It has become fashionable in recent times for players to start their Major tournament preparations well in advance. Innocent amateurs are often amazed that professionals arrive at a tournament as early as they do in advance of the first day of play.
So when they get wind of golfers going to a venue 10 days ahead of the start they are almost dumbfounded. I used to be a little sceptical of reconnaissance trips but having spent a couple of days at Muirfield earlier this week with the defending champion, Ernie Els, I have to admit to being a convert to the pre-preparation trip.
We met on a misty Monday morning in Edinburgh Airport and made our way to East Lothian in search of the site of the 142nd Open Championship. We hadn't seen each other since Ernie captured the BMW International title in Munich a couple of weeks ago so we had a good chat on the Edinburgh ring road about the victory and our respective breaks. There was a lot to ponder about the more immediate past, but even more to reminisce in last year's victory at Lytham and his first Open win at Muirfield in 2002.
As we approached the coast alongside the Firth of Forth and rounded the headland and into the links land of Gullane, we were both gripped by a unique sense of Scottish golf. The road to Muirfield splits the two golf courses at Gullane and the panoramic view before us was of silhouetted figures pulling bags, scattered over a vast expanse of sunburnt land, and enjoying golfing in the exceptional heat.
Little snug bar
We arrived at the chintzy Greywalls Hotel, which backs onto the 10th tee at Muirfield, and Ernie got an instant rush of nostalgia. As we walked through the main, very understated cottage door-styled entrance, Ernie headed immediately to a little snug bar off the reception, where his friends had drowned him with champagne as he came back after all the ritual post-victory formalities 11 years ago after his first Claret Jug victory.
He recalled the people who were with him and the room he stayed in, and described the sensation of going back to a place that sounded as secure and cosy as “grandma’s house”. Despite its prestige and history, the hotel has a very familiar feel to it. At the foot of the stairs was a photo montage of Ernie’s victory in a prominent position, with scenes of the ensuing celebration. It must have been easy for him to feel like he was coming back to a warm and familiar place.
After lunch in the exquisite garden we headed out the back door of the hotel and onto the 10h tee, which is almost on the hotel property. We were in shirt sleeves and could have worn shorts; the only protection we needed to add was sun-block. A light north-east breeze was a welcome relief from the uncharacteristic heat and the course looked as inviting as any manicured seaside course can look in high summer; parched but well-defined fairways, framed by a few yards of primary rough giving to a thick cut of taller fawn fescue, with a lusher more dense and longer variety beyond that.
If your ball ran into the rough off the firm fairways you would have a chance to get on the green. If you flailed your tee shot deep into the rough you would at best hack it out, at worst hit another one.
The speed of the greens was already alarmingly quick and by the time we got to the end of our first nine you could see foot indentations on the putting surfaces.
Naturally the course had been lengthened since 2002, under the guidance of Martin Hawtree, the current links design specialist. There are no radical changes, which is a tribute to an old course that has truly withstood the test of time.
Variety and subtlety
Muirfield is as good as a links course gets. Its got variety and subtlety that is highlighted in these pure summer links conditions. Ball striking and golfing nous will be required in abundance to master the 142nd Open venue. With fairway bunkers being so well placed, the impatient golfer will be tempted to take it on rather than adopting the discipline that the course demands for ultimate success.
An older gentleman appeared on the 18th tee sporting a stylish Borsalino hat rarely needed in these parts. He told Ernie that he was the walking marshal on the day he won 11 years ago. This invoked more fond memories for him.
Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R and A caught up to us halfway round our second nine eager to hear the South African's views on the presentation of the course.
With the vast stands framing the greens and the array of marquees already in place to entertain the army of golf enthusiasts, there was a strange feeling of being at the venue at the wrong time.
Having overnighted in the quaint Greywalls, and stepped out into a light westerly breeze the following morning, there was no doubt that it was a timely visit for Ernie. Having got to play the course in two very different winds with no interruption and with as much time as he wished to take on each and every hole, I turned into an overnight convert to the pre-preparation policy of the serious Major contender.
We were not alone, as we bumped into Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy adopting the same policy of two uninterrupted, quality practice rounds. Who knows how we will do but if the performance is not as desired, it certainly won’t be down to lack of preparation.