British Open field faces a rough break


GULLANE, Scotland -- If Muirfield were a person, it might be the kind of grim British schoolmaster that many of its members -- the prideful and all-male Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers -- happen to resemble.

Lessons would be delivered with brisk condescension and an undeniable truth: "Place your drives in the fairway, young sirs, or golf for you will be little more than heavy labor."

Indeed, missing the short grass at Muirfield, where the 121st British Open begins today, usually forces a player to bend his back in the hayfields that pass for rough or excavate earth from craters that pass for bunkers.

Unlike the more spacious vistas that grace the classic links at St. Andrews or Troon, Muirfield's claustrophobic holes are almost reminiscent of U.S. Open courses, where shortish, exceedingly straight hitters are usually the winners.

But this year, because of a dry spring, Muirfield's infamous rough, though tall, is thinner than usual, and certainly not as dense as it was in 1966, when Jack Nicklaus, then 26, won the championship by using a 1-iron almost exclusively off the tee. And not as thick as 1987, when Nick Faldo wore down the field with relentless precision off the tee.

There will be some room for the kind of daring and imagination that are usually antithetical to these surroundings. The conditions may provide the most exciting players of all -- power players -- an inviting window of opportunity.

"When I come to Muirfield and expect not to be able to see my shoes, but the rough's not like that this year," said Nicklaus, who is playing his fifth Open championship here. "It means the fellow who plays with power will see this golf course open itself up to him more than it usually does."

Traditionally, because of the relative width of most of its courses and the healthy supply of short par-5's that produce birdies and eagles, that's just what most British Open courses do. The defending champion is the accuracy-oriented Ian Baker-Finch of Australia, but power players have had more luck at the world's oldest championship than any other major championship apart from the Masters.

Five-time winner Tom Watson and three-time winner Seve Ballesteros, to name two prime examples, are relatively inaccurate drivers who have had their greatest successes in the British Open.

The profile also fits Fred Couples, who finished tied for fourth at St. Andrews in 1984 in his first British, fourth again in 1988, sixth in 1989 and third last year.

Ballesteros, 35, likes what he sees, or doesn't see, at Muirfield this year. The Spaniard is at his best when he doesn't feel he is dancing on a razor's edge every time he pulls out his driver.

"I think this rough is more fair and more like it should be," said Ballesteros, who finished tied for 50th here in 1987. "If you go in it, you can get close to the green with your second, not just wedge back to the fairway. I think that makes it a greater test of skill.

"I am very much a player that needs a little inspiration, and this helps."

Greg Norman also was heartened by the lack of Draconian rough. Norman, who has been on an upswing, said he has been in a positive frame of mind since finally admitting to himself how much he was demoralized by being beaten by holed-out shots from off the green in both the 1986 PGA and the 1987 Masters.

"Once I admitted that I was really hurt by them all and accepted it, I felt a lot easier," said Norman, who won the 1986 British Open and lost in a three-way playoff in 1989.

Couples, the No. 1 player in the Sony world rankings, is happier to be at Muirfield than anywhere he has been since he won at Augusta. Couples, who has played indifferently since taking his first major in April, says he has had difficulty adapting to the demands of his increased popularity.

"You don't want to play poorly just to get out of the shadow of playing good," Couples said. "I'd love to win here and have it all start again."

"I wish it would blow 40 miles an hour, because then I might hit a driver all day," said Couples, who will use irons and fairway woods off the tee if the wind is only moderate. "Downwind, I can carry some of those fairway pot bunkers. If you hit it in the rough, you can get it out and on the green."

Facts and figures

What: 121st British Open

When: Today-Sunday

Where: Muirfield Golf Links, Gullane, Scotland

TV: Today and tomorrow, ESPN, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday, channels 13, 7, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Yardage: 6,970

Playoff (if necessary): In the event of a tie for first after 72 holes, playoff will be over four holes, stroke play; if two or more remain tied, playoff continues under sudden-death format.

Defending champion: Ian Baker-Finch

Former champions in field: Baker-Finch, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Mark Calcavecchia, Sandy Lyle, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tom Weiskopf

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