GULLANE, Scotland - The pressure is mounting at the British Open, and the most immune guy at Muirfield might be the man who choked the claret jug away one year ago.
Adam Scott has steadily thrust himself into the thick of it by hovering right around even par all week. Now the reigning Masters champion is scheduled to join Tiger Woods in the penultimate pairing today at Muirfield.
Don’t think last year’s four-stroke decline with four holes to play will have anything to do with what the Australian does with his latest opportunity.
“It’s completely different,” Scott said after his 1-under-par 70 on Saturday moved him into sole possession of fourth place, three shots behind Lee Westwood. “I think I go out there tomorrow not carrying the weight of the lead or not having won a major. So it’s a different feeling.”
The major pressure will certainly weigh more heavily on the guys in front of him.
Westwood is the front-runner with a history of heartbreak trying to shed his stature as the world’s best player to never win a major.
Hunter Mahan has his own high expectations to live up to on the heels of a stretch decline at the U.S. Open.
And then there’s Tiger Woods, a 14-time major winner desperate to shut up the critics who question whether he can snap out of a five-year major drought in his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus.
Each of them claims they won’t feel the strain of the situation, but those words don’t mean anything when the winds and the crispy greens await them this afternoon.
Scott understands all about those pressures of the chase but he’s a little more bullet proof at the moment in his freshly tailored green jacket.
“I feel like I’ve got, well, nothing really to lose tomorrow and majors to gain,” Scott said. “So that’s certainly a nice feeling, whereas before in some ways it was getting to the point where you’re hoping it was going to happen tomorrow. It is absolutely a weight off your shoulders to have the first one. I can’t tell you anything other than that.”
Of course, Scott isn’t taking anything for granted. He showed up at Muirfield long before his fellow competitors, getting in nine practice rounds on the venerable links that has grown firmer and more severe before his eyes.
“It doesn’t take long once you play Muirfield in any conditions to appreciate the genius of the golf course,” Scott said. “It’s the best one on the Open rota.”
Muirfield certainly is the best at defining greatness. Every champion since World War II to hoist the claret jug on the pristine East Lothian links is a Hall of Famer. All seven of them – Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els – own a combined 54 majors titles, and none of them fewer than three. Both Player and Faldo won their first majors at Muirfield.
This time five former Masters winners with a combined 22 major titles are among the top 10 on the leaderboard, including Angel Cabrera and Zach Johnson in fifth a shot behind Scott and Phil Mickelson just one behind them.
Scott’s career trajectory is certainly trending to a point that might fulfill the Muirfield pedigree. And he’s doing it with all the stoic grace members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers can appreciate.
“I’m just kind of plodding along at even par for most of the week,” Scott said. “And the lead was 6-under early, so I was well off the radar. But the course is playing tougher every day. So I’ve somehow crept back into it.”
Some of that steadiness he credits to his veteran caddie, Steve Williams, who carried the bag for 13 of Woods’ 14 majors. The intense New Zealander appreciates the effectiveness of par on a major Sunday – a strategy his former boss often employed to hold off any charges.
“He prides himself on keeping his man at par or better, no matter how hard the course is,” Scott said of Williams. “And we play it in a way according to that, I think. So we’re right around the mark. At times when you want to push, he’s there to pull the reins in, if need be.”
Scott couldn’t find the one par he needed in the final four holes at Royal Lytham & St. Annes a year ago, when he yielded the trophy to 2002 Muirfield champion Els with a gut-wrenching string of bogeys at the end.
“I remember it only as a great week,” Scott said. “So I’m done with that.”
What would adding the claret jug to the green jacket on the anniversary of his defeat mean?
“It would be a fairy tale, I think, if that were to happen,” Scott said. “But they do occasionally happen.”
While everybody has something to gain on Sunday, Scott has the least to lose chasing par with house money.