Ahead of the 2001 Open, informed opinion said Royal Lytham & St Annes was hosting the championship for the very last time. Following Tiger Woods’ merciless subjugation of St Andrews the year before, it was felt that the Lancashire venue, at a shade under 6,900 yards, was now too short to test the world’s finest. Four of the par fours measured under 400 yards and two of the three long holes generally play downwind. Much like the Old Course, the holes most obviously in need of lengthening were already stretched to their limit.
And after one of the wettest winters on record, the scorched fairways that characterised Tom Lehman’s Open triumph in 1996, when control of the ball was made so difficult, were nowhere to be seen.
It was thought this softer, greener version would yield a series of scores in the low to mid 60s, with position off the tee rendered virtually irrelevant. Conditions on all four days of the event proper were close to perfect, as was the presentation of the course.
But only six rounds that week were lower than 67. Miguel Angel Jimenez, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Niclas Fasth and Darren Clarke, none of them known for their long hitting, all featured on the final leaderboard.
For Graham Cochrane, then secretary and previously chairman of greens at Lytham, it was sweet justification of the enduring quality of his beloved links.
“The course was presented just as it is to the members throughout the year,” he said. “The fairways were not like ribbons and it was a very fair test of golf that week.
“This is a very difficult course and the key to it is the bunkers. There are currently 190 of them. There used to be many more, although not all were looked after as they are today.
“The difference now is that most of them are in play, even for the pros. To score well here you simply have to stay out of them”
Cochrane, a retired solicitor, says the course is difficult. That is an understatement. Even off the front tees (which, intriguingly, are green and not yellow at Lytham), many of the par fours are upwards of 400 yards in length with the most penal of bunkers awaiting even a slightly errant or misjudged shot, from either the fairway or the tee.
And when the wind gets up, which it often does, many holes are simply out of range in regulation. The traditional nine-out, nine-in layout determines that one half of the course, usually the back half, plays outstandingly difficult.
Indeed the stretch of holes from 14 onwards comprise arguably the toughest finish of any course on the Open rota. To reach such a crescendo, Lytham starts quietly, and some of the early holes, while fine tests of skill and shotmaking, are not immediately striking.
Indeed, it must be conceded that Lytham is not the most stunning of courses visually. Much like at Royal Liverpool, a club with which it has much else in common, including its architect, the predominantly flat expanse of land is lined by red-brick buildings.
To the members, seeing the course during an Open Championship must be a strange experience, with greens surrounded by grandstands and the short nine-hole course that lies to the right of the 17th and 18th submerged beneath the tented village.
The stretch of holes from 14 onwards comprise arguably the toughest finish of any course on the Open rota.
For the rest of us the converse is true. The 1st green, surrounded by deep bunkers and lying in the middle of a large, flat piece of land, is wholly unfamiliar. As is the 18th fairway meandering innocently back into the heart of the course.
“In 2001, the contractors first appeared in March to start preparing the stands and so on,” said Cochrane. “The last ones departed in September.
“We love hosting the championship here but it can be a little depressing the week after the event when the crowds have gone and the rough has been trampled down and there are muddy paths everywhere.
“The course itself is in perfect condition but it takes until the following May for the rough to recover.”
For all its rich history – Lytham has hosted The Open on 11 occasions including Ernie Els’ victory in 2012 – the club is proud to maintain a friendly feel, in marked contrast to certain other venues of similar prestige.
It retains a homely feel that is conveyed by some of the modest but pristine houses lining the links. It is sometimes hard to credit that you are only half a mile away from the sea. At no time is a view of the ocean forthcoming. The feeling persists of playing in a pocket of golfing land inside the middle of town. Not for Lytham the clifftop majesty of a Turnberry or a Kingsbarns.
But if it does eschew the spectacular, the discerning golfer is certainly rewarded for his perseverance. Plotting strategy from the tee is essential to avoid bunkers that you do well just to escape from, let alone make up any ground.
Driving the ball accurately – and the right distance – is a prerequisite not just to scoring well but also to gaining maximum enjoyment of a round here. The wild hitter will find it a draining, not to mention expensive, experience.
From spectating at The Open, the 1st hole is unrecognisable. Atypical in almost every sense, not only is it a par three but during tournament play there is no room for spectators around the tee. That makes it unique among Open venues in two senses. It also allows competitors a last moment of quiet contemplation before emerging from a leafy avenue towards the green.
Outside of competition, it is played from a tee on the other side of the pro shop, next to the clubhouse. It is difficult to see the target, which is surrounded by no fewer than seven bunkers.
The next two holes hug the railway line that runs down the right-hand side of the course. Normally they play downwind. They are still difficult. The 2nd rewards a tee shot down the right, hugging the line of the railway, from where the green is opened up. A cavernous bunker in front of and to the left of the green precludes a clear shot from the other side of the fairway.
