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The Month Ahead - July

By: Tony Dear


It's curious that while the R&A and St. Andrews Links Trust got a load of grief for making their controversial changes to the Old Course last winter, and that news of Martin Hawtree's work on the centuries-old links spread like teenage gossip. The same designer's alterations to the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfer's Muirfield Links went relatively unnoticed.

The third home of the Honorable Company isn't quite as ancient, sacred or universally revered as St. Andrews, which the whole world knows as the Home of Golf. And Muirfield belongs to an extraordinarily private, tight-lipped club rather than a town, a charitable organization and, without sounding too romantic, everyone that loves the game. But still, it was a little surprising that a course considered such a treasure by those who understand and appreciate its place in the game's history got by more or less unscathed.

Hawtree's amendments to the Old Course, which will continue this winter, are being made in time for the 2015 Open Championship, while his Muirfield modifications, which began in 2008, were made to strengthen the challenge (a surrender to space-age equipment?) at the venue for this year's championship, the 142nd edition, which begins July 18.

With seven new tees, Muirfield, designed in 1891 by Old Tom Morris and totally redesigned in 1925 by Harry Colt, will measure 7,192 yards, making it 158 yards longer than it was for the 2002 championship won by Ernie Els who is, of course, this year's defending champion.

Last year Els, working on Jack Nicklaus's fairly solid principle of playing as hard as you can no matter how far behind the leader you are, posting a competitive number, and then sitting back to see what happens, completed the 72 holes at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 7-under 273 before watching Adam Scott capitulate down the final stretch (actually, Els began hitting practice putts in case there was a playoff).

The South African joined Phil Mickelson and seven others with four major titles - one behind Byron Nelson, Seve Ballesteros and three Open specialists - J.H. Taylor, James Braid and Peter Thompson.

Because Els is the most recent winner of the Claret Jug, has wonderful memories of Muirfield - where he defeated Steve Elkington, Stuart Appleby and Thomas Levet in a four-man playoff 11 years ago, and because he won the European Tour's BMW International in Germany two weeks ago, betting on the "Big Easy" to lift a third Jug would make an awful lot of sense. Indeed, it seems an especially good wager when you consider most bookmakers rate him the seventh favorite, with odds ranging from a seemingly sensible 16-1 to an apparently generous 28-1.

The favorite, by what seems like a surprisingly large margin, is Tiger Woods, who some bookies are offering at just 6-1. That's an awful lot more appealing than the even money (or worse) you were burdened with in 2002 when Woods arrived in East Lothian looking for the third leg of the Grand Slam, but left somewhat shell-shocked after finishing T28 following a horrendous third round in which he took 81 cold, wet, wind-lashed strokes. But after sitting out his own tournament with an elbow injury last weekend, and coming off a seriously disappointing effort at Merion in the U.S. Open, where he wound up in a tie for 32nd, some might question why he is so popular a bet.

They might also wonder why the man who won at Merion, Justin Rose, is so far distant on 16-1 (or even 20-1). Rose is up to third in the world rankings and clearly hits the ball solidly enough - first in total driving and 10th in Greens in Regulation on the PGA Tour - to overcome whatever the weather throws at him. He may not have managed a top-10 at the world's oldest tournament since his fourth-place finish in 1998, when he announced his - and what turned out to be - somewhat premature arrival at the age of 17. But you'd think Rose's recent showings might have made him more attractive to the punters.

Even more curious perhaps than the gap between Woods and Rose is the fact that Rory McIlroy is offered as low as 10-1 by what are surely the most tight-fisted of oddsmakers. On top of the fact the Ulsterman is having a very forgettable season (just four top-10s in 13 events worldwide) and missed the cut at the Irish Open, he has made absolutely no secret of the fact he doesn't really like links courses with their unpredictable bounces and accompanying poor weather. Some firms have him at 20-1, which is never a bad bet for a world No. 2 capable of quite extraordinary feats of scoring. But you'd need complete faith in McIlroy's ability to forget the recent past and play the golf that he's capable of to risk a sizable amount of cash on him.

Also above Els in the betting are Scott, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood. Scott you can understand, despite his ignominious defeat 12 months ago. The 32-year-old Aussie hasn't managed a top-10 in his last four outings, but he did win the Masters in April of course, overcoming tremendous pressure to not only purge the terribly negative thoughts that must have festered after the Lytham debacle but also become the first Australian to win a green jacket.

Donald and Westwood's lofty positions would appear to indicate British gamblers' hopes rather than a sound knowledge of the form guide, however. Donald does have two fifth-place finishes at the Open Championship in the last four years, but they are his only top-10s in 12 appearances. He did finish tied for eighth at Merion, but closed with a disappointing 75 when looking for what would have been his first major championship victory. And after enjoying four separate stints as No. 1 between May 2011 and August 2012, retaining the position for a total of 56 weeks, he has now slipped to No. 8.

Westwood has slipped further. Having topped the rankings himself for 22 weeks between October 2010 and May 2011, the 40-year-old has now dropped to 12th, and neither he nor Donald has won in a year.

But if McIlroy, Rose, Westwood and Donald's odds appear strange, they are nothing compared to the truly bizarre 20-1 - lower than some firms have Els at - that is being offered for Mickelson, odds that prove this correspondent will never understand golf betting and betting golfers. Yes, he's Phil Mickelson, and yes, he performed well at Merion, winding up second at the U.S. Open for the sixth time in his incredible career. But in 19 starts at the Open, Lefty has finished in the top-10 only twice. The most recent was at Royal St. George's two years ago when he was joint runner-up, three shots behind Darren Clarke. Last year, he missed the cut by eight.

Whether Els wins his third Open, Woods his fourth or the championship has a new winner, it's likely all the players will love Muirfield, which consistently receives high marks for its what-you-see-is-what-you-get layout.

Before American-based players head to Scotland, they tee it up on the Old White Course at this week's Greenbrier Classic, where Ted Potter Jr. will hope to defend, and TPC Deere Run for the following week's John Deere Classic, which Zach Johnson won last year, defeating Troy Matteson in a crazy playoff in which both men double-bogeyed the first extra hole before Johnson hit his approach from a fairway bunker to a foot at the second.

On their return from Britain, PGA Tour members will head north to Oakville, near Toronto, for the 104th Canadian Open, which Scott Piercy won last year with an opening 62 and three subsequent 67s.

In Europe, a stretch of five national Opens continues this week with the French Open (or Alstom Open de France to give it its proper name) at Le Golf National in Paris, venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup, and the magnificent Castle Stuart near Inverness for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, before heading down the coast for the "British" Open; the string culminates at the Tseleevo Golf and Polo Club near Moscow for the Russian Open.

The ladies of the LPGA Tour play only twice in July, as do the seniors, whose major season concludes with the U.S. Senior Open at Omaha CC where England's Roger Chapman will try to defend the title he won in 2012 at Indianwood in Lake Orion, Mich., and the Senior British Open at Royal Birkdale, where Fred Couples will hope to repeat his two-stroke victory at Turnberry last year.

It is high summer and time to crown another Open champion. Muirfield's winners include Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Henry Cotton, Walter Hagen, James Braid and Harry Vardon. There's not a player in the world who wouldn't want to fill those shoes.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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