Monday, July 16, 2012

Open Champ. Part One

I arrived in the small town of Lancashire late Sunday morning. No matter how many times you make this trip to the United Kingdom, it’s pretty tough to escape jet lag. There is a strategy involved, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. It’s advisable to arrange your departure from the U.S. in the evening, so you can catch a few hours of sleep before you arrive in England the next morning. When you do arrive here, the trick is then staying up all day with no sleep, so you can make the next day feel like real time. I am five hours ahead of the East Coast this week.
My 6’2” frame finds it difficult to find a good sleeping position on an airplane, even with reclining seats. So, on Sunday after about 4 hours sleep over a 40 hour period of time, I was running on fumes. Former British Open champ, Justin Leonard, was a few rows in front of me on my flight from Chicago. So was John Wood, the caddy for Hunter Mahan.
I played with Leonard in a pro-am in Dallas last November. He won the 1997 Open Championship held at Royal Troon Golf Club and he has been a member of three Ryder Cup teams. Justin is a quiet guy who has won 13 times on the PGA Tour. He just turned 40 and is looking to generate some energy into his 2012 season here at Royal Lytham this week.
Wood has enjoyed a good run on Mahan’s bag. I got to know John at the Celtic Manor Ryder Cup in Wales. His locker was directly across from mine. Wood is typical of the new breed of PGA Tour caddies- smart, focused, driven and fiercely loyal to his player. John is here ahead of Mahan, laying the ground work for what he and Hunter hope will be a break through major championship week for the tenth ranked player in the world.
This year’s Open Championship is being played at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. This will be the 11th time the British Open has been played here dating back to 1926. The course is known for its bunkering- 206 in all. Some call Lytham the toughest of all the Open courses. The course is narrow, with small greens, small targets and it has very penal bunkers.
Bobby Jones won here in 1926. Bobby Locke followed in 1952. Then it was Peter Thomson in 1958 and Bob Charles in 1963. Tony Jacklin won in 1969, Gary Player in 1974 and Seve Ballesteros took home the Claret Jug in 1979 and ’88. Americans Tom Lehman, 1996, and David Duval, 2001, were the last two winners at Royal Lytham.
“It’s really a punishing course. The ball is going to bounce and you have to anticipate that and judge it,” says Thomson, the ’58 champ. “I put it at the top of the list. In every way it’s a championship course. It will bring out the best player without a doubt.”
The front nine is unusual in that it has three par 3’s, including the first hole. The front nine runs mostly northwest to southeast, the same direction as the prevailing wind. Traditionally, Open competitors have made their best scores on the opening nine. In fact, the front nine at Lytham has conceded more sub-30 scores (5) than any other nine on the British Open rota. 
As easy as the front nine can be, the back nine is brutally tough. The final six holes are all par fours and they are heavily bunkered and normally play into the teeth of the wind. Shots finding the sand will no doubt result in bogeys or double bogeys. Many think that Lytham’s finishing holes are the toughest in all of golf.
Lytham has produced an impressive list of global champions. There is not a single fluke among its winners. Tom Lehman was ranked 13th in the world when he won here and that is the highest ranked player to win at Lytham. Jack Nicklaus played here six times and never won.
The Irish Sea sits about 500 yards from the golf course, although it is not visible from the sandy links. The weather has always been a factor at Lytham. The forecast for this week is low 60’s, rain and wind. That could change several times each day and in typical Open fashion some players may get the break of the waves when they play on Thursday and Friday.
The spectator drama this week at Lytham will probably center around phenominal par saves. There is always a chance that the sun will shine and the wind will stop, at least for awhile. Somebody could reel off a few birdies if that happens, but the tournament will be won with miraculous short game play and incredible par saves.
I am staying at a hotel near Lancashire, which is about seven miles from Royal Lytham. This has been one of the wettest springs on record in this part of England resulting in thick, lush rough at the area courses.  As I rode from Manchester to Lancashire, my driver said that this was the first day in two weeks that it hadn’t rained. For those looking at a map, Lytham is about a four hour car ride northwest of London.
This tournament is where major championship golf really began. Started in 1859 at Prestwick, the Open Championship was first held to crown the champion golfer after the death of legendary Scottish professional, Allan Robertson. He was recognized as the best player in the world until his death. The Open Championship was established to end the debate that raged throughout the countryside regarding who would succeed Roberston as the world’s best.
Nothing has really changed since 1859. That is why we are here at Royal Lytham this week. And judging by the past, it would appear that one of the world’s best will win this week. This is the first of four stories that I will write at this year’s Open Championship. I look forward to having you with me.

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