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When Muirfield's weather ruined Tiger's slam

by Ron Green jr - July 16, 2013

Eleven years ago, Tiger Woods arrived at Muirfield’s first tee having won the year’s first two major championships and sitting just two strokes off the 36-hole lead in the Open Championship.

At the same place where Jack Nicklaus’ bid to win the calendar Grand Slam had ended in 1972, Woods was near the height of his powers. The game, it seemed, revolved around him. But not the weather.

The Open Championship, arguably the world’s most important golf tournament, is about many things. It’s about the history dating to 1860, it’s about the best players on the game’s great links and it’s about the elements. It’s about the wind off the water, the mid- summer chill and the peculiar way nature can impose its will, rugged one moment, benign the next. The Masters gets the freshness of springtime and the U.S. Open, more often than not, gets summer heat and the threat of thunderstorms.

The Open Championship, though, gets its look, its feel and its tapestry from the weather. That was never truer than on Saturday of the Open Championship in 2002.

“It was awful,” Woods said recently, when asked to recount the day he shot 81 in perhaps the worst weather conditions of his career.

It may be overstatement to say the weather changed golf history that day. There’s no guarantee had the conditions been softer that Woods would have won at Muirfield. He started Saturday with eight players in front of him including eventual champion Ernie Els.

Still, it was a sudden, jolting reminder of how difficult links golf can be, even for the best in the game.

“It was some of the toughest conditions I’ve ever seen in an Open Championship,” Els said that Saturday, once he was warm and dry inside after a third-round 72 before the worst of the wind and rain.

It’s not as if Muirfield needs drastic weather conditions to defend itself. With the possible exception of St. Andrews, it’s the Open venue that draws the most attention. The occasional foray to Carnoustie is intriguing because of the unrelenting difficulty of the course but Muirfield has the pedigree that separates it.

Home to the stodgily named Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Muirfield is an exquisite links, speckled with brilliant bunkering and framed by deep fescue rough. It’s a place that takes itself seriously and, in a sense, that’s part of its charm.

After all, it’s where the original 13 rules of golf were written in 1744, a full decade before the Royal & Ancient was formed. It’s where members and guests arrive in coat and tie, change into their golf clothes, then change back when they settle into the big tables for the club’s famous lunch.

It’s a place of privilege and it relishes the reputation. Two-ball matches (alternate shot) are the game of choice at Muirfield after lunch, though standard four-balls are allowed on occasion.

It’s an all-male club, something of a relic in that regard. Tom Morris designed it after the decision by members was made to move from Musselburgh Links more than a century ago. For the modern game, Martin Hawtree has reworked 15 holes and the course will play to 7,245 yards and par 71 for the Open.

If the list of champions speaks to the quality of a course, consider the men who have won the Open Championship at Muirfield: Harry Vardon, James Braid, Gary Play- er, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Els, among others.

Woods’ name is missing. That Saturday 11 years ago had an ominous weather forecast — wind and rain and cold. That’s not uncommon along the Scottish coast, even in July. But this was different. There was a ferocity to the weather that made the game border- line unplayable.

Thomas Bjørn was standing on the practice green before his third-round tee time when he got a sense of what was coming.

“I just saw this big black cloud coming in and I thought, ‘Here we go,’ “ Bjørn said after shooting 73 that day. “I’ve been playing a lot of golf … in Scotland and Britain and you know when you see weather like that what it’s going to be like. It’s just so easy to shoot in the 80s because if you start losing some shots out there, it’s difficult to see yourself getting around the golf course.

“This is probably one of the hardest days I’ve ever had on a golf course. Certainly early, it was a test beyond belief. This was a sleeping giant of a golf course and it certainly showed.”

The players who went out early got the best conditions. By the time the leaders were teeing off, the weather had come crashing in.

The worst of it seemed to arrive with Woods at the first tee at 2:30 p.m.

“We were just about ready to go out and it just hit,” said Woods, who played with his friend Mark O’Meara that day. “You can see this wall of rain coming in.

“The forecast was for maybe some rain show- ers, no big deal. But no one had forecast the wind chill to be in the 30s. For it to be that cold, that was the thing.

“It just got so cold that nothing was working. No one had enough clothes. Everything was soaked. The umbrella was useless.”

Scott McCarron, who was tied for third after Saturday, said he went through four rain jackets in four holes. He hit a 2-iron into one green from 159 yards. Woods’ day started with a tee shot into the rough, leading to his first bogey. He hit a 135- yard 5-iron on the third hole. He bogeyed the par-3 fourth when he couldn’t get his tee shot through the wind to the green. A double bogey followed at the fifth and by the turn, Woods had posted 42. It hardly got better coming in though the conditions softened in the last hour.

By then, the damage was done. The Grand Slam dream was drenched, drowned and turned inside out.

Woods’ 81 was the highest score of his professional career.

“We all understand that is just the way the Open Championship is,” Woods told reporters when he was finished.“The weather is unpredictable. Anything can happen and it has happened. … I tried all the way around.”

To add perspective to the difficulty: Nine players broke par in the third round and none teed off later than 10:20 a.m. The average score for the last seven groups was 76.7.

“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen for a very long time at this championship,” Els said.

O’Meara recently told a story about what he learned about Woods on that wild, windy and wet Saturday at Muirfield. He understood the pressure Woods was under, chasing the Grand Slam, and O’Meara saw it torn apart by weather he said “looked like a tidal wave coming in.”

On the 15th hole, O’Meara said he called Woods over and put his arm around him. He said he knew how much the tournament meant to Woods and he had conducted himself admirably on a difficult day. O’Meara told The Telegraph that’s the day he felt Woods had fully arrived as a golfer.

“Then he says, ‘I can tell you this, I tried my ass off on every single shot,’ “ O’Meara said. “That’s why I’m telling you - you’ve arrived. Because you didn’t act like a spoiled brat.”

Driving away from Muirfield that night, O’Meara said he asked Woods if he was OK. Woods said he already had a game plan for the final round. Woods shot 65 on Sunday.

“It’s just part of the deal when you play over there,” Woods said. “I think that’s the beauty of playing the Open Championship.”

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