The 3rd is similarly tight and also very long. In unfavourable conditions, the green can be out of range in two shots. With out of bounds tight down the right and another seven deep bunkers running up the left, this really is an intimidating hole. Few golfers would consider five a bad score here.
Reaching the 4th is often accompanied by a sigh of relief. This hole is played in the opposite direction and moves away from the railway. As a hole, it is about as straightforward as Lytham gets. A solid tee shot should leave a short iron to a large, flat green. Nor is the short 5th, played to a slightly-raised green, a particular highlight. Much more exciting par threes lie in wait.
Another of Lytham’s quirks, back-to-back par fives, comes next. The 6th, which was played as a par 4 in the 2012 Open, is played at quite an angle, turning sharply to the left beyond the huge bunker that guards the inside of the dog-leg. If you choose to lay-up, care must be taken to avoid the four cross bunkers short of the green.
The 7th is stunning. From the elevated tee, the definition provided by bunker after bunker on both sides of the fairway tends to focus the mind. In truth, the target is generous enough and if the conditions are right the sunken green is in range for the longer hitters. It is the sort of par five that yields eagles but also claims double bogeys.
The 8th is the third and final par four to run parallel to the railway. Again, a daunting bunker eats into the left of the fairway, pushing the unwary towards the boundary of the course. Unexpectedly, the land then rises to a green set well above the fairway. Like many greens here, it tends to reject rather than collect approaches that land on the edge of its surface.
If the first two par threes are uninspiring for a course of this stellar quality, the 9th is a delight to behold. Played into the very far corner of the course, to a space barely wide enough to house the green, the challenge lies in coaxing a short iron over the bunkers at the front and stopping the ball on the green. Anything less than accurate will, inevitably, find sand.
The back nine begins with a classic links short par four. Technically, the green may be in range. In reality, surrounded by trouble and entirely out of view from the tee, a long iron followed by a wedge is a more realistic option. Unless due respect is paid, a high score is a distinct possibility at what is Lytham’s shortest two-shotter.
The last of the par fives, the 11th is one of very few holes to play across the prevailing wind. A brave drive over sand considerably shortens the hole and should lead to no worse than a par. Find trouble from the tee and a bogey, at best, will result.
The 12th has been described as the best short hole on the Open rota. From the Championship tee (like the 1st, it can be played from two completely different angles) a medium iron into the wind, played tight to the perimeter fence and carrying a pot bunker that eats into the front right of the green, is needed to get anywhere near the pin.
It is as important to judge the strength of the shot as it is the direction, because the oval-shaped green is set at an angle to the tee, meaning a longer shot is required to find the back-right portion of the green.
From here, it is par fours all the way in. The 13th, the last hole to travel away from the clubhouse, offers a final moment of relative respite before Lytham’s fearsome finish. A long iron to the corner of the dog-leg should leave no more than a pitch to a generous green.
From the 14th tee, the clubhouse is far away, in more ways than one. Directly in front lies a fairway almost 450 yards long, and its straightness only serves to accentuate how narrow it is. At driving distance, inevitably, bunkers pinch in, making this a hole where a long and true tee shot is essential. Fortunately the generous green is receptive to a long iron.
If the 14th is difficult, the 15th is even tougher. Slightly longer at 463 yards from the championship tees, a tee shot down the right, flirting with disaster, as ever gives maximum advantage.
From there the truest of blows is required to carry the pernicious collection of bunkers short of the putting surface. As at the 3rd, five is a highly respectable score.
If there is any let-up over the closing holes, it arrives at the 16th, where a drive over the marker post, ideally to the left of centre, will give a full view down the green with just a short iron needed. No hole here though is defenceless and you miss the fairway or green at your utter peril.
Perhaps Lytham’s most famous hole is the 17th, immortalised by Bobby Jones. Playing the final round of the 1926 Open, his ball lay in a sandy waste some 175 yards from the green. Needless to say, his mashie-iron found the green and he went on to win the championship.
With disaster lying between there and the putting surface, ‘a teaspoonful more sand would have meant irretrievable ruin’, as Bernard Darwin later said. A plaque lies on the spot to commemorate the stroke.
What is particularly difficult about this hole is that the fairway gets narrower the longer the drive and eventually runs away from the green, which is set improbably far left over a patch of wasteland. The second shot is long and daunting, requiring great trust as well a true strike.
After that, believe it or not, the famous last hole comes as something of a relief, not least because everything can be seen from the tee. At a shade over 400 yards, it is not the toughest closing hole in Open golf, but with another 15 (yes, 15) bunkers lying in wait it is no giveaway either.
Walking down the fairway towards the famous old clubhouse, imaginary applause ringing in your ears, it cannot be denied that Royal Lytham & St Annes has a certain aura. It is unrelenting, demanding and at times barbarically difficult. Long may the Open be contested over its historic links.