- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

LYTHAM & ST. ANNES, England Royal Lytham & St. Annes is the oddest animal in the British Open menagerie.

The Lancashire course, which plays host to this week's 130th Open Championship, is certainly the least ballyhooed of the eight courses that have composed the British Open rota since 1968.

For one, it isn't a traditional links course. Located approximately one mile inland from the Fylde coast of midwestern England, Lytham lacks the ocean vistas, dune-separated fairways and stark, exposed terrain synonymous with linksland golf.

That contributes to its second definitive feature, or lack thereof, which is the layout's rather forgettable appearance. Surrounded by houses on three sides and the train line to Blackpool on the other, Lytham lacks the aesthetic magnetism of other quasi-inland rota layouts like Muirfield or Birkdale.

Among the Open regulars, only Carnoustie shares those attributes. But even before the greenkeeper at Carnoustie lost his head and subjected players to a practically unplayable tight track two years ago, "Carnasty" had a reputation as one of the toughest courses on the planet.

Lytham has no such reputation.

At 6,905 yards, the par-71 layout is extremely short by modern standards. And its first 13 holes, most playing with the prevailing wind, qualify as the easiest prolonged stretch in major championship golf. Longer hitters like Tiger Woods are likely to hit driver only two or three times a round. And virtually every player in the field will be able to reach the course's downwind, front-nine par-5s (Nos. 6 and 7) in two shots.

"I could see a handful of players breaking the Open scoring record around here if the wind stays down," 1994 champion Nick Price said yesterday. "Even with the rough a little nastier than in '96, the first dozen or so holes here are very susceptible to scoring."

Still, Lytham does have its eccentric selling points. It has more bunkers, a staggering 197, than almost any other major championship layout in history; St. Andrews was reputed to have set a record with its 208 last year, though the vast majority were either too short or too small to affect play seriously.

"The thing I like most about this course is the bunkers are still in play," said Tom Lehman, who claimed his first and only major title at Lytham in 1996 with a 13-under total of 271. "There are bunkers for everybody. I don't care how long or short you are, you have to deal with a bunker somewhere… . [That is] one of the reasons it does not favor somebody who can hit it a mile."

Lytham is also unique for both its start and finish. It's the only Grand Slam site that opens with a par-3; in 1988, Lanny Wadkins began his third round with an ace at the 206-yard first. And its five closing holes, all par-4s and four against the wind, constitute one of the game's toughest finishing stretches.

"To me this is the best golf course we play the Open championship on," said Seve Ballesteros, perhaps a bit biased after winning two of his three claret jugs at Lytham (1979 and 1988). "I think especially the back nine is really the greatest of golf. I mean, the back nine is really serious business, especially if the wind blows a little bit… . The final five holes, you have to be so precise."

Ironically, a pair of errant drives over that closing stretch have led to Lytham's most legendary shots.

In 1926, Bobby Jones came to the 71st hole of the British Open tied with fellow American Al Watrous and pulled a drive into the back edge of a deep bunker some 160 yards short of the green. Watrous played first from the center of the fairway, hitting safely to the front of the green. Jones then executed one of the game's first epic pressure shots, gouging a mashie out of the bunker and chasing it onto the green inside of Watrous. A shaken Watrous three-putted and then bogeyed the last to lose by two. A plaque commemorating Jones' clutch shot is still embedded in the 17th-hole bunker.

Then in 1979, Ballesteros matched the Jones magic. En route to his first major championship victory, Ballesteros sprayed a tee ball right into a temporary parking lot short of the 16th green, only to author one of the masterful Houdini acts for which he would become famous. Ballesteros somehow got up-and-down from among the cars for birdie, helping him stave off Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw by three strokes and earning him the British tabloid title of "Car Park Champion."

"I think that's what you see when you look at the history of Opens played at Lytham," said Lehman, alluding to the high-caliber of Lytham's eight Open champions. Aside from Jones, Ballesteros and Lehman, the layout has yielded claret jugs to stalwarts Bobby Locke (1952), Peter Thomson (1958), Bob Charles (1963), Tony Jacklin (1969) and Gary Player (1974). "The course might not have the volume of history that you have at a St. Andrews, but some awfully special things have happened here."

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