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Here's what's scary about this year's Open Championship: the last time it was played at Muirfield (2002), stalwart players such Thomas Levet, Shigeki Maruyama, and Gary Evans -- as well as 'past-their-prime' guys like Steve Elkington and Peter O'Malley -- had legitimate opportunities to win on Sunday. It was a four-man playoff (!?!?!?!). Point being: it can really be a crapshoot.
Muirfield does have as distinguished a list of champions as any course in the world, however, beginning with Ernie Els claiming that Open in 2002. Others include Nick Faldo winning it twice on these grounds (1992, 1987), then Tom Watson (1980), Lee Trevino (1972), Jack Nicklaus (1966), Gary Player (1959) and Henry Cotton (1948) winning the post-WWII iterations of the championship. The most striking similarities between these champions? Besides being some of the greatest players the game has ever seen, they each won multiple majors and continued to play well at Muirfield even when they didn't win.
Here's another factor: the weather this week at Muirfield is supposed to be downright placid, relatively speaking, as it has been for a few weeks now. It's playing firm and fast and it doesn't appear that's going to change (although one never knows in that part of the world). In the 2002 event here, the third round was played in some of the most miserable conditions ever televised -- if Tiger Woods could have managed a four-over-par 75 that day instead of the 81 he shot, it would have been a five-man playoff instead of four. The bottom line is that a firm course allows for a lot of irons off tees and players who have creative games to run the ball up and onto Muirfield's large surfaces. So don't be surprised when short hitters are taking 4-irons off of 470-yard holes and only hitting 9-irons into the greens -- distance just doesn't mean much on concrete-like surfaces. That just brings a whole mess of players into view as potential contenders.
One other thing to consider: Muirfield's routing is unique. It's not a true links with nine holes out and nine coming the opposite direction back in. Holes run at angles to one another and bend different ways, calling for a player to hit the ball both ways and challenging them will cross breezes that makes holding fairways and greens almost impossible at times. The fescue rough is tall, but it's very playable -- players will just have to adjust for potential flier lies. Again, strike one up for the creative player who can rally control his ball flight and can cut and draw the ball.
The other trend I'll mention is that the last three Open champions have finished between 52nd and 68th the week before in the Scottish Open.
With that, the 10-Fer this week will mirror our Pick-6 Majors Challenge format - the overall standings for those who've competed in all of the games is here. You can also check tee times here. The six players I'm selecting:
6. Matteo Manassero. The young Italian has come of age this year, with a win at the BMW PGA at Wentworth - which was playing firm and fast - and several top-10's in Europe. He's currently 3rd in the Race to Dubai, and, going with the trend identified above, finished T57 at the Scottish Open last week. I also like that he's an exciting and creative ball striker. He's not the longest hitter in the world, but I just don't see that being a huge deal with the conditions this week. Someone unexpected will be in the top five this week, and Matteo is as good a candidate as anyone to fill that spot.
5. Brandt Snedeker. Is now officially gearing his game towards the majors and is probably the one to claim that 'best to have not won a major' title. The ability to hit irons off tees will really help Sneds, who isn't one of the straightest drivers of the ball. But one of his biggest areas of improvement the last two years is his ability to shape the ball consistently both ways and hit a boring ball flight -- and that's what helped propel him to a T3 finish at the Open in 2012. His great putting is always an asset, and on greens that don't have a ton of movement, his eyes will light up with every birdie attempt. Coming off a T17 at Merion and T8 at Congressional (AT&T National), his came is trending in the right direction.
4. Sergio Garcia. Sergio has made a nice living on Open Championship courses on which he can shutter the driver and hit irons off the tee, like Carnoustie and, yes, Muirfield. He was only two shots out of the playoff as a 20-something back in 2002. This course screams for his game -- creative, ball-striking, and plenty of birdie opportunities. It's just always a leap of faith for Sergio, and it's tough to expect him to win with his fragile mental state. But I like him to post a solid top-10, especially coming off a T7 at the BMW International. And you never know -- Sergio's name wouldn't look completely out of place with Muirfield's roster of champions.
3. Justin Rose. His game is more mechanical than I'd like, but there's no better player on the planet right now than the US Open champ. He will attack Muirfield much like he did Merion: lots of irons off the tee and bullet-like approach shots. Getting that major championship monkey off his back will do a world of good for his confidence, too. Finished T22 at Muirfield in 2002 with an other-worldly 68 in that brutal third round (he got the better end of the weather that day).
2. Tiger Woods. Tiger says his elbow is fine and has been tuning his game up the last two weeks. He's almost turning into as much of a wildcard as Sergio, however. Again, if anyone's game is built for Muirfield this week, it's Tiger's -- he can shape any shot he wants and has the best feel of any player in the world. His rustiness is a little concerning, but last year he posted a T3 in this event after missing the cut at Greenbrier two weeks beforehand. He's won the US Open with a broken leg and other majors after taking several weeks off, so I don't worry too much about those things at the end of the day with Tiger. His 'B' game is still better than 90% of the field's 'A' game -- it just used to be better than 99% of it.
1. Ernie Els. I like Ernie at all of the majors this year, and he showed that he can still contend in majors at Merion last month. The defending champion, and 2002 winner at Muirfield, is a great shotmaker who knows this course better than most in the field. Sometimes there's no substitute for experience, and that's certainly in play here. He won the BMW International two weeks ago, so he's continued his good form since Merion. Moreso than any other major, the British Open has a proclivity of repeat champs, including Paddy Harrington (2007-08), Tiger (2005-06), Watson (1982-83) and Trevino (1971-72) in the modern era.
Player to avoid: Rory McIlroy. He's stated he has very little confidence in his game and while that might have dissipated with recent practice sessions, I don't want burn a pick on that hope. After a T41 at Merion he missed the cut in the Irish Open, and didn't look good in either event. He could get it back together at any time, but I'm guessing it's not this week.
Others I like: Nic Colsaerts (T7 in 2012, form is good), Phil Mickelson (form is good, can put the driver on the shelf), Adam Scott, Jason Day, Kyle Stanley (fits the Calcavecchia/Appleby mold of contenders at Muirfield), Matt Kuchar (favorable conditions for him, T9 last year), Branden Grace (great form, game fits Muirfield), Henrik Stenson (great form), Paddy Harrington (contended in 2002). Thorbern Olesen is a candidate for the Scottish Open-finish trend (67th last week), but his form hasn't been good for a couple of months now. Thongchai Jaidee is another one (T64) who might surprise, although he doesn't have a great record at The Open.
We'll have picks for the True South PGA Tour event tomorrow night, so don't forget to check back. Good luck with your picks.
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Photo: USA Today Sports Images