Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Magical Muirfield enhances rarified charm and revered glory of the Open

The setting at Muirfield was tense. As the final groups of golfers entered the back nine, the crowd was buzzing with anticipation for a thrilling climax at the 142nd Open. Would Adam Scott atone for last year's agonizing collapse at Royal Lytham and St Annes? Would Lee Westwood finally win a major in front of adoring home fans? Would Phil Mickelson recover from his heartbreak at Merion after finishing runner-up at the US Open for the sixth time?

The definitive answers came at the 13th hole. Scott and Westwood hit absolutely horrendous shots off the tee when sharing the lead. Neither player recovered. Mickelson playing ahead of the leaders, was calm and composed in extremely difficult conditions, and ultimately ended up winning the Claret Jug on the back a brilliant final round of 66.

"The US Open has been elusive but this is the championship that has been the hardest to get," said Mickelson in the aftermath of his victory. It's an assessment that few golfers past and present would disagree with. Year after year, the Open continues to be the most difficult challenge for the world's best golfers to conquer. The reasons for the Open's notoriety are varied and manifold.

For starters, links golf possesses characteristics that are completely at odds with the American-centric style of play that is so prevalent for the majority of the our. Golf, like many other sports in recent times has become hostage to the vagaries of physicality and power. Having a great tee shot is considered a bigger virtue than the ability to putt with calmness and precision.

The links courses used at the Open pose a challenge that requires technical adjustments, bucket loads of patience and impeccable temperament. The greens are rarely smooth, and the winds can play havoc with even the most immaculate swing, as Scott and Westwood realized to their detriment. To make matters worse, front nines usually have completely different characteristics from the back nine at the Open.

In such circumstances, players who can understand the nuances of links and focus on playing a smart game on the ground will usually prevail at the expense of players who prioritize getting it right in the air. It's not unusual for a raft of players to start complaining after the first round of the Open. In fact, Mickelson himself went on a rant after the first day, branding the bone-dry greens and some of the pin positions a "joke" and "unplayable". In addition to clearly being a technical and tactical shift for most golfers, the Open can also be extremely draining mentally.

It's probably why the history of the Open is littered with leaders having startling collapses on the last day of the championships. In fact there are several instances of leads being thrown away in the last few holes. Over a time, a certain allure has grown around famous collapses and runners-up at the Open. It's almost like the British have developed a cult for the heart-broken loser at the Open.

This is a characteristic that is unique to the Open amongst all majors. Many golf enthusiasts will regale tales of the Frenchman Jean Van Der Velde's spectacular collapse at Carnoustie in 1999. With a three shot lead coming into the 18th hole, Van Der Velde lost the plot hitting a triple-bogey seven and then ending up losing the championship in a playoff to Scotsman Paul Lawrie.

Carnoustie was the scene for another dramatic conclusion in 2007. After Padraig Harrington hit a double-bogey six on the 18th, Sergio Garcia was left with a ten footer for par and the title. Garcia missed the putt and a golden opportunity to win his first major, and lost to Harrington in a playoff. Many believe the talented Spaniard has never truly recovered from that moment.

Then there was last year's memorable climax. Scott was the leader after 54 holes with Ernie Els six strokes back, tied for fifth. After a birdie at the 14th hole, Scott was one over par for the round, but bogeyed the final four holes for a 75 and dropped to second. Els, two groups ahead of Scott on the course, birdied the 18th hole for a score of 68 and the clubhouse lead, which was not relinquished.

These collapses prove that the Open often requires a certain understanding and vast amounts of experience to get through the final hurdle. The point is best illustrated by events at Turnberry in 2009, when 59 year-old Tom Watson only lost the championship to Stewart Cink in a playoff. Frankly, the Open just isn't made for the young breakout stars that continuously spring up on the PGA Tour.

It is certainly no coincidence that Mickelson is the third successive Open champion north of 40, after Els in 2012 and Ulster man Darren Clarke in 2011. Like Els and Clarke, Mickelson learnt from some tough defeats in the course of his career. Mickelson himself said it best when referring to his heartbreak at Merion. "You have to be resilient in this game because losing is a big part of it." With the exception of Tiger Woods during his days of domination, the Open usually rewards only those who have suffered first, further cementing its significance and aura.

Another endearing aspect of the Open as witnessed at Muirfield this year, is the participation of the crowd. There is a unique symbiosis between the fans and the players at the Open, not that dissimilar from what is seen on the hallowed settings of Centre Court at Wimbledon. The passion of the crowd is expressed through serenity, an appreciation for all the nuances of golf captured perfectly in stoic silence, with applause only breaking through after the last shot is played at each hole. The players thought process in the moments before they tee and putt becomes a visual attraction for fans of the game, only adding to the charm and visceral beauty of the Open.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Open identifies the paradigms of different societies in the world so equivocally. The American majors like America itself, have an irrational insularity. This insularity is in many ways a compliment, as it allows for an openness that has enabled golf fans to appreciate many a rising star, including Britain's own Rory McIlroy.

The Open on the other hand embodies the inherent inwardness of British Society. Once again, this is also a compliment, and the main reason why institutions continue to be such a strong presence in British culture, especially so in sport. This is best defined in the very name of the historic competition - The Open, there simply doesn't exist a need for 'British' before it. There is always a sense during the Open that golf has come home, and all the players know and feel the history when they play it, and probably why almost all desire it more than any other major.

Back to that man Mickelson. Hitting 66 in the final round, with four birdies in the last six holes explains the story of how Mickleson won the Open this year. The answer to why he won it however, might be a bit deeper. In addition to his aforementioned resilience on the course, Mickelson has also had to come through the trauma of his wife and mother being diagnosed with breast cancer just two months apart from each other. Many a sportsman would have crumbled in the face of such adversity. Mickelson stayed true to his American roots, always going for risky high spinning putt shots despite the avalanche of critics. To his credit, he also added the British respect for institutions, by fine-tuning his game for the unique demands of links golf, as witnessed by his victory at the Scottish Open just a week before the win at the Open. The magic of the Open sputtered on a tough first day, before coming to life on the second and third days, and finally with some stardust from Mickelson on those final six holes, it enchanted everyone at Muirfield. Let's hope the magic continues to thrive at the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake next year.
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