2013 British Open: Burning Questions at Muirfield
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The sun may be shining at the Open Championship this week, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be clouds overhead.
Majors are where careers are made or lost, where fame may be bestowed on an unexpected winner or blame laid on one who was supposed to play better.
There is so much riding on this third major of the year that a slew of questions arise beyond the obvious of who will win and who will fade.
Last year, we saw an aging but resplendent master of calm take advantage of a rising star’s collapse on the back nine on the last day.
Will Muirfield create a new No. 1 ranked player?
Will it bring redemption to a player who needs it or fame to a new young star?
Who will the sun shine on this year?
Will the Real Luke Donald Finally Show Up?
Once the top-ranked player in the world, Luke Donald has fallen to ninth in the world rankings, and with it, also fallen in our expectations.
But that can all change at Muirfield, where he can follow like-minded players Adam Scott and Justin Rose by winning his first major title this year.
Donald readily admits that he has been motivated by Rose’s U.S. Open win.
The analytical Donald told PGATour.com, "I think Adam and Justin have similar games. They're very good tee to green. Occasionally their Achilles heel is the short game and the putting. Sometimes great ball striking can trump that, even at a U.S. Open."
Just two years ago, Donald finished in the top 10 in 14 of 16 events he entered and then topped the money list on the both the European and U.S. tours. He was riding high and playing the best golf of his life, but he had still failed to win the big one.
While he performed well last year, 2013 has seen a series of bland performances from Donald.
Even at the U.S. Open, where he was among the favorites to win based on his ability to hit fairways and greens, Donald’s performance left something to be desired. He entered the last round in contention and then bogeyed his way to a tie for eighth place.
That has been his story this year, as he has moved down the list in third (104th place) and fourth-round scoring (102nd place), a telltale sign of anxiety and lack of stamina.
Yet with no clear front-runner at Muirfield, he will have a great opportunity to assert his prominence again by winning this week.
Will Rory Regain His Winning Ways?
Let’s not get carried away by saying that at 24 years old, Rory McIlroy is washed up.
So what if he hasn’t won a tournament since last year when he won four, including the PGA Championship.
This year has been a little different, as the young Irishman has been doing his imitation of a roller coaster: up one week, down another, down, down, down and up, up. You get the point.
Despite being ranked second in the world, he has yet to win a tournament, placing second once with four top-10 finishes out of 10 PGA tournaments. That would be pretty good if he was Josh Teater, who currently ranks ahead of him in FedEx points at No. 50.
In order for Rory to win at Muirfield, he has to shut out some of the criticism that has come his way.
“There’s a lot going on in his mind,” the three-time Open champion Nick Faldo told The Telegraph. “You need 100 percent concentration, off the golf course, practicing, as well."
He has to gain control of his new Nike clubs, including his new nine iron. He bent the old one while playing at the U.S. Open. He has to regain control of his temperament and not bend clubs when he makes a bad shot.
He has to regain his driving accuracy (he ranks 103rd on the tour) and his putting stroke (128th in strokes gained).
Is it a long road back to a title or a short hop? Only Rory can answer that, and he can do so this week.
Can Lee Westwood Win His First Major?
Lee Westwood’s window of opportunity is shrinking, but this is as good a time as any to win that first major title.
Westwood is always a threat to win. This year alone, he finished tied for eighth in the Masters and tied for 15th at the U.S. Open. Last year, he was tied for third and 10th, respectively. In 2010, he placed second in both the Masters and the Open Championship.
Woe is Westwood should he never win a major. He surely doesn’t want to go down as his generation’s best player to not do so.
He has some baggage to overcome other than just close finishes. He is not in the top 20 in any of the major playing categories and ranks a measly 75th in scoring average.
Still, this course is close to home and he should be really comfortable there.
Let’s hope his score isn’t.
Can Ernie Els Win Back-to-Back Open Championships?
Some people might say that Ernie Els didn’t win last year’s Open Championship at Royal Lytham. They'd argue that Adam Scott lost it by finishing with four bogeys and a missed eight-footer at the end.
