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The 2012 Open Championship – The Rhythm of Lytham

“Where’s this Royal Lye-Thumb?” Britt asked, thumbing through my nightstand stack of reading material. Usually she’s looking for resorts with spas where she can luxuriate, but seaside golf appeals to the beach lover in her.

“It’s pronounced ‘Lytham’ like ‘rhythm.’ The British Open is being held there this year,” I responded, reverting to the American vernacular for the championship’s title for her benefit. “It’s near Blackpool in middle England. People spend their vacations there lying on a cold bleak beach watching storms come in or riding the amusement park rides in 50 degree weather.”

Such is the lot of Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s, the Rota course most frequently overlooked by Americans pressed to name all the venues of the Open Championship. Jack Nicklaus once complained that Open Championship courses get better the further north you journey, (excepting somber old Carnoustie or course), and largely through the mega-star power of the power of his opinion, Lytham and Birkdale have not been lionized anywhere near the extent of their Scottish cousins.

That’s a shame because Lytham is the opposite of Olympic Club. Where Olympic is as allergic to superstar winners as Roger Clemens was to the truth, Lytham has been the Westminster Abbey of the Rota, crowning golf royalty since its first Open in 1926 won by Bobby Jones.

Over the next seven decades it presided over the coronation of four-time Open champion Bobby Locke, (1952), five-time Open champion Peter Thompson, (1958), eight-time major winner Gary Player, (1974), and the first and last major championship victories of Seve Ballesteros, (1979 and 1988).

During that period it also was heralded by the U.K. press as an “American Graveyard,” although Hall of Fame sports writer Art Spander had a much funnier and more memorable assessment.

“The clubhouse looks like the Castle Dracula, but if you really want to get scared go take a look at the golf course,” he quipped.

Back to back Yankee wins in 1996 by Tom Lehman and 2001 by David Duval put an end to the American Graveyard moniker. Duval in particular turned in a virtuoso performance, firing a sizzling 65-67 on the weekend to power smoothly to a three shot victory over Niclas Fasth and hapless Ian Woosnam, who started the final day with a two-stroke penalty for carrying 15 clubs, turning a brilliant opening birdie to a sour bogey that put him behind the 8-ball all day. He threw the offending club – another player’s borrowed driver he was testing on the practice range – into a bush by the second tee and snarled at his caddy, “I gave you one job to do and you couldn’t do it.”

How did he not notice the extra driver? Easy. The opening hole at Lytham is a par-3.

Meanwhile, Duval formulated a textbook perfect game plan and then flawlessly executed it on the course over the weekend. He birdied all three par-5s, at that time Lytham’s soft underbelly, and hit 13 fairways and greens on the day easily cruising to victory

Still, Lytham is best known by modern sports fans for Seve’s coming out party in 1979 when at age 22 he became the youngest winner of the Open championship in 86 years. Known as the “Parking Lot Open,” (because Seve birdied 16 after driving into the parking lot while Ben Crenshaw double bogeyed 17 in front of him), Seve hit a staggeringly paltry nine fairways out of 56 for the week. That’s the stat o a guy who finishes 101st, not first. His schizophrenic line score of 73-65-75-70-283 was three better than Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus, who finished second in the Open Championship for a record seventh time.

Funny story, but before the week started, Seve actually said to the press, “we ought to play the British Open without fairways. That way I might win…”

The only thing more uneven than Seve’s set of rounds in ’79 is the course itself. Weirdly opening and closing the front nine with par-3s, the only course in major championship history so routed, the par of 35-36 often seemed more like 33-38. Through the 2001 Open there were back-to-back par-5s at six and seven, both downwind, which were the likely birdie ops, along with three par-3s, including the tiny 164 yard ninth. Indeed the entire front nine, which follows the railway tracks along the right, “surrenders birdies like porkpies” wrote one irreverent scribbler.

They’ve tried to toughen the front by adding bunkers and length. In an effort to further equate the two nines, the par at six has been reduced to four – despite being 494 yards long, turning a birdie hole into a bogey waiting to happen.

