest verifiable golf club in the world, dating to 1744, when its members wrote down 13 "Rules of Golf," for what was their first competition, played at Leith Links for the Silver Cup.

The names of the champions in the 15 Opens that have been played at Muirfield include Nicklaus (1966), Trevino (1972), Harry Vardon (1892), Walter Hagen (1929), James Braid (1901, 1906), Nick Faldo (1987, 1992), Ted Ray (1912), Henry Cotton (1948), Gary Player (1959), Tom Watson (1980) and Ernie Els (2002).

Members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, every one.

"The last six winners (at Muirfield) have won 18 Opens between them and 51 major championships," club captain Robin Dow said proudly. "To me, that says Muirfield rewards great champions. The course is fair and challenging. It doesn't give up fluky winners."

Nicklaus, considered the best golfer the world has ever seen, called Muirfield "the best golf course in Britain," and reveres the place so much that when he built his own club in Dublin, Ohio, in 1974, he called the place Muirfield Village.

Said Watson of Muirfield, which features high rough and cavernous bunkers: "There isn't a weak hole on this course."

Els will be making a rare double title defense at Muirfield, having won the last time the Open was played there in 2002, and also claimed the Claret Jug last year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

Even the Home of Golf takes a back seat when the Big Easy rates Open venues.

"A friend of mine is a historian and I think Gary Player was the last guy to do that," Els said of the double defense. "So just by chance it is happening that I am going back to Muirfield after winning there and being defending champion; it's going to be a huge thing.

"(Muirfield) really tests your whole game; to me, it is my favorite. Muirfield is my favorite and then St. Andrews, and then Lytham comes third now. It really is an unbelievable layout, one of the great links."

Muirfield also has taken down champions.

Nicklaus completed his first Career Grand Slam by winning at Muirfield in 1966 and came back six years later after winning the Masters and U.S. Open in search of the one-season Modern Grand Slam, only to lose by a stroke to Trevino.

Tiger Woods arrived at Muirfield for the first time in 2002, also after winning the Masters and the U.S. Open to start the major season, and was in position to capture the third leg of the Grand Slam when he opened with 70-68.

Then he caught the worst of gale-force winds on Saturday and spiraled out of contention with an 81, the worst score of his pro career, before finishing with a 65 that left him six strokes out of the playoff in which Els defeated Stuart Appleby of Australia, Thomas Levet of France and Steve Elkington of Australia.

"Muirfield is a wonderful test," Woods, who has not played in nearly a month because of a strained left elbow, said earlier this year. "I just caught a bad day there in '02 on the Saturday."

Woods, who has been stuck on 14 major victories in his pursuit of Nicklaus' record of 18 since winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in an epic playoff over Rocco Mediate, has said in recent years that the Open has become his favorite major because the courses are not tricked up.

In an effort to keep up with the advancements in golf technology and the more athletic players in the game today, the course at Muirfield has been lengthened by 158 yards to a total of 7,192, with the par remaining at 71.

But Woods and the others who played Muirfield in 2002 will find the shot values basically unchanged.

"It's an immensely popular venue with the players," said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which manages the Open. " ... Here at Muirfield the golf course is laid out in front of you. The actual ground on the fairways is relatively flat. It doesn't tend to have the humps and bumps that you might get at Royal St. George's and one or two others.

" ... We will be setting the golf course up to challenge these golfers. The rough was cut down over the winter but will regenerate. You will see the rough up and you're unlikely to win an Open at Muirfield from the rough.

"The amount of rough is weather-dependent, but we will get plenty."

Of course, weather always is a factor in the Open. Just ask Woods.

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