Article courtesy of Cybergolf
By: Jay Flemma
“Where’s this Royal Lye-Thumb?” Britt asked, leafing 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. Annes, 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 farther north you journey (excepting somber old Carnoustie, of course), and largely through the mega-star 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 in the UK rotation, 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 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 overseas 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 Yank 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 Sweden’s Niclas Fasth and a hapless Ian Woosnam. The Welshman started the final day with a two-stroke penalty for carrying 15 clubs, turning a brilliant opening birdie into a sour bogey that put him behind the eight-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 caddie, “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 in the closing two rounds, especially Sunday, when he birdied all three par-5s – at that time Lytham’s soft underbelly, and hit 13 fairways and greens to cruise 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 the Spaniard birdied No. 16 after driving into the car park 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 of a guy who finishes 101st, not first. His schizophrenic line score of 73-65-75-70=283 was three better than Crenshaw and 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 golf course. Weirdly opening and closing the front nine with par-3s – the only course in major championship history so routed, Lytham’s par of 35-36 often seems more like 33-38. In 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 its right, “surrenders birdies like porkpies” wrote an irreverent scrivener.
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 opportunity into a bogey waiting to happen.
The inward half is another matter entirely. At the 10th tee, the course does a 180-degree turn to begin the long march back toward the clubhouse. The tee shot is blind and a series of cross-bunkers guard the right side of this short but dangerous 385-yard par-4. A 600-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 is 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 a wave waiting to strike its prey.
Lytham is remarkably penal architecture for a links course. Yes you can, as Tiger Woods said, play one bounce and on, with greenside play a bump-and-run shot (when you aren’t faced with a bunker in your way), but Lytham is a dictatorial shot-maker’s course a golfer must tack his way around. It proves that if you want to make a 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 crosswind is blowing, forget about it. A 1-under 72 is a great score.
Handicapping the Field
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 Woods. Tiger has one weakness in his golf armor: he can’t handle the wind. Hazeltine, Muirfield, Birkdale or 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 its flat screen when Woods got home.
If the wind blows, half the field goes with it, so pick a gritty complete-game foreign shot-maker who likes tough conditions like Padraig Harrington. Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Graeme McDowell are solid choices 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 a wide Open – pun intended. Even softies like Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter have a chance if Blackpool turns into Daytona. For goodness sakes 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.
Holes to Watch
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, the third has one of the toughest drives on the course. The green is raised above fairway level and two deep pot bunkers flank the entryway.
4 – 391 yards, par-4: A dogleg-left that turns 50 degrees at the 305-yard 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. This could be an early swing hole.
6 – 494 yards, par-4: Was it really 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 stern 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 that 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 that guards the knee of the dogleg. 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.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma ‘s comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America’s great public golf courses (and whether they’re worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf – or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.