Preparing for a Major Championship is challenging at the best of times but doing so after a prolonged spell of dry weather, as was the case for The Open at Muirfield, makes it all the more complex.
Despite the difficulties presented by the weather, Muirfield will be remembered as a fine example of a links course as it should be after a tremendous week of championship golf on the East Lothian coast in Scotland.
This was, by far, the warmest and driest Open since Hoylake in 2006, prompting Lee Westwood to wryly observe: “Little did I know when I moved to Florida that I was acclimatising for The Open in Scotland.”
The fairways and greens throughout the Championship were firm and fast. The bounce was somewhat unpredictable and there was an element of good, or bad, fortune as to where the ball finished.
The greens were cut at 4 mm and were running at speeds of between 10.5 and 11 feet when measured early each morning. Water was applied extremely sparingly during the Championship, with hand watering of greens and limited sprinkler use to fairways (not even enough to make up for evapo-transpiration losses). This was only possible because of the quality of the Muirfield turf.
As Course Manager, Colin Irvine explained: “This has been quite extreme greenkeeping. We really haven’t experienced this for a lot of years, having the weather so dry for so long. The fescue – the native grass – was in a dormant state. But we didn’t want colour here. I’m happy with all the decisions we made. Every decision we took was the right one.”
That decision-making process was informed by twice daily assessment of the firmness, moisture content, speed and trueness of the greens, carried out by the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), the agronomists to The R&A’s Championship Committee. The refinement of putting surface mowing and watering each evening was based on The R&A’s desire to present a true links test and informed by the assessment regime as well as Colin Irvine’s wealth of experience – he was also Course Manager when The Open was last held at Muirfield in 2002.
While well-managed links, with turf dominated by drought-tolerant fescue and bent grasses, can safely be presented in this way in the knowledge that there will be a full recovery with the return of cooler, damper weather, other types of courses can implement policies to present firmer, drier playing conditions by reducing their water and fertiliser inputs within reasonable limits. Lush, green turf does not provide the best playing performance, turf health or sustainable management and it is important that golfers understand the benefits of running conditions and a leaner golf course.
Although the professional tours do not often visit true links, and rarely witness the dry, firm, running conditions they encountered at Muirfield, they do appreciate this form of the game which is integral to the challenge of The Open.
2009 Open champion Stewart Cink, reflected on what it meant to him to be playing classic links golf: “It’s so much fun out there. Every shot is like a chess match. It’s exactly what links ought to be. It’s beautiful. The course is absolutely perfect.”
In his acceptance speech, 2013 Open Champion Phil Mickleson said: “I want to thank The R&A for the great job they did and the membership here at Muirfield for setting up such a wonderful golf course - a very demanding, difficult test - and I just could not be more proud to be your Champion.”
It was challenging for the competitors, the greenkeepers and the grass itself but they all came through with flying colours.