GULLANE, Scotland — The sun never sets on a Scottish summer, so if need be you can finish up your round at 6, 7, 8, 9 or even 10 in the evening, still with plenty of light bouncing off your golf ball and the Firth of Forth.
Tom Lehman, the 54-year-old Open champion of 1996, was out late Tuesday evening with his longtime caddie Andy Martinez. Amid the din of course workers blowing detritus off the dry, brown grass, Lehman was playing alone, taking on the 190-yard par-3 13th hole just before 7 p.m.. He hit a shot and watched the left-to-right crosswind kill his ball in the air. He re-teed, and hit the exact same shot. He gave up on the 5-iron, grabbed a 4-iron, and found the green.
"I guess it helps to hit the right club," Lehman said.
Can he win? He missed the cut the last time the Open was held at Muirfield, in 2002, but stranger things have happened. With fair weather in the forecast and the course playing firm and bouncy, length is not expected to be an issue. Bubba Watson predicted he won't hit his driver unless the wind changes, and European Tour driving distance leader Nicolas Colsaerts guessed he might hit it just once or twice. In fact you might fancy Tom Watson's chances more than Bubba's, even if Tom is 63 and last won here in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was in office.
There's an urgency about the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield, and you could feel it late Tuesday. You don't play the course in the morning and then return to play it in the evening, as Lehman did, unless you think you can win. Ernie Els, 43, whose two Opens (Lytham '12, Muirfield '02) make him a sort of double defending champion here, was toiling at dusk on the practice range, smoothing short irons with his syrupy swing. Darren Clarke, 44, was on the practice green, looking for the form he tapped into to win the 2011 Open at Royal St. George's.
How late is too late to win an Open? How late is too late to win a major? What about a first major? Adam Scott and Justin Rose broke through with their firsts at this year's Masters and U.S. Open, respectively. Both men are 32. Brandt Snedeker, who started 66-64 before fading to a tie for third at the Open at Lytham last year, is 32. He keeps threatening in the majors, having also put himself in the mix at the Masters in April before unraveling with a final-round 75.
"I loved growing up watching The Open on TV," Snedeker said Tuesday. "I liked how different it was from what I was used to seeing. Playing in a few of them now, I appreciate it. I have a lot more appreciation now than I did the first time I played. I realize the nuances, the different shots you need to hit and how un-cookie-cutter this kind of golf is. There's not one way to hit any shot. I love that."
Jason Day, 25, is also chasing his first major trophy, and seems to be getting closer with a third at the Masters and a T2 at the U.S. Open at Merion earlier this year. Is he an Open threat? With little more than two made cuts in two starts — T60 at St. Andrews 2010, T30 at St. George '11 — it's still too early to say.
It's getting late for Steve Stricker, 46, who skips this Open to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary back home in Wisconsin, leaving 40-year-old Lee Westwood as the most conspicuous A-list player without a major as he enters the twilight of his career. A 22-time winner on the European tour, Westwood had one hand on the claret jug only to fall short with a runner-up at St. Andrews in 2010, a T3 at Turnberry in '09, and two top-10s at Troon (4th in '04, T10 in '97). He tied for eighth at the Masters and finished T15 at the U.S. Open earlier this year.
Then again, maybe winning the Open is a case of mind over mileage. Phil Mickelson, 43, is coming off a victory at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, his first win on British soil, and believes he's found the secret of golf, or at least the secret of putting. Asked to divulge it earlier this week, Mickelson wouldn't say, but he did allow that Muirfield gives him his best chance to win an Open since he finished third at Troon in 2004 and tied for second at St. George's in 2011, his best two results in 19 starts at this storied championship.
"I think my favorite would be St. Andrews because of the history there," said Mickelson, who notched his agonizing sixth runner-up finish at the U.S. Open last month — a record he'd just as soon not have. "But from an opportunity-to-win standpoint I would say that Muirfield or Troon would offer the two best chances, because of the way the holes move. It's very comfortable for me off some of the tees, getting the ball in play, as well as around the greens. I like it a lot."
Even at an age when golfers start to lose their nerve, even with psoriatic arthritis, Mickelson seems to keep finding a way to contend. He shot 28 under par to win the Phoenix Open earlier this year, went strangely dormant at the Masters (T54), then bloomed again at Merion. Majors seem to make him young. Being around his wife and kids, as he has been in Scotland, makes him young.
Rory McIlroy is young, but at 24 and in the throes of a winless 2013 that has included a change of equipment and management teams, he's never looked older. The mop-topped kid from Northern Ireland has lost his No. 1 ranking to Tiger Woods and is coming off a string of uninspired finishes — missed cut at the Irish Open, T41 at the U.S. Open, missed cut at the BMW PGA Championship. His first-round loss to childhood friend Shane Lowry at the WGC-Accenture Match Play earlier this year remains the most indelible McIlroy moment of 2013.
If you're set on picking a guy from Northern Ireland, you'd do far better to put a few quid on Graeme McDowell, who is coming off a victory at the Euro Tour's French Open, and who trumped Webb Simpson in a playoff at the RBC Heritage in April. McDowell tied for fifth at Lytham last year and early last week took a sneak peak at Muirfield, the only Open course he'd never played.
"Fairways are a must," McDowell, 33, said at his press conference Tuesday. "You really can't play this golf course from the rough. You must keep it in the short grass to have a chance and out of the bunkers. It's a really, really great test of golf. I'm excited about the way things are setting up."
So is Tiger Woods, for whom the urgency of the majors intensifies each time he fails to win one. The '08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, site of Tiger Major 14, seems like a lifetime ago, even here in the old country. You might say Muirfield owes him one. He shot 81 in the thick of the third-round storm here in '02, when he was still in the prime of his career and gunning for the third leg of the Grand Slam.
Muirfield is so dry that the course is drawing comparisons to Hoylake at the '06 Open, when Woods, playing with a heavy heart after the death of his father, Earl, won by hitting mostly irons off the tees — then dissolved in tears in the arms of his now-estranged caddie, Steve Williams. Could he do the same this week?
"A lot of irons off the tees," said Woods, 37, who has won four times so far this year but whose sore left elbow forced him to miss his own tournament, the AT&T National, three weeks ago. "Some of the holes, 4-iron was going 280, 3-iron is going a little over 300 yards. So it's quick. That's on this wind. So obviously it could change. Like what we had in '02, it could come out of the northeast and it could be a totally different golf course."
It once seemed inevitable that Woods would surpass Jack Nicklaus's 18 majors, but as Arnold Palmer said recently, that seems like many moons ago. It's always slipping away, time, even in endless daylight. Time runs out even on Bubba Watson and Tom Watson, on Lehman as he squeezes out every last bit of practice, and even on the increasingly frail Woods and Mickelson as they try to add to their legacies before it's finally, inarguably, too late.