The back nine is another matter entirely. At the tenth tee, the course does a 180 degree turn to begin the long march back to the clubhouse. The tee shot on en is blind and a series of cross-bunkers guards the right side of this short but dangerous 385-yard par-4. A six hundred yard par-5 follows. The course closes with what some call “Murder Mile,” six par-4s, many brutishly long and into the wind where the golfer has to hold on for dear life.

The other identifying characteristic of Lytham are its bunkers – so deep and steeply sod-faced they are “like 207 little ponds” as ABC broadcaster Peter Alliss called them. They ring the tiny greens and smother the already-narrow fairways, high rounded eyebrows popping out of the earth like the eyes of a sea monster peering over the edge of the water waiting to strike its prey.

Lytham is remarkably penal architecture for a links course. Yes you can, as woods said, play once bounce and on and greenside play a bump and run shot, (when you aren’t faced with a bunker in your way), but Lytham is a dictatorial shotmaker’s course a golfer must tack his way around. The course proves that if you want to make harder golf course, start by shrinking the greens. That way wayward shots require greater recovery. At Lytham the tiny greens are well guarded by deep bunkers putting a premium on accuracy. And if a cross wind is blowing, forget about it. 72 is a great score.


However as frequently happens at the English venues for the Open Championship, everything depends on the weather, and it has been soft and wet so far this summer at Lytham. That opens the door to all the party crashers.

Who will win? A big name, but not Tiger Woods. Tiger has one weakness in his golf armor: he can’t handle the wind. Hazeltine, Muirfield, Birkdale, Whistling Straits, wherever there’s been a windstorm, it’s blown Woods to the farthest shore.

That loss to Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine had to be particularly galling. Losing a three shot lead on the final day to a guy whose shirt is covered in cute little chickens had to mean a TV on a yacht called Solitude got a 5-iron through the flat screen when Woods got home.

If the wind blows, half the field goes with it so pick a gritty complete game foreign shotmaker who likes tough conditions like Padraig Harrington. Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Graeme McDowell are solid picks as well.

If it’s benign and soft and the R&A can’t get the fast and firm conditions they need for the course to amply defend itself, it’s wide Open, pun intended. Even softies like Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter have a chance if Blackpool turns into Daytona. For goodness sake two geriatrics almost won Open Championships in the last four years, (when it was absurdly bad weather, storms at Birkdale and furious crosswinds at Turnberry), and Darren Clarke, who the Eskimos would have consigned to the ice flow, stunned us all by winning last year when we had farmed him off to the old folks home.

We wrote him off, and he won the Claret Jug. Slante, Darren. Well played. That Guinness had to taste pretty darn good.


3 – 477 yards, par-4 – With the railway line out of bounds to the right and a chain of four bunkers up the left side, it’s one of the toughest drives on the course. The green is raised above fairway level and two deep pot bunkers flank the entrance way.

4 – 391 yards, par-4 – A dog-leg left that turns 50 degrees at the 305 mark may entice the biggest of the big hitters to have a go at clearing the four bunkers and two hillocks that all but block the knee. Anything left is a blind approach. It could be an early swing hole.

6 – 494 yards, par-4 – Was it rally necessary to reduce par? For whose benefit? The cross-bunkering between 75 and 105 yards from the green is now taken out of play and it will likely go from easiest hole on the course to hardest. But why? Wasn’t it better as a par-5 because a greater number of players had more options?

7 – 589 yards, par-4 – What they take at six, they may return at seven. Straight as a ramrod, just avoid the gauntlet of bunkers flanking the sides like guards lined up for inspection.

10 – 385 yards, par-4 – As long as no one loses the drive short and right in the bunker complex which juts into the fairway, they should have a wedge in their hand for the approach.

11 – 601 yards, par-5 – It’s 293 yards to carry the bunker on the left which guards the knee of the dog-leg. Another bunker guards the right in the second shot landing area. It’s not too taxing for the pros, but not a pushover either.

14-15 – par-4s, 443 and 464 respectively – In his “Confidential Guide to Golf Courses” Doak called these the fifth hardest back-to-back holes in golf.

17 – 467 yards, par-4 – The drive must be placed in a tennis court sized pocket of turf ringed by nine bunkers, the furthermost two of which pinch the fairway to a narrow bottleneck. From there the hole jumps left, playing to a green set at an awkward angle with four bunkers cutting across the front and two behind.