THE late, great Bobby Jones once said he liked the Old Course a little bit more every time he played it and I harbour exactly the same feelings about Royal Lytham & St Annes, which this year will host its eleventh Open.
The first time I visited was for the 1988 Open and the course’s far from attractive surrounds left me somewhat underwhelmed.
Indeed, but for the spectacular golf produced by the champion, Seve Ballesteros, and the spirited challenge mounted by runner-up, Nick Price, my memories of the week might well have been confined to the rain on the Saturday which resulted in the first wash-out since 1961 and the first Monday finish.
For me, it wasn’t a case of love at first sight, as it was when I made my first trip to nearby Birkdale, but over the intervening years, as I have revisited it several times, my views have changed and I now regard it as the best test of golf in England.
In terms of the challenge it provides, it is up there with Carnoustie, and in my book there is no higher accolade.
Lytham is by no means as attractive a course as Turnberry, or Birkdale for that matter, but it tests every aspect of your game to the limit. It’s tough but it’s fair and that is not something you can say about every course on the rota.
It is sometimes said you can gauge the calibre of a course by the champions it produces and in that respect Lytham has few peers. The aforementioned Jones won the first championship staged over the Lancashire course in 1926 and he was followed by Bobby Locke (1952), Peter Thomson (1958), Bob Charles (1963), Tony Jacklin (1969) and Gary Player (1974) who won 14 Claret Jugs between them.
Subsequently, Ballesteros claimed two titles at Lytham (in 1979 and 1988) and Tom Lehman (1996) and David Duval (2001) won once apiece and on the latter three occasions the champion was No. 1 in the world when he won the title.
It is sometimes said you can gauge the calibre of a course by the champions it produces and in that respect Lytham has few peers. Jacklin’s great triumph, which ended an 18-year wait for a British victory, will still be fresh in the memories of readers of a certain vintage and I still recall the words uttered by the peerless BBC commentator, Henry Longhurst, as the Englishman steered his drive between the bunkers that dominate the final hole.
“What a corker,” he said and indeed it was. Jacklin momentarily lost a shoe in the ensuing melee as he approached the 72nd green. The nation as a whole shed its inferiority complex, albeit only momentarily because it was to be another 16 years before a Brit won again.
Jacklin finished 24th the next time the Open came to Lytham in 1979 but by then the baton had been passed on to a new breed of European golfers headed by Ballesteros. The Spaniard’s name is inextricably linked with Lytham although his two victories over the Lancashire course could scarcely have been more different.
It is sometimes said you need complete control of your ball to prosper at Lytham in which case Seve’s performance in 1979 must be the exception that proves the rule.
On that occasion the Spaniard’s march to victory, aged 22, was punctuated by a stream of wayward shots culminating in a wild drive on his 70th hole which came to rest among a group of cars and moved America’s Hale Irwin to label him the ‘car park champion’.
That week, he hit just nine fairways in all four rounds although it was to be altogether different in 1988 when his golf was imperious, particularly on the final day when he carded a six-under 65 graced by one glorious shot after another. That round remains one of the finest displays of golf I have ever witnessed.
Subsequently, two Americans, Lehman and Duval, deservedly won at Lytham, although, inevitably, neither performed with quite as much panache as their Spanish predecessor.
When I arrive at Lytham for the 141st Open Championship, my thoughts will turn to Seve, just as they did a few weeks back when I played in the championship media day.
The course is different now, and undisputedly better than it was in the Spaniard’s heyday, but it is still Seve’s playground as far as I’m concerned and, on reflection, that is probably another of the main reasons why I have come to like it so much.