Either way, Els is the reigning champ going into Muirfield and has a chance to win consecutive Opens for the first time since Paddy Harrington did so in 2007 and 2008.
A winner of 19 PGA contests in his vaulted career, Els came out of nowhere last year, having missed the cut in his previous two Opens. He didn’t even qualify for the Masters in 2012. But it wasn’t a miracle; just a methodical approach to the game and some very sure putting on Sunday that led to his win.
At 43, Els retains his calm, calculating demeanor and smooth swing on the course that has earned him the nickname “The Big Easy”.
This year reads pretty much like last with a few top-10 finishes here, a cut there and competitive scoring at the Masters and U.S. Open that earned him ties for 13th and fourth, respectively.
Els, who won here in 2002, has as good a chance as anyone to take home the Claret Jug again. He should not be counted out.
Will Mickelson Rebound from U.S. Open Debacle with Win?
You could say that Phil Mickelson already has put the U.S. Open behind him with his win last week at the Scottish Open.
Mickelson is having a solid year that could have been even better had he not imploded on Sunday at the Merion, where his aggressive style led to a 74 on the final day, one more in a long line of second-place finishes in Open play.
For normal pros, finishing second at the Open would be a career-making experience. For Mickelson, who has done so a ridiculous six times, it is somewhat tragic. Yet the big dog just keeps on smiling as he meanders down the fairway.
Mickelson’s scoring, in which he is ranked 10th on the tour, may be due to exacting iron play from within 150 yards out, a stat category in which he is currently ranked fifth. Couple that with an improved putting stroke (ranked 19th in total putting), and he enters Muirfield this week with a confidence that warrants the big stride.
Should he win at Muirfield, it should not be considered a rebound as much as another high mark in an already great career.
How Will the Weather Impact Play?
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Normally, we expect a British Open's stormy, cool weather to wreak havoc on the ocean-based links courses on which it is played.
Our traditional image of the Open is that of a player addressing his ball as rain drips from his slicker and hat, his desperation made that much more intense as he struggles to keep his clubs and hands clean and dry.
The weather usually turns the bunkered courses into torture tests. The loop-within-a-loop design of Muirfield adds to the displeasure as holes meander back and forth, each with its own microcosmic wind conditions.
That may not be the case this weekend with reduced wind and high sunshine predicted for the tournament.
This will make things easier on a course that has been called “the fairest” of Open venues. However, that does not make it the easiest. By fair, observers mean that all the hazards are visible from the tee.
Long-ball hitters like Nicolas Colsaerts and Dustin Johnson may have a field day on a dryer, less windy course. Shot-makers like Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose may take dead aim at helpless pins.
Look for Tiger Woods to shape shots at will on a windless day and for Brandt Snedeker to get his hot putter going on a crisp greens.
Should the weather remain benign, we may see scores rise.
Will Adam Scott Redeem Himself After Last Year’s Collapse?
Winning the Masters this year did wonders for Adam Scott’s psyche, his game and his career.
Instead of celebrating at Augusta, he really should have just said, “Whew! I am so glad that is over.”
Of course, he would have said it with an Australian accent.
Scott needed that win not just because it was his first major title, which solidified him as one of golf’s best current players, but he needed it to wipe out the memory of last year’s horrible Sunday collapse at Royal Lytham. He bogeyed himself out of contention, then capped off a horrendous day with a missed gimme on the final hole.
Lytham may still linger in Scott’s mind as he comes to Muirfield. While winning the Masters was obviously a great accomplishment, winning here would add some closure to his performance at Royal Lytham.
Post-Augusta, Scott’s season has been notable for its mediocrity, and he enters the British Open with a few playing issues, including his accuracy off the tee (he ranks 125th on the tour).
Muirfield is all about avoiding bunkers, and Scott will need to control his drives in order to gain the consistency needed to score well.
Scott can also show the world that last year’s performance at Lytham was a fluke.
Would a Second Consecutive Major Make Justin Rose the World's Best Golfer?
