Finlay Miller was given exclusive access to the links at Muirfield just days before it closed ahead of The Open.
Here is his guide to the toughest holes at the course many rate the best on The Open rota…
TWO DAYS before Muirfield closed in preparation for this year’s Open, I found myself driving up the Main Street in Gullane stuffed into the back seat of a sports car with a set of clubs across my lap.
In the front were two good friends. At the wheel, a former flat mate from my university days and in the passenger seat an ‘Edinburgh Golfer’, gracing us both with his honourable company, yet again.
I had been looking forward to the day for about a month and finally it had arrived. Through the small rear window the sun was warming the back of my neck and in the trees it seemed there was only the softest of winds.
When going to play some courses, like St Andrews, anticipation heightens as a townscape comes into view, while for others it’s a landmark, like the Kirkoswald Road railway bridge, just prior to arrival at Turnberry.
With Muirfield, it’s reaching the edge of the town and rounding the corner onto Duncur Road.
It’s an unassuming stretch, but once the houses, the fields and the rows of the club’s car garages have come and gone and the security gate has yawned open, you find yourself gazing out across the most wondrous links, to the Firth of Forth and Fife beyond.
Arriving at The Open venue 2013
And so it was we arrived at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers for another brilliant day on the links of Muirfield. Of course this day was going to be slightly different.
On clambering from the back seat onto the turning circle beside the clubhouse, I was faced with the most unlikely sight.
A few yards away an articulated lorry was backing up towards us due to a queue of traffic, there were men lifting metal pillars here and there and the course, was for the most part obscured.
The view was littered with stands, tents, ropes, walkways, bridges and all other manner of championship infrastructure.
It was a hive of activity, but as we walked to the clubhouse it all seemed to fade away as I was captivated by the view down the length of the 18th – it was like standing in the eye of the storm.
The course was a picture of perfection – the definition in the cuts of rough, the perfectly manicured bunkers, the unblemished putting surface.
It had occurred to me before that from the clubhouse, Muirfield looks somewhat featureless, almost bland – it is a large expanse and the undulations are subtle.
But gazing across the course and seeing spectator stands dotted here and there, there was a better sense of the space.
The ebbs and flows of the course, the heights and depths across the landscape, and in a way, the panorama had become grander and more compelling.
With a little imagination admittedly, this was going to be like playing a major championship.
So it was after lunch we set off for the first tee – three sheets to the prevailing westerly wind.
It was a wonderful experience, one that went too quickly, but not so quickly that I didn’t have the chance to study the championship layout and consider which holes were going to play a major part in deciding who would lift the Claret Jug on July 21st.
THREE HOLES on each nine had caught my attention in particular.
Finlay’s OPEN GOLF GUIDE 2013: Muirfield’s Metal
The challenges of Muirfield begin at the beginning. That is to say there is no gentle introduction here as there is at Troon, for example.
The first is a par four of a little under 450 yards that plays straight into the teeth of the prevailing wind.
Even in a flat calm, a wood will be required from the tee, which this year is going to be like a crucible, in every sense of the word, with two stands bearing down on the players from opposite sides.
Its not as if the opening tee shot isn’t testing enough.
There are no dunes, undulations or flora to use in the minds eye, just the thin strip of fairway, a sprinkling of bunkers on the outside bend of the dogleg and an expanse of thick rough down the right, which just seems to last forever until the distant green comes into focus.
If the fairway is found, a long iron will still be required to reach the large green, the depth of which is difficult to judge.
It’s fair to say a few players will come unstuck on the 1st and make a poor start to their round.
Next toughest on the front nine is the fourth, an extremely tricky par three, especially from the championship tee, which extends it to 226 yards.
If the first is into the wind the fourth is straight down but this may not be the advantage it seems as any shot carrying beyond the middle of this green will most likely skip through the back.
Pitching short and running on is no picnic either due to the slope at the front, which extends round and to the left of the plateaued green.
Many shots are likely to end up in the run off area left or short right and from either position it will be difficult to save par.
The green itself slopes dramatically from front to back and with the putting surfaces high on the stimp and hardening under the sun and the wind, only those with the deftest touch will be able to get the weight right from above the hole.
At the end of the front nine a par five of 554 yards brings you back in to the clubhouse and the prevailing wind.
With a new back tee and a fairway bunker created at 270 yards down the right, the tee shot here has been significantly toughened up, especially as out of bounds left is now more in play.
Furthermore, as a result of the extra distance, reaching the green in two will require a strong and accurate second.
Alongside the continuing boundary wall a nest of small bunkers sit in wait short and right of the green and the chance of ending up close to the face is high.
In favourable conditions this hole will present a good opportunity to pick up 1 or maybe 2 shots before totaling the front nine score, but if the wind picks up from any other direction than east, it will be a real brute.
Immediately on the turn for home is the strong par four 10th, playing at 469 yards for this year’s championship.
This hole is straight as a die and the tee shot holds no surprises at all, that is, without large spectator stands complicating things.
As the prevailing wind at Muirfield whips down from the capital, both the 10th and 18th are likely to be hit with direct cross winds and on both, the large stands on the 18th make it difficult to assess the correct target line.
The tee shot on the 10th therefore becomes even more tricky, especially as a pair of bunkers await down the right hand side of the fairway.
From here the second shot is hit blind over a bank of bunkers that sit out of reach from the tee but very much in reach if you are playing a recovery onto the fairway.
Anyone laying up short of these in two will still be faced with a blind short iron to a sloping green, again protected heavily on the right hand side.
Even with a wedge in your hands the receptiveness of the front edge will be difficult to judge and the wrong side of the hole is not where you want to be.
The short holes at Muirfield are all truly exquisite, but my favourite is the 13th.
It just fires the imagination. Although uphill, this hole should only require a mid iron but it will need to be accurate as the green is not wide and is flanked by deep bunkers and guarded by a severe slope at the front.
The green sits in a shallow dell and so any wayward strike that carries the sand could result in a very delicate chip shot from a downhill lie.
Like all the par three greens here at Muirfield the 13th is extremely sloping from back to front.
Dependent on pin position there could be some very tricky cross slope downhill putts.
The 14th and 15th at Muirfield are both challenging par fours, at well over 900 yards for the pair. On balance however, the 15th is likely to cause more difficulty.
The tee shot is relatively straight forward, but like the 10th, a poor drive will leave a pitch out that could easily be gathered in by a band of bunkers that traverse the fairway.
Even from the cut stuff, however, finding the putting surface is going to be hard.
On approach, the undulations around and on the green, as well as the cruel bunkering, make for a formidable proposition.
The slopes tend to gather errant approaches off into bunkers and even with a putter in your hand you could find yourself knocking the ball off the green.
Once on the course there is nothing dull about Muirfield.
Indeed, there is not one weak or even forgettable hole.
It is also the greatest of tests with good shots rewarded possibly more than on any other links and with no more than three consecutive holes running in the same direction, in every wind your game is examined from all angles on all sorts of shots.
The winner come Sunday will be a worthy Champion and join a list of great players who lifted the Claret Jug at Muirfield.
Finlay Miller is a proud Scotsman.
He lives in St Andrews and is a former Captain of the University of St Andrews Men’s Golf Team and long-time scratch golfer.