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Muirfield's the best - Jack

The status of Muirfield as arguably the finest of the Open Championship venues is perhaps best illustrated by the esteem in which it is held by the greatest golfer of all time, for another while at least, Jack Nicklaus.

Muirfield was the scene of Nicklaus’ Walker Cup (a biennial match between amateur teams represent the USA and Great Britain) debut as a 19-year-old in 1959 and where he won his first Open championship in 1966.

Both events had a profound influence on Nicklaus, to the extent that when he built his American masterpiece in his native Columbus, Ohio, he sought permission from the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers to name it Muirfield Village.

The course that Jack built became the setting for his Memorial tournament and the link to The Open is preserved in that the trophy presented to the winner, a crystal shield mounted on a circular crystal base contains an etching of the Claret Jug within a laurel wreath.

In an article written for the Sunday Telegraph to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the establishment of the Honourable Company in 1999 Nicklaus expounded on what made Muirfield such a special place to him.

It contains some worthwhile tips to today’s young pretenders on the attitude and approach one needs to persevere over a links set up for The Open Championship.

“Muirfield was not just the course where I made may Walker Cup debut as an impressionable 19-year-old in 1959 but – and this the principal reason why it so special to me – it is also the course where I finally proved to everybody, and not least to myself, that I had the game win the British Open – or the Open as the Honourable Company would always call it,” Nicklaus wrote.

“I had come close in both 1963 at Lytham, when Bob Charles won, and again at St Andrews in 1964 when Tony Lema took the title, but I was an undistinguished 12th at Birkdale in 1965.

“There were murmurings that I hit the ball too high for the winds which are usually part and parcel of an Open Championship, and that I would not have the variety around the green for all the shots you have to manufacture on British links.

“Muirfield in 1966 changed all that and it was particularly satisfying because at first sight many would have said it was not my kind of course – not the way it was set up with towering rough and narrow fairways.

“But I have always felt at home at Muirfield and I solved the problem of the rough by so often using my one-iron from the tee. Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and Tommy Armour had all said the same thing – that you couldn’t call yourself a bona fide champion until you had won on both sides of the pond. Which, of course, is why Ben Hogan went to Carnoustie.

“Winning that Open in 1966 (Nicklaus’ first of three victories) was a great feeling and I remember asking at the presentation if they would mind if I paused for a moment just to enjoy it.

“I said things when I was young which make me wince now, because I did not fully understand then that the bad breaks, the bounces, the run of the ball, were all part of the challenge, the mystique of links golf.

“But Muirfield I liked from the first day I played it. It is essentially a fair course – as far as golf is meant to be fair – and, as everyone knows, it has more definition than most of the links on which the Open is played. What you see is what you get.

“The turf is lovely, just made for hitting iron shots with the spin you want, and the bunkers are so beautifully built as to be a work of art. As for the greens, I always thought that Logan (the then head green-keeper) got it right in the way he knew when to leave it to nature or, as he would say, to God. No over-watering for him, he knew the value of sand.

“The way the course is laid out, with the front nine running clock-wise as the outer ring and the back-nine anti-clockwise inside it, means that the wind comes at you from all points of the compass, and that adds to the shot-making.

“I have always said that that the Old Course at St Andrews is my favourite place in Britain to be playing golf because of its unique atmosphere, that feeling of history all about you. But Muirfield is my favourite course, to me the best on the Open Championship rota.

“It would have been unforgivably presumptuous to call my course in Ohio, Muirfield, because there can only be one but I much appreciated the response of the captain, late Guy Robertson Durham and his committee, when I asked if it would be all right if I incorporated Muirfield in the name. (Nicklaus called his course Muirfield Village).

“It was a nice gesture, too, of the City of Edinburgh to acknowledge the link by presenting Muirfield Village at the Memorial Tournament in 1980 with a silver club modelled on the one they presented to the Honourable Company.” (See my previous column).

Each week Dan Retief, in association with Glenmorangie, will be bringing you a new Open Championship column as we build up to the Muirfield event that starts on Thursday, July 18.

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