Still Up to the Challenge?

Royal Lytham and The British Open

by Tom Regan

The 125th playing of the British Open begins today at historic Royal Lytham and St. Annes. Located on the west coast of England, just south of Blackpool, Lytham is not a links course in the truest sense. The pounding surf of the Irish Sea is never in play; located more than a mile away, the Sea is never even visible. But when a steady rain falls, and the northwest wind is up, Lytham becomes as true a test of links golf as any of its more famous cousins, including the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Golf has been played at Lytham since 1898. Despite having undergone significant changes, it retains its original character. Gently rolling fairways. Roughs of fine grass, knee high in places. Bunkers galore (more than 200, the largest number of any course used for an Open). Small, deceptive greens that tend to crest in the middle, the better to reject a poorly struck ball.

With few exceptions (Ben Hogan is the most obvious; having won at Carnoustie in 1953, he never played the Open again), all the great golfers for the past 100 years have tested their game against the many challenges of Lytham.

This year marks the 10th time the club has hosted the Open. Past champions include Bobby Locke, Peter Thompson, Bob Charles, Tony Jacklin, Gary Player, and Seve Ballesteros. In 1996, Tom Lehman, with a 13 under par score of 271, became the first American professional to raise the fabled Claret Jug in victory at Lytham. It was also the last time Tiger Woods played as an amateur, at one point in his third round making eight birdies in the space of eleven holes. Despite his lackluster play of late, British odds makers have made him a prohibitive favorite to successfully defend his Open title.

Lytham’s layout is essentially of the out-and-back variety. The first nine meander ever further inland; the second work their way steadily in the direction of the sea.

With the wind at their backs on the opening nine, many of the golfers vying for the championship will be hitting irons off the tees, leaving short second shots, even on the par 5s. In the 1996 Open, for example, Woods hit a 3 iron and a 9 iron on the sixth hole, a par 5 that measures 490 yards. Scores in the low 30s should not be uncommon on the first nine.

Once players make the turn, however, the complexion of the course changes dramatically, especially on the five finishing holes, regarded as among the most challenging final holes in all of golf.

All par 4s, they average just under 430 yards. All are heavily bunkered, with narrow fairways. Some (17 in particular) can require a blind second shot. And all play directly into the wind.

If past history holds true to form, it is here — on these final holes, on the final day of the championship — that the Open will be won or lost. The exploits of past champions attests to that.

1979, Hole 16: Seve Ballesteros’s famous “car park” shot helps him win the first of his two Opens at Lytham. His drive is so far right it lands beyond the rough, coming to rest on a sandy plateau where patrons have illegally parked their cars. The cars are out of bounds. Ballesteros’s ball is not.

Unable to locate the owners, Royal and Ancient officials decide that Ballesteros is entitled to a free drop. After hitting his second shot 15 feet from the cup, he drains his birdie putt, then pars 17 and 18, missing the fairway with his drive on both, and preserves a three stroke victory over Ben Crenshaw. Asked about his game, Seve replies, “I play good from the rough. I have plenty of practice!”

1926, Hole 17: Most golf historians rate Gene Sarazen’s double eagle 2 on the 15th hole in the final round of the 1935 Masters (he would go on to claim the title in a play-off the next day) as the most famous shot in the history of the game. Those who know Lytham history might beg to differ.

Al Waltrous and fellow American Bobby Jones reach the 17th dead even. After Waltrous splits the fairway, Jones pulls his drive into a bunker, 175 yards from the hole, the green blind from his lie. Waltrous puts his second shot safely on, then watches his opponent descend into his private hell. Jones makes a clean shot with his wooden shafted mashie (roughly equivalent to a 4 iron), his ball landing well inside Waltrous’s.

Unnerved by Jones’s heroics, Waltrous goes on to bogey both of the last two holes to Jones’s pars. When Jones arrives back in New York, the nation fetes its most famous amateur golfer with a ticker tape parade.

A commemorative plaque, looking rather like a bronze tomb stone, marks the very spot of Jones’s lie in the bunker, while J. A. A. Berrie’s famous portrait of Jones, the fabled mashie displayed beneath his beatific countenance, hangs in Lytham’s Clubroom.

1974, Hole 18: Gary Player’s 5 iron second shot runs through the green and comes to rest squarely against the club house which, according to local rules, is in play. Unlike Balesteros in the car park, Player receives no relief. Also unlike Balesteros, Player cannot make a regular swing.

With 20,000 spectators encircling the final green, Player is forced to improvise. Using his putter, and striking the ball left-handed, he wedges it clear of the club house, then proceeds to get up and down for bogey 5, finishing 2 over par, three shots better than his nearest competitor.

As storied as Lytham’s Open history is, the golf cognoscenti have been lining-up to write its obituary. Coming in at under 6900 yards, the soothsayers foresee a pitch-and-putt Open with single round and total scoring records shattered by the also rans, not just the eventual winner. The older, more traditional courses — Merion in America, now Lytham in England, for example — are just too short and just too tame for the new generation of professionals, armed with their solid core balls and metal woods. Among those in the know, the consensus is clear: this, Lytham’s tenth Open, will be its last.

People who love golf, especially those who cherish its history and traditions, must hope the story does not end this way. Naïve it is, perhaps, to think that courses designed for wooden shafted clubs and gutta percha balls can withstand the game’s technological advances. Who but the Luddites in our midst can believe that golf’s past can be a blueprint for golf’s future?

Wherever the truth lies, one thing seems certain. What transpires at Lytham over the next four days is likely to be determined less by the course and equipment and more by the one factor over which no one has any control: the weather.

If we have four days this year like the four days we had during last year’s Open (sunny skies, nae wind and nae rain), then every Open record will be in jeopardy.

But if the wind off the Irish Sea makes its presence felt, and if the rain asserts itself in a serious fashion, then competitors and spectators alike will experience a true taste of what Lytham golf can be; what Lytham golf has always been; what Lytham golf can always be.

Tom Regan teaches philosophy at North Carolina State and plays his golf at Wildwood Green.