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Royal Lytham & St. Annes

The site of this year's Open Championship may be short on visual charm, but it's undeniably a full and fair test of competitive golf

By: Robert Green

Appeared in Summer 2012 LINKS

The open championship is played on a links; everyone knows that. That’s why at first sight it might seem a little unusual that this year’s renewal will be played on a course that looks like it’s been laid out in the middle of a predominantly redbrick housing development. Quite a nice development, mind you, but one with a railway line rather than a river running through it.

Royal Lytham & St. Annes would never be mistaken for, say, Turnberry, another Open venue. Spectacular it isn’t. Here the sea is maybe a mile away, not eddying around some majestic lighthouse just off a fairway. The only sand in view is that in plentiful supply within Lytham’s frequently fearsome bunkers, which protect the course’s integrity nowhere more penally than on the last five holes, a sequence of terrific par fours which the eventual champion, Seve Ballesteros, negotiated in just 16 strokes in the second round in 1979. “He must have left some out,” said Hale Irwin on learning of that.

Lytham is unusual for a major championship venue in that it begins with a par three, one which Bernard Darwin called “a short hole of no particularly coruscating virtues.” It seems that even when Lytham departs from the norm it has much to be modest about. But all that glitters is not golf and, as the round progresses, one appreciates that the course presents a stiff examination of the game in a fair manner. For example, the fairways don’t tumble around all over the place as they do at Royal St George’s. The course essentially rewards good shots and punishes bad ones.

As is pretty much inevitable in the contemporary era, the course has been lengthened in the 11 years since it last hosted the Open, albeit by only 181 yards. The par has been reduced from 71 to 70 (34–36) by the simple expedient of making the 6th a par four, while the two par fives that remain—the 7th and 11th—have been lengthened by a cumulative 91 yards and the former has been given a new green and approach. As always when close to the sea, the strength and direction of the wind dictate whether a putt for an eagle might be on or if it will take three strong blows to get home in regulation.

Amid the modifications, the R&A has been keen to maintain the flow of the course. Lytham previously had four par fours under 400 yards (the 4th, 10th, 13th, and 16th) and it still does. What the R&A describes as Lytham’s “tempting, shorter par fours” remain, providing a balance to its collection of demandingly bunker-strewn longer ones. Left untouched has been the 9th, at 164 yards the shortest hole on the course, appropriately ringed by nine bunkers.

Minor alterations have been the order of the day on the 17th, a 467-yard brute of a dogleg left where you can find a plaque commemorating an extraordinary shot Bobby Jones hit in the final round of Lytham’s first Open, in 1926, that enabled him to beat Al Watrous.

So who will be the 2012 “Champion Golfer of the Year”? Lytham’s first eight stagings of the Open were in part notable for producing not a single American professional champion. Since then, Tom Lehman (1996) and David Duval (2001) have prevailed. I’m not going to suggest the course will be the winner, because Royal Lytham doesn’t do grandstanding like that, but the victor will have to deal with the tight landing area awaiting the tee shot at the last—“Not much of a target for a driver when the ambition of a lifetime is in sight,” once observed the British writer, Pat Ward-Thomas.

That’s the thing with this course. If you don’t get it right, Lytham can leave you with the blues.                                                         

Robert Green is Editor-in-Chief of Golf International magazine.

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