GULLANE, Scotland – We didn’t have to wait for all 52 games to start or for the complete checklist of crunched numbers to be compiled to make a definitive assessment of this 2013 Open Championship.
Basically all it took was a quick glance at the first two players off the first tee. Peter Senior’s double-bogey from the middle of the fairway was telling enough. Lloyd Saltman’s quad all but sealed the deal. With only one precinct reporter, the vote was final: The first hole at Muirfield is flat-out demanding.
“I don’t think I’ve ever started a round with three tee shots,” said Saltman, who had the honor of hitting second in this 142nd Open Championship. Unfortunately, he was way wide right with his first one, then with his second.
“Once it gets moving in the wind here, it’s gone.”
The good news is, Saltman made a stellar par with his third ball, but the damage was done. A bloody snowman, and it set in motion a familiar story here at Muirfield. Big numbers at No. 1.
When last we came to Muirfield, in 2002, the first hole played most difficult, with a field average of 4.37. That year, there were 26 double-bogeys, but only one player recorded the dreaded “other.” It only took nine players to surpass that, because Saltman went second and Bud Cauley, off third in Game 3, made a triple.
To keep the rough start going, Brooks Koepka in Game 4 also made a quad, though his was a most avoidable one. Having driven into the first cut of rough, Koepka had 196 yards in and contemplated 8-iron. His caddie, Mike Thomson, suggested 7-iron and after much discussion, they went with the longer club.
“I knew long was dead,” Koepka said, but sure enough, he went long. Then, trying to pitch a shot along the ground and onto the green, Koepka did as he had to do, keeping it close to a bunker. “But it kicked left, a bad kick,” said Thomson, and in the bunker it went. He left the next two shots in the bunker, finally got it out, then two-putted for the second snowman in the first 11 players.
“Just made a mess of that hole,” said Koepka, the Florida kid whose three Challenge Tour wins this year have earned him European Tour membership. “But I wasn’t too stressed. I thought I could come back.”
He hung in there nicely, playing the next 16 holes in level par, but a bogey at the 18th gave him a 5-over 76.
Certainly, Koepka’s quadruple-bogey contributed to the high numbers at the opening hole, which many consider to be the toughest start to any Open Championship course. Through 18 games, 54 players had played the first hole and the breakdown was not pretty – just 4 birdies, 29 pars, 13 bogeys, 4 doubles, 2 triples, and 2 quads. When added up, it was a 4.574 field average.
Nothing like a little haymaker with your morning tea, eh?
Set up at 439 yards, the first hole greets players with a challenge right from the start – trying to hit the fairway. Miss left or right and you’re in brutal rough and reaching the green would be near impossible.
But what caused chaos for Saltman is the one difference to the opening hole come Open time – there is out of bounds right.
Normally, there is just one wide, sweeping expanse of high rough right, but these major championships require small cities to be constructed and so to the right of the first fairway sits a tented village. That means thousands and thousands of people, which means that high grass has been either cut down or trampled down and therein sits a situation that disturbs rules-makers. Were officials to go with the usual temporary immoveable obstruction – the TIO – a player who hit his ball over there could seek relief and it’s likely that he’d escape high grass and drop “on a flattened piece of grass,” said David Rickman, executive director of rules and equipment standards for the R&A.
Such a predicament is unsettling, so the R&A did as they did in 2002 – they put up white stakes and ruled the tented village out of bounds. It’s one of two “internal” out-of-bounds areas, the other being the practice range to the right of the ninth fairway.
Purists tend to dislike “internal out-of-bounds,” but Rickman argued it was a decision that had merit.
“We felt strategically on that first tee we did not like the notion of it being a TIO; knowing what we did in 2002, we decided that not only was it consistent but it was right for it to be OB.”
No. 1 also ranked toughest at the Open in 1992 (4.49). It was second-toughest in 1987 (4.46) and while Mikko Ilonen, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Carl Pettersson in the first 15 games made birdies, for the most part, players struggled.
Heck, they had a rough time when they played it fairly well. Senior, for instance. He hit the opening tee shot into the fairway, delivered his second shot hole high and just left of the green – then promptly four-putted.
Agonizing, much like Koepka’s experience three games later. Knowing the toughest challenge on the hole was to get his drive in play, the Florida State product felt he did that. But to go long when he knew long was no good?
“Wrong club,” he said, shaking his head.
Then to see his third shot ride along the ground nicely, only to kick badly? Koepka gritted his teeth and standing next to him, Thomson shook his head.
“You couldn’t ask for a worse start,” Thomson said. “Welcome to the Open.”