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At any Open, it’s in the luck of the draw

If you thought Tiger’s 79 on the final day of Jack Nicklaus’s tournament at Muirfield Village was a shocker, what about the 81 he shot in his third round at the real Muirfield in the 2002 Open?

Granted, there was a vast discrepancy in the weather but there, in a nutshell, is why punters have such a lovehate relationship with the world’s greatest golf event. It is simply too weather-dependent and if your man is handed a bad draw, then you’ve had it. Pure and simple. With only one tee and players starting out from 6.30 in the morning to gone four in the afternoon, the Open is a betting nightmare for some, sheer luck for others.

If Woods had shot a 74 on that third day (a score returned by others playing at a similar time in the worst of the weather), he would have won that 2002 Open and repaid all those who had backed him down to 5-2 favourite (the shortest price since Jack Nicklaus teed off at 2-1 for the 1972 Open on the same East Lothian links – and for the same reason: both men had won the first two majors of the season and were chasing that still-to-be-nailed same-year Slam).

Nicklaus failed because he played too conservatively and, oh yes, Lee Trevino chipped in at the 71st to beat him by one. Woods failed partly because of bad luck, but mostly because he blew it. From ninth place starting out on Saturday, Tiger slumped to 67th. A restorative final-round 65 hoisted him to a share of 22nd, but after fighting his way around the course in the wind and the rain, there was simply no way back. Tiger had built his game around a sound strategy, imperious ball control, minimising his mistakes, holing putts. But the Muirfield weather rendered that plan useless: he lost control of the ball’s flight and lost control on the greens where the wind constantly blew his putts off-line. Yet such were – and are – the moods of the weather gods that on the same afternoon that Tiger returned an 81 (and our own Monty an 84), others like Justin Rose, Justin Leonard, Steve Elkington and Peter Lonard were able to hand in 68s.

Golf was never meant to be fair and betting on golf was never meant to be fair, either. But betting on the Open should carry a Government Wealth Warning. No wonder professional punters hold off with the ‘serious money’ until the halfway cut, many hanging on until Sunday when the main contenders tee off less than an hour apart.

Yet somehow, despite the vagaries of luck, only the true greats seem to win at Muirfield, at least in the post-war era. Nobody is suggesting that 1935 champion Alf Perry was a great player but the Open was a long way from being the world-embracing contest it is today. But which out of the subsequent eight winners would you not have in your team of alltime greats: Cotton, Player, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Faldo (twice – an honour he shares with James Braid) and Els?

That list suggests to me that we can toss aside thoughts of an outsider winning over the links most regard as the finest and fairest on the Open roster – no Ben Curtis, no Todd Hamilton, no Paul Lawrie, no Stewart Cink, no Darren Clarke. Only the very best. Having said that, we got close to a shock result last time with Thomas Levet just one putt from glory before Els’s fifth straight playoff par prevailed.

If the weather doesn’t beat up punters, the 11-year gap between Opens does them no favours, either. Form from 2002 is as cold as last night's leftovers and although Ernie has gone on, eventually, to win another one, the other players in that four-way play-off – Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington – have all but disappeared off the golfing map. But Els it was, victory for the 18-1 third favourite – only Tiger and Phil were punted ahead of him – and he will arrive at Muirfield as defending champion, courtesy of Adam Scott’s meltdown over the last four holes. Having put Ernie up at 50- 1 for Gi readers in advance, I have to admit I was not one of those shedding a tear for the Aussie but that’s what betting does – makes you hard and occasionally unfeeling. We hate ourselves afterwards but when you are working out what you are going to do with four grand, tears for an unfortunate loser are not uppermost in the psyche.

It would be quite something if the ‘Big Easy’ were to make a successful defence on a links he has already conquered – and it could happen. His putting has improved and although the bookies make him only 40-1 tenth favourite, his stellar links record suggests they are still underrating him. Maybe they think his age his against him, but being 40+ didn’t stop Mark O’Meara, Clarke or Ernie himself last year.

Els apart, of those who did well at Muirfield last time, it stays in the memory that Padraig Harrington would have been the fifth man in that playoff but for a nervy finish, while Sergio Garcia and Thomas Bjorn were only two away from it in a share of eighth place.

Since then, of course, Pod has picked up two Opens. He then announced he was going to “revamp his game” and make it even better. Instead, to our eye, he has made it infinitely worse, but the Irishman believes there is another major to come and the strength of mind is undoubtedly there. He, too, is at 40-1 and not out of it.

Garcia, at 33-1, has more obvious current credentials even though his tally of majors is nil. Detractors say he has not the nerve or the temperament ever to win one and they may well be right. I hope not. His putting, for so long an Achilles’ heel, has improved immeasurably and going into the US Open he had not finished outside 19th place in any completed 2013 start in the USA or Europe. And despite that humiliating meltdown at Sawgrass after an unseemly spat with Tiger, El Nino is a big-occasion player. He has been top-10 on his three most important spring starts – the Masters, Players and WGC Cadillac Championship.

Despite four wins in the first five months of 2013, Woods is quoted to go off at 11-2 this time (this column had to be filed before the result of the US Open was known) and that’s three points longer than he was when eying up a Grand Slam 11 years ago. The million-dollar question: is he as brilliant now as he was at the start of the century? On his “going” weeks, definitely. But there is no middle ground with Tiger these days: his bad rounds come far more often as he gets older as the ability to turn 74 into 69 diminishes.

Merion was brutal (as Muirfield is quite likely to be), and if the opening two rounds there are anything to go by, world No 5 Justin Rose has every right to considered good value at 28-1 (and I have a strong suspicion that Ian Poulter will also prove a strong runner in East Lothian). I keep the faith with Graeme McDowell, too, fifth last year at Lytham and a winner on both tours in the year’s early skirmishes. The Irishman will carry my money at 33-1. Less talented than some but the toughest of the lot outside Tiger.

On a personal note, but for Muirfield I would in all probability not be writing my 118th consecutive column for you, dear readers. Let me explain: the 1972 Open there was my first as golf correspondent of The Sporting Life and, beginner’s luck and with Nicklaus not much of a price, I tipped Trevino at 8-1. The editor decided that sales could be augmented if the paper tipped regularly (and successfully) on televised golf tournaments and I was sent into the field on a regular basis, began tipping winner after winner, and built up a reputation that has kept me in gainful employment for 41 years with hopefully a good few more to come.

I have just been sent a fiver “for a nice drink” by a senior citizen “for making my week” which makes me feel very humble. God bless you, sir!

If you, too, have had a winner or two from me over the years, good luck to you and good luck with your Open bets. But do save your biggest one until the Sunday morning. The price will be a lot shorter, of course, but at least it won’t be a lottery.

Best odds as at June 13: 11-2 Woods, 12-1 McIlroy, 20-1 Scott, 25-1 Westwood, Donald, 28-1 Rose, 33-1 Snedeker, McDowell, Garcia, 40-1 Mickelson, D Johnson, Oosthuizen, Schwartzel, Els, Harrington, 50-1 Kuchar, Day, Fowler, Poulter, Kaymer, Olesen, 66-1 B Watson, Simpson, Mahan, Stenson, Manassero, 80-1 Bradley, Stricker, Furyk, Cabrera, F Molinari, Lawrie, 100-1 Watney, Z Johnson, Hanson, Bjorn, R Fisher, Coetzee, 125-1 and upwards others

July 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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