British Open Golf 2013: The Top Storylines at Muirfield

James McMahonContributor IJuly 14, 2013

British Open Golf 2013: The Top Storylines at Muirfield

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    By just about any measure, the Open Championship is the most unpredictable of golf's four major championships.

    The weather is wacky, the courses are unlike anything we see in the three stateside majors and there always seems to be unexpected challengers to the game's elite when the tournament is on the line.

    Bottom line, it's difficult to predict the headlines that will emerge during the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

    That said, there are significant storylines heading into the season's third major that can't be ignored and will undoubtedly influence the headlines once the tournament begins.

    How healthy is Tiger? How prepared is Phil Mickelson? Is there another first-time major winner coming? What about Ernie Els?

    Welcome to a sampling of what everyone is talking about as the 2013 Open Championship prepares to tee off.

     

Is Tiger's Elbow Really Okay?

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    It's the biggest storyline and the largest unknown heading into the 2013 Open Championship.

    How is Tiger's elbow and is the world's top-ranked golfer really healthy enough to win his fourth Claret Jug?

    This past Saturday, Woods said his elbow is good to go.

    That said, we'll wait for some live evidence before completely dismissing the questions surrounding Tiger's health heading into the British Open.

    Woods has suffered from a strained elbow since the Players Championship in May and it has certainly hampered him during his past two starts, including the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, where he finished tied for 32nd at 13-over par.

    As a result of the injury, Woods missed his scheduled start at the AT&T National several weeks ago, meaning when he tees it up Thursday at Muirfield it will be for the first time since that miserable Merion performance.

    Given that considerable layoff and despite Tiger's recent promise of health, no one really knows what to expect from him at Muirfield.

    If Tiger's elbow is, in fact, still raw, he will struggle to compete at Merion. If he's healthy, however, Woods has proven three times over he has the game to win on Open Championship venues.

    It is the biggest question mark of the season's third major championship, but it's one that will be answered very soon after it starts.

     

Is the Mad British Karma Coming to Muirfield?

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    It’s been quite a month for the British when it comes to major championships.

    Englishman Justin Rose captured the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club last month.

    Almost two weeks ago, Scotland’s Andy Murray became the first Brit to win the men's tennis title at Wimbledon in 77 years.

    The question now is whether or not another son of Great Britain is poised to claim glory and set a nation back to partying at the 2013 British Open. Given the huge amount of talent to choose from, it would be hard to say no with any level of confidence.

    Not only did Rose win the U.S. Open, two other Englishmen—Luke Donald and Ian Poulter—were in contention when the final round began.

    In addition, a pair of Irishmen—Rory Mcllroy and Graeme McDowell—are expected to contend at Muirfield this week and are major championship winners in their own right.

    It’s a lot to ask of Rose, who became the first Englishman to win a major since Nick Faldo claimed the 1996 Masters, to win a second straight. 

    But it’s absolutely no stretch to expect Donald, Poulter, McIlroy, McDowell or even two-time Open Championship winner Padraig Harrington to lift the Claret Jug come Sunday afternoon.

What Type of Test Will Muirfield Present?

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    Almost every year, the Open Championship venue becomes as much a story as the players themselves.

    Expect Muirfield to do the same this year. 

    A few weeks ago, Rory Mcllroy stopped by the 2013 Open Championship venue and suggested the rough might swallow players whole.

    In response, defending champion Ernie Els, who won his first of two Claret Jugs at Muirfield 11 years ago, countered that the rough will be raised but not out of control by any stretch.

    So while there are differing opinions on just how difficult Muirfield will be this week, there's little debate that the layout will again prove to be a significant challenge to the world's best golfers.

    In terms of length, only about 158 yards has been added to the respected layout, meaning those who challenged Muirfield back in 2002, including Tiger, will find a similar golf course this go around.

    That said, while Mcllroy might have exaggerated a bit, there’s no doubt the rough will be a significant challenge next week, as will strategically placed bunkers that have been tightened around Muirfield’s difficult green complexes.

    Bottom line, golfers who look to overpower the Scotland course will find the penalty severe if they go off line with that strength.

    Those that can hit it long but straight, however, will find scoring opportunities at Muirfield that will put them in contention down the stretch of the 2013 Open Championship.

     

Is Rory Ready for a Muirfield Turnaround?

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    Given Rory Mcllroy’s unsteady form at the U.S. Open a month ago and then a subsequent poor start on his home side of the Atlantic Ocean a couple weeks later, it’s hard to imagine the world’s second-ranked golfer being much of a threat this week at Muirfield.

    That said, we're talking about The Open Championship, a tournament where the unexpected is the expected and circumstances can change by the hour.

    Bottom line, to truly compete at Muirfield this week Mcllroy will need a significant improvement over his most recent efforts.

    After finishing the U.S. Open in a tie for 41st at 14-over, McIlroy followed with a missed cut at the Irish Open only a couple weeks later. Following an opening-round two-over 72 at that event, the Irishman showed significant frustration by admitting he was "feeling a bit lost.”

