As Lee Westwood and Luke Donald were coming toward the end of their practice round on what had been another awful day of English weather, a strange thing happened.
The thick clouds began to break up in the western sky. There were patches of blue and, yes, even a brief glimpse of the sun.
For a few glorious moments Monday, Westwood and Donald were putting through shadows on the 16th green.
An omen, perhaps?
No English golfer has won a British Open on English soil since 1969, but the prospects of snapping that drought at Royal Lytham & St. Annes seem brighter than ever. Donald is ranked No. 1 in the world. Westwood sits at No. 3. Justin Rose isn’t far behind, holding down the ninth spot. Ian Poulter is further back (No. 28), but he has contended at the Open and played well in the Ryder Cup.
”Certainly, the talent in England is great right now,” Donald said.
Tony Jacklin is clearly impressed. He just happens to be that English winner from 43 years ago — a triumph that took place at Lytham, no less — and believes it’s past time for someone else to fill his shoes.
”Records are made to be broken,” Jacklin said. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t end. We’ve got as good a chance of that ending this year as we’ve had in any other year since I won. We’ve got a lot of first-class players and high hopes for them.”
The English haven’t been totally shut out since Jacklin’s historic triumph. Nick Faldo has three Open titles, but all of them came a little farther north, at courses in Scotland.
The crowds at Lytham figure to get especially loud and rowdy if someone such as Westwood or Donald goes to the weekend in serious contention for the claret jug. That worked in Jacklin’s favor back in `69, but it also put a hefty amount of pressure on the home-country favorite.
”I’d never been so nervous,” Jacklin recalled. ”There was a lot of support. But at the same time, there’s a responsibility that goes with it.”
If an Englishman is in the mix this time, his chances of winning could come down to how well he soaks up the support and blocks out the expectations.
”I know my game is good enough to win when I play well enough, play with everything together,” Westwood said Tuesday morning. ”So that’s what I try to do. After that it’s out of your hands.”
Even though he attended college in the United States, lives in suburban Chicago and plays regularly on the PGA Tour, Donald is looking for a homestyle advantage at Lytham.
”This course has some history with Jacklin winning it,” he said. ”Hopefully, that will prove to be lucky for us.”
Then again, none of the top English players has ever won a major title. Westwood has come closest, a runner-up at both the Masters and the British Open two years ago, not to mention third-place finishes in the other two majors. He’s rated by Jacklin as the most likely to break through but, at age 39, he’s got to be very much aware that his window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller.
”This should suit him down to the ground, the conditions of the golf course and the way it’s playing. But you never know,” Jacklin said. ”He’s got all the experience in the world, and he’s surely up for it, but at 39 or whatever he is, the clock is ticking. I keep my fingers crossed for him, because I think he really deserves it. It would look great on his resume: Open champion.”
Westwood is eager for a breakthrough.
”I haven’t won a major yet,” he said, ”and I’d like to win one or two or three.”
Westwood said his chances will largely depend on the conditions, which have been especially gnarly in Britain this summer with cool temperatures and more rain that anyone can remember, which is saying a lot in this water-logged nation.
Going out for a practice round Monday afternoon worked out better than expected.
Now, if only the weather will hold for the rest of the week. Unlike defending champion Darren Clarke, who feels he might have an advantage in adverse conditions, Westwood is eager to have things as pristine as possible.
”I like it sunny and dry,” he said.
Westwood’s big selling point: He’s one of the game’s most accurate players off the tee, which is vital at any major but especially at one being held on a course with more than 200 pot bunkers dotting the grounds.
”This is a great driver’s golf course,” Jacklin said. ”If you don’t drive the ball straight here, you’ve got no chance. You’ve got to keep the ball in play off the tee.”
For Donald, that part of the game is bit more of a crapshoot.
Erratic driving largely explains why he’s never been much of a factor in the majors despite his lofty ranking. His best finish at the Open was a tie for fifth in 2009, when he finished two strokes off the pace at Turnberry in a tournament mostly remembered for 59-year-old Tom Watson nearly becoming the oldest major champion in history. (Watson lost to Stewart Cink in a playoff.)
Donald has finished as high as third a couple of times, but he wasn’t close to winning. He finished seven shots behind Tiger Woods at the 2005 Masters and was six shots off the pace (again trailing Woods) at the 2006 PGA Championship.
This season on the PGA Tour, Donald ranks a dismal 115th in total driving — a combination of distance and fairway average. He gets away with it at the lesser events, winning twice (including a European Tour victory) and finishing in the top six three other times, but he tied for 32nd at the Masters and missed the cut at the US Open, hardly looking like the world’s best player.
”Luke, if your look at the stats, his driver is not the straightest club,” Jacklin said. ”He’s got to get in the mix at a major. That’s Luke’s big thing right now.”
Donald has been working diligently on correcting the flaws in his game, giving him a bit of cautious optimism coming into Lytham. He played last week at the Scottish Open, putting up three straight rounds in the 60s before a closing 73 dropped him into a tie for 16th.
”I feel encouraged,” he said. ”It’s going the right way. My swing is certainly in a better position. I’m going to try to go out there and have a little bit more fun.”
While Rose is also in the top 10, Jacklin didn’t mention him as a likely winner. Instead, he pointed to the Poulter, who seems to spend more time picking out his wardrobe and posting on Twitter than he does working on his swing.
Perhaps distracted by all those side pursuits, Jacklin stumbled a bit when bringing up Poulter.
”We’ve got the fancy dresser lad,” Jacklin said. ”What’s his name?”
That won’t be an issue for Poulter — or any Englishman — if one of them winds up holding the claret jug Sunday evening.
Rest assured, just about everyone in this country will know the name.