Look out, Muirfield: American stars look to add British Open to their major run

July 16, 1992|By Larry Eichel | Larry Eichel,Knight-Ridder

GULLANE, Scotland -- The 121st British Open, which started today at Muirfield, provides the American game with the opportunity to confirm its renewed dominance of international golf.

After years of yielding much of the high ground to European stars, the Americans have recovered to the point that they hold three of the game's four major championships, as well as the Ryder Cup.

The only big prize not now in their grasp is this one, now claimed by a quasi-American, Ian Baker-Finch, an Australian who lives in Florida and plays the U.S tour.

At Muirfield, the American challenge is headed by Tom Kite, the U.S. Open champion; five-time British Open winner Tom Watson; Paul Azinger, who finished second here in 1987; Fred Couples, the Masters winner; and Davis Love III, second to Couples on the money list.

"Davis is playing much better than I am," Couples said yesterday. "He's got the game to win -- and he knows that. My game is so-so right now, but I've come over here before playing very poorly, got a few bounces and done fairly well."

Couples also was touting Watson, who showed during yesterday's practice round that he can still perform under pressure. On a bet, Watson won 500 pounds ($960) each from Couples, Lanny Wadkins and Payne Stewart by being the only player in the foursome not to make a bogey.

And there is Raymond Floyd, who has won the three other majors at one time or another, and Jodie Mudd, a journeyman player who has finished fifth, fourth and fifth in the last three British Opens.

The European contingent is led by Nick Faldo, a two-time champion who has pointed to this event all year with methodical single-mindedness. In seven of his last eight tournaments, he has finished fifth or better.

Ian Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champion, though erratic this season, has been impressive the last two weeks. "My heart has been set on winning this one," he said.

A local hero who also likes his chances is Colin Montgomerie, the 29-year-old Scot who finished third in the U.S. Open and ranks third on the European money list. Were he to win, he would become the first Scot to win a British Open on Scottish soil since Tommy Armour in 1931.

Then there are the Australians. Last year at Royal Birkdale, with the Ryder Cup competition approaching and the European-American rivalry building to a peak, the Aussies complicated the story line by finishing 1-2-7-8, Baker-Finch, Mike Harwood, Craig Perry, Greg Norman.

The golf course, home of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, has a reputation to uphold. That reputation has three prime elements.

One is greatness. In the five times it has played host to the British Open since 1959, Muirfield has produced a truly dazzling list of winners: Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo.

Trevino's victory in the 1972 tournament, which featured a two-day head-to-head battle with Britain's Tony Jacklin and a stirring comeback by Nicklaus, was the stuff of high drama.

The second is snootiness. Last year, Payne Stewart, then the reigning U.S. Open champion, asked if he could play here the week before the British Open. Like thousands of other respectable non-members before him, he was denied permission. The course, he was told, was just too crowded.

Stewart did manage to get onto a neighboring course, from which he could get a good view of Muirfield. It was empty.

The third, for players who manage to get onto the course, is fairness. The 6,970-yard, par-71, seaside layout has few hills, no trees, no water, no tricks.

Muirfield's greens, while well trapped, are not surrounded by thick grass collars, as they are at U.S. Opens. Here, the best way to get close to the pin is to land the ball short of the putting surface and let it bounce on.

The main hazards are the fairway pot bunkers, extremely numerous and extremely deep, and a rough that isn't as rough as it used to be.

Much, of course, depends on the weather. Without wind, the players say, Muirfield is not a particularly difficult course, especially now, with the greens well-manicured, the rough playable and the fairways hard and rolling. Without wind, Muirfield becomes a course on which any number of players could prevail.

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