THE OPEN 2002-The Majesty of Muirfield
Steve Isaac Area Manager for Scotland & Ireland and STRI's Official Agronomist to the R&A Championship Committee for EastScotland
This year's Open is being held at Muirfield, the current home of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. I say current home, as The Honourable Company has played its golf over three links courses in their 258-year history: initially at Leith before moving on to Musselburgh in 1836 and then to their current residence in 1891.
The Open at Muirfield
2002 will be the 15th occasion on which The Open has been held at Muirfield. Muirfield held its first Open in 1892, yes only 12 months after the Honourable Company moved to the site. Muirfield was then a regular venue, hosting the Championship in 1896, 1901, 1906 and 1912. At this time only a few venues were used for The Open, Muirfield alternating as host with Prestwick, Sandwich, St. Andrews and Hoylake. With Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) now under consideration as a future Open venue, it is encouraging to see potentially four of the original five venues still in use, despite the advances in golfing technology that threaten many of our older courses. The Great War and expansion of the Championship to other courses delayed the Open's return to Muirfield until 1929. The Open has been held at Muirfield on a further eight occasions since then, in 1935, 1948, 1959, 1966, 1972, 1980, 1987 and 1992.
If you, like me, believe that the quality of an Open Championship venue is reflected in the quality of the golfers that win the Claret Jug there, then Muirfield is one of the top quality courses. Harold Hilton, Harry Vardon, James Braid (twice), Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, Alf Perry, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Nick Faldo (twice), form Muirfield's Open Roll of Honour.
Muirfield: the golf course
When one visits Muirfield you feel a sense of timelessness. The familiar façade of the clubhouse with its very traditional interior and the superb view over the course; the course is sited on land that falls from the clubhouse to the dunes that skirt the Firth of Forth, makes for a spectacular setting for the oldest of the four Majors. The tradition of The Open and Muirfield seem totally in harmony.
Old Tom Morris designed the original course with 16 holes built by hand and horse and which opened on 3rd May 1891, with two more added in December of that year. Muirfield was the first course designed in two loops of nine holes, the first nine going round the perimeters of the property in a clockwise direction, the second nine contained inside the first, running anticlockwise. There are never more than three successive holes run in the same direction, which means that any wind that blows affects the golfer from all points during a round. This classic layout has stood the test of time and has been copied at many other sites.
Muirfield has seen some alterations in recent years. The Par 3 13th has a new tee, giving 32 extra yards and providing a very challenging 191 yard hole. The 4th, another par 3, has also been extended from 180 to 213 yards. It might seem surprising that the extra length comes on par 3 holes, at a time in golf when distance off the tee on par 4's and 5's is probably the biggest talking point amongst those who run the game. This merely highlights the challenge of Muirfield, though as with any other links course, low scoring must be on the cards if the wind fails to materialize. The card of the course for the 2002 Open Championship reads:
1. 448 yards par 4 10. 475 yards par 4
2. 351 yards par 4 11. 389 yards par 4
3. 378 yards par 4 12. 381 yards par 4
4. 213 yards par 3 13. 191 yards par 3
5. 560 yards par 5 14. 448 yards par 4
6. 468 yards par 4 15. 415 yards par 4
7. 185 yards par 3 16. 186 yards par 3
8. 443 yards par 4 17. 546 yards par 5
9. 508 yards par 5 18. 449 yards par 4
Out 3554 yards par 36 In 3480 yards par 35 Total 7034 yards par 71
Colin Irvine is the Course Manager at The Honourable Company. This will be Colin's first Open in charge at Muirfield, though he was working here in 1992 as Deputy to Chris Whittle, who now cares for the links at another Open Championship venue, Royal Birkdale. The tradition of The Open and this year's host is emphasized by the quality of the conditioning of the golf course. This is classic links turf, dominated by fine, wiry fescue and bent grasses. Muirfield is one of very few courses we visit these days where the quality of the grasses on greens is as good as it has always been. This is largely due to the fact that the Greenkeepers who have tended Muirfield over the years have not deviated from traditional links greenkeeping practices. Lean management, supplying the minimum fertiliser and water to keep the grass alive and to present firm, running surfaces, is the prescribed action at Muirfield.
Do not, however, get confused between tradition and living in the past. Colin has all the necessary modern-day equipment to maintain the golf course. A state of the art fairway irrigation system was installed over the winter of 1997-98. This has rarely been used, but is an essential insurance policy against drought damage that has seen great variety to the quality of the turf through the fairways in the past. Greens and tees are still watered using manually operated sprinklers. This is, possibly, one of the main reasons why the greens retain so much fescue.
The machinery available to Colin is also bang up-to-date. Dedicated fairway mowers with floating head cutting units have contributed greatly to the reduction in scalping damage to undulating fairways. Thatch-Away verticut reels are employed on green surrounds to check ryegrass, which tends to plague many of Scotland's East Coast links. Muirfield is always presented as a classic links with firm fairways and fast greens. For The Open the immediate surrounds will be mown a little tighter than usual, so that balls running through putting surfaces keep going beyond the fringe of collar, and bunker surrounds will also be mown to encourage balls to collect in the hazard.
STRI and The Open
STRI are the Official Agronomists to the R&A Championship Committee. The months leading up to The Open are always very hectic for STRI's agronomists as they work with course managers, club officials and the R&A Championship Committee to ensure that the golf courses used for The Open are in excellent agronomic condition. STRI's involvement is not just with this year's jewel in the crown at Muirfield but also covers the agronomy at all the Regional and Final Qualifying courses throughout the country, with preparations starting four years in advance of the Championship. In addition to agronomic advice, we also advise on ecology at Muirfield to ensure the course returns to its environmental best after the players, spectators, officials, camera crews and press have long departed!
This will be my first Open at Muirfield, following on from my involvement at Carnoustie in 1999 and St. Andrews in 2000, plus the Walker Cup at Nairn in 1999 as well. I have never seen Muirfield in anything but good order and believe that we are all in for a cracking Open this year on a true links conditioned course that will favour the expert golfer who can vary his game to suit sometimes harsh weather and firm turf - playing as much golf along the ground as through the air, the way links golf is meant to be.
If you are visiting the Open, do take the opportunity of calling in to see us at the STRI Information Point in the BIGGA tent from Thursday 19 to Sunday 22 July.