Open 2012: Fear and loathing in Royal Lytham
Remember Car-nasty? Royal Lytham could become Royal Loathe 'em by the end of this week. The Open is back on the Fylde coast for the first time since David Duval won in 2001, and the early signs are that a monster lies in wait.
The thick rough, made more lush by the soggy British summer, has already been dubbed "unplayable" in parts by Tiger Woods, while defending champion Darren Clarke said players spraying the ball around this week might as well go home now.
Carnoustie earned its Car-nasty moniker during the gruesome Open of 1999 when tough weather and a brutal set-up made a mockery of the world's best players. Nineteen-year-old Spanish sensation Sergio Garcia was in tears in his mother's arms after shooting 89 and 83 in the first two rounds.
Lytham is not long by modern standards - it has been stretched by 181 yards to 7,086 yards and reduced from a par 71 to a par 70. But 206 bunkers scattered over a tight, bouncy seaside links with plenty of subtle undulations makes for a tough test. Playing out sideways or backwards may sometimes be the best way forward. And that is before you factor in a forecast of heavy rain and stiff winds, at least for the first part of the week.
"Before this year it was considered to be up there with Carnoustie as the most difficult of the Open Championship venues," Lytham's head pro of 25 years, Eddie Birchenough told me. "I suspect the fact we've got a few holes lengthened, a new seventh hole and rough up to your armpits, it might just make us the toughest of the lot."
Tiger Woods steers clear of the bunkers at Royal Lytham. Photo: Getty
The likelihood is that up to 200,000 fans will help trample down much of the deep stuff, while the rain will have doused the fire in the fast-running fairways.
BBC golf commentator Ken Brown thinks the rough may just play into Woods's hands, given he has more power than most to escape. Masters champion Bubba Watson says having the right attitude is crucial. "It's whoever can control their mind and not get frustrated about the weather and the situation," he said.
The front nine is where scores will need to be made as the inward holes will offer few opportunities to avenge earlier mistakes.
"The course looks absolutely immaculate but it's a huge challenge," added Birchenough.
"Our former greenkeeper, the late Jimmy MacDonald, used to say on a typical links course you play nine holes out and nine holes back, whereas at Lytham you play 13 out and five back. We've got holes that play to their full length, nothing plays short here.
"If we get a cross wind, with the fairways being only 25 yards wide, it's going to be very hard to hit the fairway and stop the ball on it. They'll have to play a shot to keep it out of the rough, using the wind as a barrier to bounce the ball off."
Birchenough will retire at the end of this year - "to play golf here and travel until I die" - having presided at three previous Opens as the Lytham pro.
The only shot he says he has seen in that time, given work commitments, was Ballesteros's chip onto the 18th on the Monday (after rain washed out Saturday's play) to seal his second Open title ahead of Nick Price and Nick Faldo in 1988.
"Seve loved this place, obviously. He was always very courteous and kind when he was here," said Birchenough.
He also tells a story of Tom Lehman wandering into his pro shop before the 1996 Open, hoping to pick up a few tips on how to play Lytham.
"He asked, 'how do I win here?'" recalls Birchenough. "I said, 'keep it on the short grass." Lehman took the advice on board and duly won the Claret Jug.
"He was a very nice man and very grateful - when he made the official video afterwards he mentioned that," added Birchenough.
"That Open was one of the great moments here. Talk about pride for the club. It was like a vicars' tea party without the church. The media dubbed it the 'friendly Open' and I don't think a club could get a better recommendation than that. The players enjoyed it, the staff enjoyed it, everyone was friendly and helpful and the weather was super. It was a fantastic week."
Five years later, the enigma that is Duval joined the list of Lytham champions, a man who appeared almost robot-like and emotionless before delivering the most humble and gracious of winning speeches. It made the decline that followed all the more cruel for a man who seemed destined to go head-to-head throughout his career with Woods.
"Duval, he was a super fella," said Birchenough. "We had seen this guy on TV for years wandering around hiding behind dark glasses, but once he took them off there was a man underneath. Another superbly courteous southern gentleman. I spent a bit of time with him after he won and he didn't know where he was. He eyes were glazed, he'd just given that wonderful winner's speech and he was just seven miles high."
So with all his experience and thousands of rounds under his belt at Royal Lytham, what sort of player does he think the 2012 Open champion will be?
"I don't think we'll get a winner who just drives well or just putts well or plays his irons well," said Birchenough. "If you look back at the past champions you would think he must be a straight driver, but Seve won here twice so that's not the case. You'd think they must be a long hitter, but Duval or Lehman were not that long.
"It'll be a fine player who goes for four days without going in a bunker. The bunker faces around the greens are very steep so a sand shot that elevates the ball almost vertically is a necessity just to escape.
"You have just got to have all your shots working for you, find the fairways, find the greens. And then putt like God."
Eddie Birchenough's guide to Royal Lytham's infamous final five:
The 14th, par four, 444 yards
A long par four. The prevailing wind (from the south west) is from the left and the fairway slopes left to right with bunkers down the right. The green slopes front to back with out of bounds five paces from the right edge. It's tough.
The 15th, par four, 462 yards
Almost into the prevailing wind with a very tightly bunkered drive area. If you find the fairway you've then got a shot over the line of cross bunkers to a green you can't really see - maybe just the top half of the flag. It's always difficult to be absolutely sure of the yardage.
The 16th, par four, 336 yards
A short par four famous for Seve's "car park" shot in 1979. It's been tightened up a bit and the fairway is very narrow. It will be interesting to see if, with a wind from the south, anyone takes it on with a driver. I've seen it driven, but it is very tightly bunkered and if you get into one you're not guaranteed a three and will probably be very happy with a four.
The 17th, par four, 453 yards
Probably our signature hole. Bobby Jones made it famous when he found the green from a fairway bunker on his way to victory in 1926. It's a dogleg right to left, needing a drive short of the cross bunkers coming from the left. Then it's a semi blind shot over a ridge of dunes to a green where you can only see the top half of the flag. Some trees have been taken down on the left of the fairway, which makes the green look much further left than it is. Visually it is quite a tricky hole to come to terms with. Again, very well bunkered around the green.
The 18th, par four, 413 yards
The graveyard of so many would-be Open champion's hopes. Two successive lines of bunkers run left to right diagonally across the fairway - a formidable final hurdle. I remember Tony Jacklin's drive in 1969 - there was a collective sigh of relief when he found the fairway. The green is long - about 40 yards - so clubbing has to be good for the second shot. It's well bunkered on both sides and is a real amphitheatre which will induce the nerves with 9000 people packed into the stands. A very good finishing hole.