SI Golf Group convened a panel of experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle along with special contributor John Garrity and a PGA Tour pro who took part on the condition of anonymity — to tackle these and other questions.
WHO'S BETTER POSITIONED FOR THE OPEN AMONG THE BIG THREE—TIGER, PHIL OR RORY?
Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Phil is most dangerous when you've given up on him—he proved that with his victory at Castle Stuart last week. Yeah, his Open record isn't great, but it's clear he's finally figured out links golf. More to the point, Phil now believes he can win the Open, and I don't think he felt that way until his near miss in 2011. It would be such a classic Phil move to rebound from Merion with a win at Muirfield.
Anonymous Pro: I agree that Phil is dangerous—sometimes if you're a spectator without a helmet, sometimes just to himself. He masterminded his way right out of winning the Open at Merion by taking driver out of his bag, especially at 18 in the last round. The Scottish Open win proves once again how good he can be when he gets out of his own way.
John Garrity, special contributor, Sports Illustrated: The worst-positioned of the three is Tiger. He has bad memories of Muirfeld, shooting 81 on that cold, horrible, rainy day in 2002. If he's nursing a bad elbow, there couldn't be a worse place for him. Muirfield's principal defense is deep, thick, lose-your-ball rough. One swing from that hay could knock him out of the tournament.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I would not be surprised to see all three contend. Tiger could iron it to death like he did at Hoylake. All these links courses are chess matches, and Muirfield is especially so. Nobody plays links chess like Woods.
Shipnuck: Man, I am so over Tiger. He's gone into how many majors in the last two years playing great? Then he just doesn't get it done. For casual fans, Tiger will always be the default favorite at a major. That's based on an outdated body of work and not supported by his recent results. He now has a mental block at the majors, and this time around his preparation has been compromised by his elbow. He won't have his vaunted reps.
Anonymous Pro: You can never discount Tiger. He'll find a way to contend.
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: We don't know how bad his elbow is, so he's a wild card. Meanwhile, does anyone know if Rory still plays golf?
Shipnuck: Rory is such an enigma. He had that swoon last year, but that was more about scheduling and adjusting to being No. 1. He never stopped believing in himself. This year, he looks dejected. For a guy with a happy-go-lucky little strut who made the game look so easy, he seems depressed. This slump is on a much different order of magnitude. I still believe in Rory long term, but this year looks like a washout.
Bamberger: His admission of being lost is something I consider a show of strength. It may be a way of taking pressure off himself. He can still turn it around quickly.
Van Sickle: Changing all his equipment at the same time was a big mistake. I said it then, and now it's obvious.
Anonymous Pro: The driver is a huge problem for Rory. He's not hitting his usual draw; he's losing it right. And he's searching for the putter too. I understand that a couple hundred million dollars is a ridiculous amount of money, but that move was suicidal. People said, "Oh, he'll figure it out." But if you hit enough bad shots, it gets in your head. The driver, putter and the ball are a holy triumvirate. Don't mess with them.
WHAT IS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MUIRFIELD MOMENT?
Van Sickle: Muirfield is where two Grand Slams went to die. Jack Nicklaus was heading for the Slam in '72 when he ran into Lee Trevino, who chipped in five times that week, notably on the 71st hole. Tiger was a lock in 2002, I thought, until that freak storm blew him off the course in the third round. Two Slams thwarted. That's quite a coincidence. Muirfield is the Ken Keltner of Grand Slam stoppers.
Shipnuck: Didn't Jack blame the whole thing on a bad pillow? He slept weird and tweaked his neck, and it didn't get loose until the third round. There's apparently a ghost who haunts that course.
Van Sickle: I can see Jack blaming a pillow quicker than admitting, Trevino's got my number.
Shipnuck: There's that too.
Anonymous Pro: Trevino's win stands out the most. That was a great duel. Nick Faldo's two wins at Muirfield were typical Faldo. He plodded along until somebody else made mistakes at the end and handed him the titles.
Garrity: You have to look at the history. There have been 13 Open champions at Muirfield, and 11 of them are in the Hall of Fame.
Van Sickle: Muirfield's list of champions may be the best of any major venue.
Garrity: Besides Nicklaus, Trevino, Tom Watson and Gary Player, there was Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon, James Braid. Great names. Plus Ernie Els.