    Well, with all due respect to Rory's talent, the British Open isn't a great place to find one’s self.

    Despite those poor showings, Mcllroy opted not to play in this past week’s Scottish Open — and just like Tiger Woods — enters the British Open without much momentum and perhaps a bit rusty from limited play this past month.

    That certainly doesn't eliminate Rory from contention this week, but it most certainly increases the challenge he faces to win a first Claret Jug and turn around what has to date been a nightmarish 2013 campaign.

     

Can Ernie Els Repeat at Muirfield Twice Over?

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    Very few people expected Ernie Els to win his second Claret Jug at last year’s Open Championship. Somewhere along that same number consider him a real threat to repeat the feat this week at Muirfield.

    The doubts are reasonable considering the Hall of Famer is 43 years old and enters this year’s event off a missed cut at the Scottish Open this past weekend.

    That said, there are reasons to believe Els can, at the very least. be a factor yet again and perhaps even win a third Open Championship.

    The last time the British Open was competed at Muirfield, Els won his first Claret Jug and the third major of his brilliant career. He understands how to play the links course and can draw on positive Muirfield experiences when difficulty comes his way.

    Further, Els won the BMW International Open in Munich last month, boosting his confidence coming to Muirfield.

    Provided he sheds the disappointment from this past week and can still recall the great moments from his initial Open Championship victory 11 years ago, Els might just have one more surprise up his rather long sleeve later this week.

What Role Will Weather Play at Muirfield?

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    One would imagine that being a weatherman in the British Isles is akin to being a stockbroker on Wall Street.

    You can pretend to know what the future promises, but no one with a horse in the race is betting on you to be absolutely right.

    That said, it’s a good wager that a bit of foul weather will come Muirfield’s way this week. The more difficult question, however, is exactly how it will affect the outcome of the 2013 Open Championship.

    Weather, and specifically the really bad kind, played a serious role the last time the Open Championship was staged at Muirfield.

    In fact, it was a rather rough storm that dominated the third round of the tournament and eliminated the majority of the field from contention before the final round even began.

    The third-round casualties included Tiger Woods, who shot an 81 in the high winds and heavy rain that day. Tiger fired three rounds under par that week, but couldn't overcome the damage of that third round played in awful conditions. 

    Consider this: Woods was a combined 10 shots under par at Muirfield in rounds one, two and four. Throw in the weather-dominated third round, and Tiger finished at level par.

    Bottom line, there’s no doubt that weather will have an effect on the outcome this week. Just how much and exactly who it helps and hurts will be extremely interesting to watch but impossible to predict.

What Does Mickelson's Scottish Open Victory Mean?

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    A mere month removed from yet another devastating loss at the U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson is out to prove his mind is right and his game is finally suited enough to links-style play to deliver the Open Championship that is missing from his otherwise impressive resume.

    On Sunday at the Scottish Open, Lefty took a significant step in that direction with his victory in a playoff over Branden Grace. The Scottish win, which Mickelson claimed with a birdie on the first playoff hole, is his first win in Europe and signals good things to come this week at Muirfield.

    It was also a great step toward putting the disappointment of last month's U.S. Open in Lefty's rear-view mirror.

    Mickelson lost the 54-hole lead at Merion Golf Club last month and finished second in the U.S. Open for a record sixth time. Several weeks following that crushing defeat, Phil missed the cut at the Greenbrier Classic, increasing doubts as to the state of his mind and game.

    With his victory at Castle Stuart, those doubts are doused and the expectations for Mickelson at Muirfield have been raised significantly. For the first time on Europe's side of the Atlantic, Mickelson appeared to truly tailor his game to links play, flighting the ball low and using the ground as an asset around the greens.

    The performance indicated his mind is clear and his game is up to the links task despite what recent history tells us.

    If Mickelson can keep the ghosts of majors past out of his head and maintain the same game he displayed in victory this past weekend, he has a great chance to be a significant factor for a second consecutive major.

    Whether or not he can reverse the outcome he suffered last month at Merion or not remains to be seen, but it's certainly a better bet than it was just four days ago.

Heading for Another First-Time Major Winner?

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    In four of the past six major championships—including both the 2013 Masters and U.S. Open—a first-time major champion has celebrated a career-defining moment.

    So with a number of terrific young golfers poised to join that list, it’s not a stretch to think another first-time winner will emerge come the conclusion of the 2013 Open Championship on Sunday.

    Jason Day has finished among the top three in both majors this year and is playing great golf. Luke Donald, Hunter Mahan and Billy Horschel were all in contention last month at Merion and have more than enough game to win a major.

    Veterans such as Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter are hungry and poised for a breakthrough at Muirfield if things go their way.

    Indeed, the number of talented golfers looking to join Adam Scott and Justin Rose as breakthrough golfers in 2013 is long and impressive.

    The question is whether greedy golfers such as Tiger Woods, Rory Mcllroy, Graeme McDowell and defending champion Ernie Els can deny the talented-but-winless hopefuls this week or if there’s another coronation set for Muirfield come the close of this championship weekend.