Justin Rose can leap to the top of world rankings with a win at the Open Championship. It would be his second consecutive win after the U.S. Open. Paddy Harrington won the Open Championship and then the PGA Open in 2008. Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open and the Open Championship in 2000.
Rose is currently ranked third behind Rory McIlroy and Tiger, so in one aspect, he would be the world’s best.
In other ways, Rose currently rests in second behind Tiger in scoring. If he wins at Muirfield, it will be his second win of the year. Tiger has four.
However, Rose has finished in the top 25 in each of his tournaments with one cut, and has been in the top 10 five times.
He may not strike fear in his opponents, but has gained respect as one of golf’s preeminent performers.
Right now, Rose is the hottest golfer and is playing tee-to-green as well as anyone. On the green, in fact, he has vastly improved his performance. He has not had a three-putt in over 250 holes.
As difficult as Merion was, Muirfield presents an equally tough challenge. The field remains wide open with the best golfers from across the globe teeing it up this weekend.
If he wins here, he may very well answer the question of who is best himself.
Which Young Player Will Impress the Most?
A slew of great young players will descend upon Muirfield in an effort to strut their stuff, increase their experience on the world stage and perhaps even win.
That last part may be the hardest to accomplish, since Muirfield has a tendency to be won by seasoned veterans.
Still, while the names Jordan Spieth, Matteo Manassero, Ryo Ishikawa and Billy Horschel may be somewhat unfamiliar to fans, they are quickly becoming well known on the tour.
At 19, Spieth became the youngest player to ever win a PGA tournament last week and then made it into the Open Championship. Spieth, who played at the University of Texas, turned pro last year. He has finished in the top 10 six times this year and, as befits his youth, is very strong off the tee.
Manassero took the golf world by storm this year when he became the youngest player to win the BMW PGA Championship. In doing so, the 20-year-old Italian bested the likes of Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell, all guys he will see at the Open this week.
The BMW was his fourth title in four years. He may be just learning the ropes, but don’t be surprised to see him do well this weekend.
Ryo Ishikawa is only 21, but he turned pro five years ago. In that time, he has won numerous times on the Asian tour and came close to winning at last year’s Puerto Rico Open, where he finished second.
Ryo made news when he shot a 58 to win the Crowns title in Japan, carding the lowest official score on a major professional tour.
He is a sharpshooter who currently ranks second in greens in regulation from 150 yards. That may play to his favor as he tackles Muirfield this week.
Billy Horschel gained fame recently with his stellar play at the U.S. Open, where he led the field and finished in a tie for fourth.
Horschel turned pro in 2009, and now at 26, he has made his biggest mark in his career so far. He finished in the top 10 in the three events prior to the Open, so he comes to Muirfield on a bit of a hot streak.
Horschel has put up some great statistics so far this year, ranking 11th in scoring and total driving and within the top 25 in both greens in regulation and strokes gained-putting.
Look for Horschel to make an impact at Muirfield.
Can Tiger Overcome Injury and Adversity to Win No. 15?
This has been a schizophrenic season for Tiger, who blew out of the gates, won four tournaments and took charge of the No. 1 ranking in the world, where he currently sits.
However, after a win at the Players Championship, he finished tied for 65 in the Memorial and tied for 32 at the U.S. Open, where he barely made a whimper.
Citing a strained elbow, Tiger took the last month off and now comes into Muirfield either refreshed or out of rhythm, depending on how you want to look at it.
Not knowing how he will play makes Muirfield that much more of a mystery with Tiger.
Muirfield demands great shot-making, a strength of Tiger's when healthy. It requires the ability to shape shots in variable winds, another Tiger forte. With no rain predicted, its greens will be fast, which will help one of golf’s best putters.
Ultimately, though, this is another major for Tiger to tackle in his quest to surpass the magic number of 19 major wins set by Jack Nicklaus.
That motivation, while too early to be called desperation, will be the real catalyst behind Tiger’s ability to rebound from recent adversity and regain his momentum.
Even though Tiger says his elbow is fine and he is highly confident going into the Open Championship, we will not really know how well he is physically until he tees up at Muirfield on Thursday.