There's Nothing Like It : British Open Course Set Apart by History and Other Factors

Times Staff Writer

The venerable Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, where the 117th British Open begins today, is one of the most eccentric courses upon which the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews stages the sport's oldest tournament.

Playing the course is sort of like wearing a tweed jacket with a paisley tie. Unlike the other British Open links courses, it is not bordered by water but by a length of railroad track that services the Lancashire coast and brings tourists to the Irish Sea resort of Blackpool, which is England's version of Coney Island.

Royal Lytham is laid out between rows of sturdy red-brick, Victorian houses in a setting that prompted a moment of reflection from defending champion Nick Faldo.

"It's like playing in a little city, isn't it?" Faldo said.

It's like playing nowhere else, for sure, and not just because of the railroad tracks that lurk menacingly close to six fairways, separated from them only by lines of sycamores, Scottish pines and steely nerves off the tee.

"The railroad tracks? I try not to look," Faldo said.

The favorites? Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Curtis Strange, Bernhard Langer, Mark McNulty, Tom Watson, Paul Azinger and Ian Woosnam have all been mentioned. They are some of golf's best shotmakers.

This is in keeping with tradition because some of golf's most memorable shots have been made at Royal Lytham. Not unexpectedly, several of them were rather eccentric themselves, just like the course.

It was here in 1926 that Bobby Jones won the Open, a victory earned on the 17th hole with a bunker shot so miraculous, a plaque marks the spot where he swung.

On June 25, 1926, Al Waltrous led Jones by two strokes and was already on the green in two, waiting to see what Jones did. Jones' drive was off line and landed in sand, some 175 yards from the green.

Many years later, Jones wrote about the options he had considered: "An eighth of an inch too deep with your blade, off dry sand, and the shot expires right in front of your eyes. And if your blade is a thought too high . . . I will dismiss this harrowing reflection. "

Jones drew a mashie, which would be a 5-iron today, and landed the ball on the green inside of a shaken Waltrous, who is supposed to have remarked: "There goes a hundred thousand bucks."

And there went history. Waltrous three-putted the 17th, hit a bunker on No. 18 and found himself a two-shot loser to the formidable combination of Jones and history. Jones might never have had a chance to make it, though. Between rounds that day, he returned home for lunch and when he returned, discovered that he had forgotten his players' badge.

Unable to talk his way onto the grounds, Jones had to buy a general admission ticket to get through the gate.

The mashie that Jones used is displayed in the clubhouse that is only steps beyond the 18th green. The two-story, twin-spired clubhouse twice came into play itself.

In the last round of the 1974 Open, eventual champion Gary Player's approach shot to the 18th ran through the green and lodged against the side of the clubhouse. Player used a putter and stroked the ball left-handed back to the center of the green.

But not even Player was as innovative as Donald Beaver, who in a club competition, thinned his ball out of a bunker at 18 and found it stuck in the ivy on a second-story windowsill of the clubhouse.

Conscious of the no-spike rule, Beaver removed his shoes, walked upstairs to the Clubroom, opened the window and knocked the ball back onto the green.

While Beaver's improvisational technique was applauded, club secretary Pym Williamson was not impressed. Williamson quickly disqualified Beaver. His infraction? Leaving the course.

Actually, Royal Lytham is full of unusual claims. It is the only Open course to open with a par 3, the only Open course with three par 3s on the front nine, the only Open course where it is possible to drive out of bounds on the first three holes and the only Open course in the regular rotation where an American professional has not won. Jones was an amateur.

The wind is likely to be more of a factor than the clubhouse. Most of the holes play with cross winds and not into or against the wind, which the pros find easier to handle.

Greenskeeper Jimmy MacDonald is convinced that the breezes will make Royal Lytham a true test of golf.

"If the wind blows, the course always wins," MacDonald said.

Long ago, golf writer Bernard Darwin spoke of the wind at Royal Lytham: "If the day is calm and we are hitting fairly straight, the golf seems rather easy than otherwise; and yet we must never allow ourselves to think so too pronouncedly or we shall straightaway find it becoming unpleasantly difficult."

Then there are the built-in hazards, particularly the sandy bunkers. They number 201, or more than 10 a hole, which probably puts this course on equal footing with the Sahara for the amount of sand.

"I don't think I've ever seen that many on any golf course anywhere," said Langer. "And out of most of those bunkers, you can't hit farther than 50 or 100 yards, depending on the lie and how close the ball is to the lip."

It is no wonder then that accuracy is extremely important. During a practice round, Strange was advised by his caddy on the 17th tee that it was best to avoid hitting the ball left.

"But I hit the ball a little left and there were 15 bunkers there," Strange said. "And you couldn't even see them from the tee."

Yet if accuracy is so important here, how does that account for Ballesteros? The last time the Open was played here was 1979 when Ballesteros won despite some of the most scattered drives that the newly crowned U. S. Open champion Hale Irwin had ever seen.

"I cannot understand how anyone can drive as badly as that and still win an Open championship," Irwin said.

On the sixth hole, Ballesteros hooked his drive 90 yards off line, but he topped that with his notorious tee shot on the 16th.

Ballesteros went so far right, the ball landed in a parking lot and rolled beneath a car. From there, Ballesteros took a free drop, knocked the ball 70 yards to the green with a sand wedge and holed a 20-foot birdie putt to clinch his first victory in a major.

Ballesteros contends that he hit the ball right where he wanted it. He said that he intended to drive right to take advantage of the wind.

"It's said the way I won was a miracle, but I won and that's all that counts," Ballesteros said after a practice round. "I played the 16th today the normal way: a 3-iron on to the fairway, a sand wedge on the green and three putts for a bogey."

A few changes have been made to the Royal Lytham course since Ballesteros' victory in 1979. There are a couple more bunkers to the right of No. 6 and the green has been moved 15 yards to the left. And No. 18 has been lengthened by 25 yards to 412 yards.

Much more money at stake now. Ballesteros won 15,000 British pounds in 1979 while the winner on Sunday will get 80,000 pounds, which is about $135,000.

Whoever wins may be the golfer who plays the three most difficult holes, each of them on the back nine, better than anyone else.

The first of these three is the par-3 12th, a 198-yarder to a raised green surrounded by bunkers. While the green is exposed to the prevailing northwest wind, the tee is sheltered by trees, which could lead to wrong judgments.

The 463-yard 15th is a par 4 that could probably be a par 5. Bending slightly to the right, the hole requires a drive to a plateau past a rise in the fairway.

At the 17th, the par 4 is 462 yards long and doglegs sharply to the left around the bunkers on the edge of the fairway. It was in one of these that Jones landed. The 17th is also the hole that Ben Crenshaw made 6 on in 1979 and took himself out of contention.

Tony Jacklin, who won here in 1969, said Royal Lytham does not belong to the big hitters. "One of the great things of Lytham is that distance and power are not major factors," he said. "Position is the key here off the tee."

If the wind is blowing, low-ball hitters may have an advantage.

But as history has shown before, the winner on this course may well have something unusual in store because, clearly, Royal Lytham often favors the odd-ball hitter as well.

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