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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Doesn’t get much better than Muirfield

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

GULLANE, Scotland -- Spending time at Muirfield, where the British Open has been played since 1892, is to link up with a history that would be akin to caressing a centuries-old antique or a book of which there remains a single copy.

The Open championship first took place at Prestwick in 1860 and was played there for eleven years, dominated by Willie Park Sr., Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris. With the junior Morris having won the championship three years in a row by 1870 and gaining permanent possession of the belt, which went to the winner, the championship was not played in 1871.

Play resumed in 1872, with the winner receiving a medal. The claret jug, the symbol of the championship, was first presented in 1873.

That’s when the tournament moved to St. Andrews for the first time. The Open alternated among Prestwick, St. Andrews, and Musselburgh until 1892 when the competition took place at Muirfield.

“The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers,” succeeded the “Gentleman Golfers” of Leith, whose existence dates back to the 15th century. Formally recognized by the Edinburgh Town Council in 1744 (10 years before the Royal & Ancient was founded), the “Gentleman Golfers” and its offspring, “The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers” lay claim to being the oldest club in the world.

Who could refute the claim?

Designed by Old Tom Morris, Muirfield is known, among other things, for its abundant bunkers — 165 of them, deep with steep faces that have brought agony for many of the world’s best contestants. Old Tom laid out the course with a clustering of holes, in threes, which means that the competitor faces the wind for no more than three holes.

Muirfield has been known by the champions it keeps. Winners have included Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Nick Faldo. The endless talk of Turnberry in 1977 when Watson shot 65-65 to defeat Nicklaus (65-66) in the final two rounds, which turned out to be match play, overshadows the drama that was the final round here in 1972. Nicklaus, who had won the Masters and the U.S. Open, was poised for a run at the modern Grand Slam (winner of the four professional majors in the same calendar year). Jack’s 70-72 start had him two strokes behind Lee Trevino, who all of a sudden distanced himself after the third round with a 66, putting Jack six strokes behind at the start of the final round.

Jack’s championship history often featured come-from-behind final rounds, him keeping the ball in the fairway with iron play, for accuracy off the tee and watching those around him falter, leaving him with the prize.

On the final day at Murifield in ‘72, he uncharacteristically chose to risk everything by pulling the driver out of his bag in the fourth round. By the 11th hole, where he made birdie, he was tied for the lead. It was at this point he returned to form, conservatism off the tee, reverting back to iron play. When Trevino came to the 17th, he went from a fairway bunker to wind up in the heavy rough at the green. The golfing gods seemed to favor the wise-cracking Trevino when he flailed away at his next shot, where a high number could have resulted — but instead he saw the shot, miraculously and serendipitously, sail dead into the hole.

That was the day the Slam died.

Muirfield, for years, was best known for its crusty secretary, Paddy Hamner, a retired Naval officer whose iron-fisted style had him clashing with some notable visitors, principally those who preferred the standard four-ball competition. (For years, Muirfield only allowed two-ball games).

Nobody was ever known to have outwitted the clever Paddy. He always viewed playing action from the clubhouse with his powerful binoculars. If he saw something out of order, he thought nothing of charging out to the offenders, who could be literally thrown off the course.

Following the end of the competition in 1980, when Watson won, Ben Crenshaw organized a few holes of play, using old clubs, with Watson, Tom Kite, and others joining him. Hamner was appalled at such a thought, even at sundown without another soul on the golf course.

They were summarily evicted.