The “Belgian Bomber,” meanwhile, was completely disarmed.
If you love seeing professional golfers squeezed out of their comfort zone, come visit Muirfield, where warmer temperatures, gentler winds and more sunshine than this corner of Scotland usually sees in a month has produced a golf course that resembles an airport tarmac in more than a few places. Suffice it to say that players who can’t —
or won’t — adapt in a hurry might as well start booking flights home right now.
Like just about everyone else during Thursday’s opening round at the British Open, three of the longest hitters in the game were determined not to let the big dog out of the bag. Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson each hit driver exactly once during the round, and the third member of their group, Nicolas Colsaerts, not at all.
The first two adjusted nicely, shooting 1-under 70 and 68, respectively. The big-hitting Belgian skied to a 75.
“On even the long par 4s,” Johnson said, “a little 3-iron is going further than a 3-wood up in the air.”
“How far?” someone asked.
“I hit a couple today,” Johnson replied, “that probably went 290.”
Before we open it up to debate about whether Muirfield — which dates to 1891 and has remained largely intact the past 93 years — is fair or hopelessly zany, it’s worth remembering every golfer in the field is playing the same course. And that all knew exactly the kind of fast, firm conditions that awaited them. Even so, more than a few reacted with surprise and about as much equanimity as you’d expect.
“8th hole is a joke,” Ian Poulter tweeted, “18th needs a windmill & clown face.”
“Each tee you’re standing on,” Oliver Fisher said, “is just a battle.”
“We’ve got to let go of our ego sometimes,” said Phil Mickelson, who by “our” meant the officials of the Royal & Ancient responsible for letting the fairways bake and the rough grow, then stashing the water hoses. He implored them to “just set the course up the way the best players can win.”
The empire struck back — in a hurry.
“We’re obviously very conscious of player comment and we’ll take that into account when we decide how greenskeeping staff overnight is going to set up the course tomorrow,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said.
In other words, deal with it.
The strange thing is that a player’s view of Muirfield wasn’t always reflected by his score. Mickelson carded 69 and Fisher a 70. Poulter, despite collecting four bogeys in the last five holes, still shot 72.
“I wouldn’t pay much attention to him. He’s always complaining,” laughed Poulter’s countryman, Lee Westwood. Asked a moment later about some of the precarious pin positions, the Englishman bared a stiff upper lip.
“Well, they’re on the greens,” Westwood said. “Actually, I wouldn’t have even thought about them if you hadn’t asked.”
If parts of the debate sound familiar, they should.
Unlike their U.S. counterparts, officials setting up major championship venues over here have generally avoided lengthening the courses in response to balls that fly farther and better-conditioned athletes, relying instead on pot bunkers, thick gorse and dicey weather to protect them. That attitude was best summed up by John Philp, the former greenskeeper at Carnoustie, who delighted watching the best golfers in the world squirm.
In 1999, already facing criticism for a tough setup, Philp could barely hide his glee when gale-force winds pounded the course two hours up the coast as the first round began.
“They’ve got titanium and psychologists,” Philp said. “All I’ve got is nature.”
Nature certainly surprised Muirfield this year. Instead of panicking, R&A officials decided to play along. They let large swaths of fairways, and even some putting surfaces, turn from green to brown, from merely firm to breakneck fast, without getting overly concerned. They hardly think it’s too much to ask that the players do the same.
“In your view,” BBC host Hazel Irvine asked Dawson late Thursday, “right now it is far from unplayable?”
“Far from unplayable,” he replied. “But we do hear player comment and we’re not so insular as to ignore it.”
Meantime, though, it’s clearly on the golfers to figure out their next move. Many went home Thursday night conflicted.
“We know it’s going to be tough, but that’s what makes this championship fun,” said Tim Clark, who shot 72.
Asked whether he expected making any changes to his game for Round 2, the South African could only come up with one.
“Bring a lot of Kleenex for the tears,” Clark said, “and that’s about it really.”