Longer Lytham deceptively difficult
History tells us that a big-name player will win the 141st Open Championship this week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
The oldest championship in the world has been played on the links course in Lancashire 10 times, and the winners have been Bobby Jones (1926), Bobby Locke (1952), Peter Thomson (1958), Bob Charles (1963), Tony Jacklin (1969), Gary Player (1974), Seve Ballesteros (1979 and 1988), Tom Lehman (1996) and David Duval (2001).
"Royal Lytham is tough but fair, and you always have good champions: Seve, Player, Jacklin," said NBC commentator Johnny Miller, who captured the 1976 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
"One of the ways you judge a course is by the kind of winners it produces, like Augusta, Torrey Pines and Doral. What sets them apart is that the top players usually win there."
Tiger Woods, who has won three of his past eight events but also has missed the cut twice during that time, is the favorite of bookies from London to Las Vegas as he seeks his 15th major title and fourth in the Open Championship.
And Woods has played well enough at Lytham. He earned the Silver Medal as low amateur in 1996 when he shot 66 in Round 3, and he tied for 25th in 2001.
"I like the golf course, but I know they have made some changes since we played there in '01," Woods wrote in his blog on his website last week. "I think they lengthened a few holes, so it will play different.
"Plus in '01, it was pretty dry and firm. They've had a very wet summer, as we saw at Wimbledon, and the golf course is pretty soft. Weather plays such a huge role in the tournament. It will be interesting to see how the course is set up. It's different because we're not really on the water, we're slightly inland."
Woods, who has not moved closer to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles since winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, was hoping the course would play hard and fast, the way Royal Liverpool did when he won by two strokes over Chris DiMarco.
However, there has been more rain than usual this summer in northwest England, so he might not get the playing conditions he would like.
"I've always preferred it to be more difficult, and when the golf course gets harder and faster it is certainly something I like," said Woods, who kept his driver in the bag virtually all week at Royal Liverpool.
"You can't set up and hit your ball to a number and have it plug. The ball is going to have run out. That's the reason I love playing links golf, because the ball does chase, it does move on the ground."
That doesn't mean that Royal Lytham & St. Annes will be a pushover.
The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has beefed up the course by 181 yards from what it played in 2001, to a total of 7,086, and the 492-yard sixth hole will be a long par 4 instead of a par 5, lowering the course par to 70.
"It's not revolutionary in length, but it does bring Royal Lytham up to modern standards," said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A. "Royal Lytham has always been a good challenge, but these changes will make it a stiffer test.
"We don't envision lengthening Open courses in the future. That's not to say we will not make changes, but they will be evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary."
Even if the wind does not blow off the Irish Sea at England's northernmost championship course, 10 miles from Royal Birkdale, the golfers will find plenty of difficulty at Lytham.
The Olympic Club boasted what were called the most difficult first six holes in major championship history, but this time the best golfers in the world will have to deal with "Murder Mile," the last six holes at Lytham.
"Royal Lytham's got a heck of a tough finish, with six straight par 4s," Miller said. "They're long, tough holes, with no real birdie chances coming in. And if the wind's coming in hard, they're not just tough holes, they're hang-on-to-your-shorts holes."
Not to mention the bunkers. Woods avoided all 112 bunkers when he captured the Open Championship in 2000 at St. Andrews, but the golfers will have to negotiate 206 traps at Lytham, an average of more than 11 per hole.
"There are bunkers for everybody," Lehman said in 2001. "I don't care how long or short you are, you have to deal with a bunker somewhere, and that's what I think is so special.
"The bunkers on this course are way more in play than the bunkers at St. Andrews. If you can go around this course without hitting in a bunker, you have really accomplished something."
Of course, the most famous shot at Royal Lytham didn't come from a bunker, but from a car park on the 16th hole in the final round in 1979, after Ballesteros sliced his drive and it rolled under a parked car.
Given a free drop, the 22-year-old Spaniard hit his approach shot with a sand wedge through a crosswind to within 15 feet of the hole and sank the putt for a birdie en route to his first major championship.
Since Woods' domination ended and Padraig Harrington captured three majors in 13 months, the past 15 majors have been won by 15 different players. It could happen again.
Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, two of the best players of this era, will be seeking their initial major titles this week, and all of England, denied a victory by Andy Murray at Wimbledon, will be praying for one of them to become the country's first winner of a Grand Slam event since Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters.
Either one would fit right into Lytham's history.