Ernie Els Misses Cut – on to Muirfield
Ernie Els feels pretty good going into the “Open” this week, but just to make sure his game retains its tuning, he played in the Scottish Open. If that decision was meant to produce any kind of confidence boost, it couldn’t have offered much, for the reigning British Open champion missed the cut. It didn’t do Phil Mickelson much good, either, and a Scot is appropriately leading the event.
A century or more ago, Els might not have been quite so intent, except from a competitive standpoint. I’m sure that there was plenty of that when the famous tournament started in 1860, around the time of the American Civil War. For the first couple of years, there was no prize money, only a red-leather belt called the Challengers Belt. So, Els wouldn’t have had to agonize over the size of the winner’s check. By the third year, it was at ten pounds, but at the present time, it’s pushing a million, and the defending champion is certainly aware of that.
The 1860 field consisted of eight players only, all pros. Ernie would probably like that, although he doesn’t shy away from the larger number of modern competitors. Back then, it was played in one day at Prestwick, at the time a twelve-hole course. The stars of that day were led by Willie Park, Sr., who defeated the popular Old Tom Morris for the inaugural event.
Poor Old Tom Morris shouldn’t be pitied. He won the “Open” several times, including the 1864 version, with a winner’s take of six pounds. The belt was retired after he won it three more times, and they let him keep it. 1871 saw the event cancelled, and the claret jug trophy appeared soon after. Morris won that as well. By 1892, the prize money was 100 pounds, but that was too late for the old charmer.
Snead was the first post WWII winner, Nicklaus won three, Watson five and Tiger three. Player won it in 1959, launching the era of the Big Three, and Sandy Lyle became the first Scot in decades to win it for the home country. This will be Nick Faldo’s last Open, and he’ll go out as a former champion. He last won in ’87 with a final round of all pars.
So, one can easily see that it’s a powerhouse of a stop on tour, and why it stands as one of the four modern majors, demurely hosted by what is thought to be the world’s oldest golf organization, the “Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.” Incidentally, that would be all male golfers, to be sure. After Augusta’s entry into mixed company, Muirfield stands pretty much alone among the big guys.
One or two things Els will be looking at, as he plays one of the premier links courses (if you’ve never played one, it involves hitting a tee shot, then going on safari to the next section of truncated fairway), the design guarantees that within one round, a player will experience the coastal winds from literally every direction.
Fortunately for Ernie, he’s not a wannabe searching for his first British title. True, he won the British at Royal Latham & St. Annes last year, he won it for a first time at Muirfield, in 2002. Still, he’s going to need a mental jump to clear this week’s debacle. Beautiful an event as the Scottish is, it is a lesser one in terms of star power, and Els will have to put it together at a much higher level. There’s more than a red belt and ten pounds at stake, and he knows it.