Golf

Open course not kind to long shots

Tiger Woods talks about the upcoming British Open.
Tiger Woods talks about the upcoming British Open.
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England

Royal Lytham & St. Annes is unique in the rotation of courses used to host the British Open in that it sits near the coast but none of its holes are by the sea.

To the purists, it’s then the least scenic and perhaps even the most bland of the rotation. But what it lacks in beauty, Lytham makes up for in substance.

Scan the list of champions at the 10 previous Opens held here, and there’s no Todd Hamilton or Ben Curtis or Paul Lawrie.

This links course opened on the Lancashire coast in 1886 doesn’t produce fluke winners.

Since they first held an Open here, in 1926 when the legendary Bobby Jones triumphed for the first time, the list of champions reads like an honor roll.

Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles, Tony Jacklin, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros (twice), Tom Lehman and, lastly, 11 years ago, David Duval, were all at the time among the best players in the world when they lifted the claret jug.

And there’s a reason for that pedigree.

"The list of champions here have all been just wonderful ball-strikers," Tiger Woods said.

And they’ve all been able to chip and putt, too — because no one will totally be avoiding the thick, juicy rough or the 206 penal bunkers — so the list of those likely to stand tallest on Sunday becomes shorter.

"This is one of the more difficult ones that we play. It’s more confined. As far as shot-making, it tests us a lot because we have to shape the ball both ways," Woods said.

"It’s not just playing Troon, and you have right-to-left going out and left-to-right coming home. Here you have a lot of different angles and it really tests your ability to hit shots and hit them the proper distances more so than most links courses.”

Adam Scott, who’s looking to become the first Australian to win a British Open since his boyhood hero, Greg Norman, in 1993, called it "the most demanding golf course off the tee" because of the staggering of the bunkers at varied distances that guard both sides of most fairways.

On the 18th, for instance, there are 17 bunkers — “Might as well make it 18,” said an exasperated Bubba Watson, who didn’t exactly exude confidence after a practice round — making it a very troublesome tee shot for the man with the lead on Sunday afternoon.

"Whether you’re hitting a driver or hitting a 5-iron, there’s something to avoid. There’s no just open field to bail out in,” Scott said. "Whether it’s the rough, which is really long, or a bunker, there’s no real getting away from the trouble."

Scott said Lytham is very different to other British Open venues because it will weed out the pretenders to the jug quickly.

"The Open is always the championship generally that opens up to the field, especially when they play firm and fast because length is irrelevant, and you saw that at Turnberry (in 2009 with 59-year-old Tom Watson contending) and even Birkdale in ’08 with Greg (Norman) challenging, so there are way more players that can be competitive,” he said.

"But this one, I personally like for me because it is demanding off the tee."

Who, then, fits the profile of a Lytham Open champion?

Woods, obviously, given his three wins on the US tour this season, is the betting favorite.

He has fond memories of the place, equaling the low score set by an amateur at a British Open here in 1996 — which he said on Tuesday convinced him that he was ready to turn professional — and finishing tied for 25th in 2001.

Woods is also comfortable hitting the ball low, which will help in the wind, though he doesn’t like slower greens, which given the weeks of rain that have soaked England will be unavoidable.

Behind him are the names of the usual suspects: players such as Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Scott, Padraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell.

In truth each of them carries an asterisk into this 141st British Open.

Westwood is still desperately searching for the major that will legitimize his career. Although he insists that he feels no added pressure to get that breakthrough victory, he doesn’t play that way.

"This is the biggest championship in the world for me," he admitted.

Like Westwood, Donald will be trying to become the first Englishman to win the Open on home soil since Jacklin did it here in 1969. And like Westwood, the world No. 1 needs to learn to get out of his own way.

At least Westwood contends at majors before falling short; Donald is at his poorest at on the biggest stages.

"I just have been getting a little too uptight and anxious," he conceded on Tuesday.

He said he needs to not get "too far ahead of myself and raising those expectations which I have done in the past."

The other problem for Donald is that he’s not the straightest of drivers.

"It’s going to produce the guy who plays the best because there’s no escaping some holes," he said.

"You aren’t going to find lucky lies in the rough. You’re not going to be able to get to the greens from the bunkers."

After last year’s Rorymania, it’s noticeable just how under the radar Rory McIlroy has been this week.

He seems to prefer it, though the questions persist about whether he would rather spend his time in Paris with his tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki or work on a game that’s alarmingly fallen away.

Mickelson is, as always, the wild card no one — not even himself — ever really knows what to expect. He produced a sterling performance last year in the foul weather at Royal St George’s and, in truth, should have at least pushed Darren Clarke to the final hole. But he’s been in a slump of sorts in the United States and was at both ends of his large spectrum last week at the Scottish Open.

McDowell has not been able to recapture the form that won him the US Open in 2010, but he loves the nasty weather and the tough links. The same could be said of Harrington, who thinks far too much for a golfer.

"I’m in good form, and I’m in a good enough place that it is about managing where my head is at going into this tournament," Harrington said. "You don’t want to be here searching for your putting stroke or your swing or anything like that."

Inevitably, the last man standing on Sunday won’t.

And neither will he have been complaining about the brutal rough, as the head of the Royal & Ancient, Peter Dawson, noted on Wednesday when pestered with questions about the rough.

"The champion on Sunday I doubt will have won from the rough," Dawson said.

They usually don’t at Lytham.

Tagged: Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Bob Charles, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Greg Norman, Lee Westwood, Gary Player, Padraig Harrington

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