Friday, 19 March 2010

The marriage of Muirfield and The Open Championship has given golf some of its most memorable Major moments, and when the famous East Lothian links hosts The Senior Open Championship, presented by Aberdeen Asset Management, for the first time, another exciting chapter in that history is set to be written.

Ever since 1892, when Muirfield joined The Open rota and the Claret Jug was claimed by Harold H Hilton, the home of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers has seen 14 more Open Championships and produced a list of champions synonymous with greatness.

Legends like Harry Vardon (1896), James Braid (1901-1906), Walter Hagen (1929), Henry Cotton (1948), Gary Player (1959), Jack Nicklaus (1966), Lee Trevino (1972), Tom Watson (1980), Nick Faldo (1987-1992) and, most recently, Ernie Els (2002), have all held aloft golf’s oldest Major after success at Muirfield.

Now, in 2007, it is the turn of the best senior golf talent in the world to attempt to join that list of champions – and if the contest follows the script of past Championships, it promises to be another Open to savour.

With 14 Major Champions and 21 Senior Major Champions in the 144 strong field – which will be finalised after Monday’s Pre Qualifying at Dunbar, Craigielaw and North Berwick – teeing up on Thursday, it has every chance of delivering.

Much of the focus will be on England’s greatest golfer, Nick Faldo, who makes his senior debut, having turned 50 on July 18, on the course where he claimed two of his three Open Championships in such brave fashion.

His 18 consecutive pars in the final round of 1987’s Championship held off Paul Azinger’s challenge, while in 1992, on the 72nd hole, his arrow-like three iron to the 18th green set up the par four that secured a one shot victory from another American, John Cook.

Faldo is excited about returning to action – and hopes to triumph once more in Scotland. He said: “A Senior Open Championship title at Muirfield to go with my two regular Open Championship titles is certainly the goal for me.

“I have to work hard on my game to make that happen, but I feel quite happy that I found—hopefully found—a shot that will work.

“I have to go through the process every shot. I know what the process is, I guess I’ve just got to dig deep and give it full commitment and we’ll see what happens. I’ve worked hard to get it, because I want to enjoy Muirfield.

“But I also think that Muirfield will inspire me - it will find a way. I think the memories will start to come back as soon as I stand on the first tee but there will probably be more when I come up the 18th fairway – then I will really think back to all those years ago.”

The six times Major Champion added: “I’m sure it will be a fun event though and I am looking forward to it. My son Matthew is going to caddie for me which will be special and I will try and go there with the right mixture of memories and emotions to make sure I play well and do myself justice.”

The 2008 European Ryder Cup Captain will be plotting the downfall of the Americans at Valhalla – but his first challenge as a senior is to end the monopoly  they have established in The Senior Open Championship, with four consecutive winners from 2003-2006.

Although he will only be eight days into his 50th year, Faldo is not the youngest participant teeing up at Muirfield, for Wayne Grady turns 50 on the very first day of the Championship.

The 1990 US PGA Championship winner is also eager to make his senior debut – and he has quietly requested The R&A for an afternoon tee time, just to make absolutely certain that he will have passed the moment he came into the world on July 26, 1957 in Brisbane, Australia.

However, he jested: “Based on the time difference between Australia and the UK, I think I’m pretty safe on that score!”

Having become part of the BBC’s golf commentary team in recent years, Grady was again performing his duties at The Open Championship at Carnoustie last week, but it was working at Hoylake last year that his mind turned to playing seniors golf, when he learned Muirfield was the 2007 venue for The Senior Open.

He recalled: “I thought I would check it out with The R&A and was amazed to find out that the event started on my 50th birthday. I asked if that made me eligible and they confirmed that it did. Anyway, I wanted the afternoon tee time just to make sure.”

Faldo and Grady will be determined to claim their maiden senior Major and emulate Loren Roberts, who last year completed a wire-to-wire victory by beating Argentine Eduardo Romero at the first hole of a sudden-death play-off.

After an absorbing final day tussle over the Ailsa Course at The Westin Turnberry Resort, during which Romero came from five behind to tie Roberts on six under par 274, the Californian eventually shook off his pursuer with a par four on the pair’s return to the 18th.

“This is the ultimate achievement for me,” commented a delighted Roberts after collecting the Claret Jug.

“Obviously I was able to play The Ryder Cup and some President’s Cups, and to win on Tour, but I had a chance at the 1994 US Open and didn’t get it done. After I got in my mid 40s, it was left to the Seniors Tour to win a Major. And of all the Majors, I am happy to get this one. This gives me great fulfilment.”

Such is the prestige attached to The Senior Open Championship. Such will be the unbridled joy again from the winner – whoever it is who adds his name to Muirfield’s glorious past come Sunday night.




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