OPEN GOLF: Beating the bunkers is keyJuly, 2012
With 206 bunkers, the champion at Lytham will need be a master of avoiding sand as well as escaping from it
IN an era when new courses have to be 7,500 yards with water everywhere to challenge the best – and even then Lee Westwood shot 19 under at Bro Hof, which measures 7,607 yards, to win the Nordea Masters in Sweden recently – we head to Royal Lytham & St Annes for the 141st Open Championship.
Lytham, it is hardly a secret, is no beauty. And even with tees pulled back to the fences and, in many cases, halfway down the previous fairway, stretches to less than 7,200 yards. Nor is there as much as a single stream in play, let alone a lake, while glimpses of the sea are occasional at the most.
Yet anyone expecting the Lancashire venue to provide anything other than a rigorous, exacting and enthralling test will be disappointed.
The players like Lytham and what it lacks in splendour it more than makes up for in strategy and fairness.
Its defences, quite simply, are bunkers. Over 200 of them, many if not most of them small and deep.
If Lytham is not the most severely bunkered course in the British Isles then it is hard to think where is.
On average, there are almost 12 per hole and the vast majority are very much in play.
Find the ones that line the fairways and a splash out is the standard medicine, while the players’ first thought when hitting greenside ones will be whether or not they will be able to address the ball and have a swing.
The prospect of being under the lip, from where your eyes are generally below the level of the green, would terrify your average hacker. But this is not the touring pro’s chief concern.
Getting into an awkward corner, from where escape in any direction is the height of ambition, very much is.
Crucially, these cruel hazards often attract shots that are very nearly excellent, which is one reason why the late, great Severiano Ballesteros won here twice.
There are times, especially with Open galleries flattening the rough, where it is preferable to miss by a long way than fractionally.
Then there is the wind. More often than not, the front nine here, which has three short holes, is downwind (the sole exception being the 4th).
Even with the 6th reverting to a par 4 and a new green extending the 7th to close to 600 yards, we are still likely to see scores being made on the way out and protected on the fearsome homeward run, according to R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson.
“I think the 15th is a beast of a par 4 with some very dangerous bunkering off the tee,” he said.
“The 16th, mixing it up, a short par 4, and there again we’ve got all sorts of disasters lying in wait. The 17th, a famous signature hole. That’s probably the one here, the famous Bobby Jones plaque on the edge of the left-hand bunker.
“And 18, perhaps not the toughest finishing hole that we have at all the Open venues, but you have to get a very good drive away through all the bunkers that are very menacing from the tee.
“I remember Tony Jacklin doing that when he won and David Duval last time. They took that drive and won the championship.”
Compared to 2001, the course is some 200 yards longer, with Mackenzie and Ebert the architects responsible for quite an extensive programme of work that, has also involved the construction of a new green and green complex that extends the long 7th.
“It’s mainly a tweak, but I think more holes have been touched at Lytham than at the other venues,” said Dawson. “I think it’s just the par 3s largely that remain relatively untouched, and one or two towards the end.
"So the course is two and a half per cent longer. As I always say every year, instead of hitting it 100 yards, you’ll have to hit it 102 and a half." – Peter Dawson “So the course is two and a half per cent longer. As I always say every year, instead of hitting it 100 yards, you’ll have to hit it 102 and a half. So it’s not revolutionary on length, but it does bring the course up closer to many of the others in overall distance.
“Overall, it’s a stiffer test. Lytham has always been strategic – a course where you need a lot of course management and strategy to play. It’s a favourite course of many past champions, and we’re delighted to be back.”
There are only two par 5s, the other one being the 11th, played in the opposite direction to the 7th.
The par this year will be 70, something that is becoming a theme at the Open, with Sandwich, Turnberry and Birkdale all having gone the same way.
Regrettably, our great links are losing many of their par 5s. The official explanation is as follows.
“The 6th hole is the same length as it was played last time,” says Dawson. “There’s some new bunkering in the drive zone in the corner of the dogleg, but we are playing that hole as a par 4, whereas last time it was a par 5, so Lytham this year will be a par 70 and not a 71.”
“That hole was the easiest hole the last time, and that’s why we made a decision to do that,” said Jim McArthur, chairman of the R&A’s championship committee. “I don’t think it matters too much. I think lowest score wins at the end of the day, and really 70 or 71 doesn’t matter.”
Dawson adds: “It’s harder for players to get miles under par if it’s par 70 as to 72, of course, but to be honest that’s not in our minds. It’s just the way the holes fall.
St. Andrews is a par 72, but perhaps you wouldn’t think it’s a harder course than this one just in pure scoring terms, just the way that the mix of the holes falls.”
In 10 previous Opens at Lytham, the champions include Duval, Tom Lehman (96), Ballesteros (88 and 79), Gary Player (74), Jacklin (69), Bob Charles (63), Peter Thomson (58), Bobby Locke (52) and Bobby Jones (26). It is an impressive roll call.
The next name added to that list will almost certainly have the wherewithal to devise a strategy from the tee that involves long irons as well as drivers, and be accurate enough to find sand only infrequently.
Those who can control their flight, hitting quiet, low shots into the wind and high ones in the other direction will, as ever, be at a massive advantage.
Putting will be less of a factor, because the greens are largely flat and easy-paced.
You will not need to be a great putter to go well here though it goes without saying that nobody wins a Major without holing out well and seeing a few longer ones drop.
An in-form Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia or Jim Furyk would all seem like obvious, identkit Lytham champions.
Beginning with a par 3 and a 1st tee well away from the galleries, the players will enjoy a moment of calm before emerging into one of the smallest Open sites.
Broadly running out and back, the atmosphere here, like at Troon, is always outstanding, the crowd moving in narrow corridors. On the way out the railway line is never far away on the right.
“It has its challenges,” admits McArthur. “Lytham is one of the tightest venues that we come to.
“Last year we were at Royal St George’s, which is a very big site. Lytham is a bit tighter to get spectators around.”
The same can be said for the players. The champion will need touch and precision even more than power and control.