Shipnuck: Thomas Levet had a chance to ruin it all, but he couldn't finish against Ernie. From Merion to Muirfield, it's a real summer of love for Trevino, back-to-back ballparks where he dusted Jack. Muirfield is a great course, but there are more memorable tracks in Scotland. I can understand why pros like it. There are no blind shots, no funky bounces. It plays more like a U.S. Open course with weeds than a linksland.
Garrity: My favorite moment was Faldo's speech in '92. He was so relieved he didn't blow the Open that he cried in public, sang a phrase from "My Way" like Frank Sinatra and kind of came unglued. Everyone had been describing him as the closest thing to Ben Hogan—absolutely inscrutable, impassive, a robot, machinelike. If you saw that speech, it was almost as if he were intoxicated from winning. It gave us clues to his actual personality, which we later began to see when he became a TV personality.
Bamberger: I like the story about Tom Watson winning in 1980. Later that night, Tom and some friends went out to play the 1st hole with gutta percha balls and hickory-shafted clubs, and were chased off the course by Paddy Hanmer, the legendarily grumpy club secretary. Tom has an unabashed love of links golf.
Anonymous Pro: That's how you win five Open championships.
WHICH NEWLY MINTED MAJOR CHAMPION IS GOING TO HAVE A BETTER CAREER: ADAM SCOTT OR JUSTIN ROSE?
Bamberger: Hands down, it's Rose. I think he's better in every category than Scott, including toughness. I think Justin is here for the long haul, can easily win more majors and is a more skillful golfer overall.
Shipnuck: That's an interesting question because Scott is pure talent and Justin is more of a grinder, and yet they've come to the same place at the same time. Don't forget, Adam is going to lose his long putter in two years, when the anchored-putting ban goes into effect. If he could keep his long putter, Adam could win four or five majors.
Van Sickle: They're polar opposites. Scott was the classic swinger, Rose the chipper and putter. Now, Sean Foley has Rose swinging beautifully. Scott's window of opportunity may get slammed shut by the putting ban, so I'll go with Justin.
Garrity: It's amazing how close their careers track. Scott has 21 wins, Rose has 14. Both are 32. Scott is two weeks older. Both won their first important events on the European tour in South Africa. Scott's first win there was by one stroke over Rose. Both have won on strong courses, both have one major and they've each been ranked as high as third in the world. They've been in lockstep.
Anonymous Pro: I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but Justin hits the ball every bit as well as Adam. The ban is going to force Adam to figure something else out. Maybe he'll switch to a putting style like Matt Kuchar's.
Garrity: I'm looking at the next 2½ years to be intense for a lot of players who may lose their livelihoods because of the putting ban. The countdown has begun.
AND THE WINNER IS …
Garrity: Ernie Els. He's the last player to win at Muirfield, and he's the defending Open champion. He's also a Hall of Famer, so he fits the profile of a Muirfield winner with a fine pedigree. My dark horse is Russell Henley, who won in Hawaii early this year. He's a former Walker Cupper, so he's not a novice to links golf. He could pull a Ben Curtis and swipe an Open.
Shipnuck: I like Graeme McDowell. He's found the magic again, he's playing with confidence, and his low ball flight is perfect in the wind. He looked great winning the French Open recently. Billy Horschel is my long-shot pick. He tied for fourth in his first U.S. Open and was disappointed. He is pumped for this one.
Bamberger: Matt Kuchar hits it solidly and low and putts well. He has a Stewart Cink, Nick Faldo kind of feel about him. My dark horse is a bit of a fantasy. It's Tom Watson. He played well at the Greenbrier. Muirfield isn't that long, and Tom can still hit it. He can finish top 10.
Garrity: Tom also won the Senior British Open at Muirfield a few years back. I was there. The rough was much deeper there than at the Open at Carnoustie that summer, and the seniors went nuts. They thought it was unfair. Tom just smiled and won.
Van Sickle: There are few greats of the game missing from Muirfield's list of champions, so I'm picking Tiger. He can think his way around Muirfield if his elbow holds up. Muirfield identifies the best player in the game. That was, and maybe still is, Tiger.
Anonymous Pro: I look for Justin Rose to win back-to-back Opens, like Trevino in '72. Golf needs a new story line. Justin could be it.
Van Sickle: My dark-horse selection is my favorite astrophotographer, Jimmy Walker. He's racked up top 10s this year, and I'm using his amazing shot of the Horsehead Nebula as my laptop's wallpaper. This could be Jimmy's week to become a star himself.