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Muirfield is rigid but so right for British Open

Eventual champiErnie Els hits 18th green 2002 British Open Muirfield. | Ross Kinnaird~Getty Images

Eventual champion Ernie Els hits to the 18th green at the 2002 British Open at Muirfield. | Ross Kinnaird~Getty Images

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At a Glance

Event: 142nd British Open.

Dates: Thursday-next Sunday.

Site: Muirfield.

Length: 7,192 yards.

Par: 36-35—71.

Field: 156 (149 professionals, seven amateurs).

Prize money: 5.25 million pounds (about $7.82 million).

Winner’s share: 954,000 pounds (about $1.4 million).

Defending champion: Ernie Els.

The course: Muirfield is considered by many to be the purest and fairest of all the links in the Open rotation. The outward nine runs in a clockwise direction on the perimeter of the property, while the inward nine goes mainly in a counter-clockwise rotation in the middle. Players are most likely to face the wind in every direction during the round. Muirfield is home of ‘‘The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers,’’ which in 1744 established 13 ‘‘Rules of Golf.’’ The company moved in 1891 to Muirfield, which was designed by Old Tom Morris and revised in 1922 by Harry Colt.

Key statistic: Every winner of the British Open at Muirfield after World War II is in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Noteworthy: The British Open is the only major that has not had a winner from the top 10 in the world ranking in the last five years.

Quoteworthy: ‘‘For some reason, great players play great there.’’ — Lee Trevino, on Muirfield.

Television: Thursday and Friday: 4 a.m. to 2 p.m., ESPN. Saturday: 6 a.m. to 1:30  p.m., ESPN. Sunday: 5 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., ESPN.

Updated: August 15, 2013 6:35AM

When it comes to Muirfield, stories of stuffiness abound.

Jack Nicklaus, who won his first British Open there in 1966, once was denied the privilege of teeing it up because he hadn’t booked far enough in advance. Payne Stewart was barred in 1992 on the grounds that the course was overused, even though it was empty when he wanted to play.

When Tom Watson, accompanied by Ben Crenshaw, decided to celebrate his 1980 victory there by playing a couple of late-night holes with hickory-shaft clubs, he was chased off the course.

In this year’s imbroglio, Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, is boycotting the Open because Muirfield has no women members.

And yet, when the British Open begins Thursday, there will be no question that the course itself is worthy of hosting golf’s most venerable event.

‘‘Muirfield is an unbelievable classic, the best of all the links,’’ Ernie Els, who won the last Open at Muirfield in 2002, told Golf Digest. ‘‘Each hole goes in a different direction, so you constantly feel like you’re a little off. You have to drive the ball left to right, and right to left. You have to have your short game. It just tests everything you’ve got.’’

Beyond the Old Course at St.  Andrews (28) and Prestwick (24), which was dropped after 1925, no course has hosted more Opens than Muirfield, which will be welcoming — well, allowing — the world’s best golfers on its links for the 16th time.

And there are no flashes in the pan on Muirfield’s list of Open champions. With Nick Faldo (1987, 1992), Lee Trevino (1972) and Gary Player (1959) earning places on the Claret Jug there, the Muirfield winner’s list in the last half-century is a virtual Hall of Fame.

The membership of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which was founded in 1744 but opened the current course in 1891, may be squeamish, to put it mildly, at the thought of Player posing nude, as he did recently, for ESPN The Magazine. But even they can’t deny that Player won the first of his nine majors on their course.

Who’s in the hunt this year?

Oddsmakers have installed perennial Tiger Woods as the 8-1 favorite to end his major drought. Next up, at 20-1, are Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and U.S. Open champ Justin Rose. They’re followed at 25-1 by Els, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

Others to keep an eye on are Ian Poulter, Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker and Sergio Garcia.

Unlike some famous Scottish links, where luck of the bounce is very much a factor, Muirfield is as staid and straightforward as its membership.

‘‘The course is less foreign in feeling than other seaside layouts,’’ author James W. Finegan once wrote. ‘‘There are few capricious humps and hollows to send the ball skittering off line. There are no ‘death or glory’ holes. There is a simple rightness about it all. Each hole is worthy.’’

Or, as Nicklaus put it before naming his Columbus, Ohio, course Muirfield Village: ‘‘It’s the best golf course in Britain.’’

It also can be a beast when the wind and rain move in. That happened midway through the third round in 2002. Woods, who won the Masters and U.S. Open that year, ballooned to 81 in a cold, sideways rain that howled in from the Firth of Forth. Colin Montgomerie shot an 84 after a second-round 64.

Beast or not, it figures to bring out the best when another champion’s name is added to the Claret Jug next Sunday.

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