x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Royal Lytham a course that still holds firm

The British Open returns to the unforgiving Royal Lytham which many a legend failed to master, writes John McAuley.

Severiano Ballesteros won the British Open in 1979 despite spraying the ball over Royal Lytham. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images
Severiano Ballesteros won the British Open in 1979 despite spraying the ball over Royal Lytham. Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

There he was, golf's greatest gladiator, its master magician, wrapped in royal blue and conjuring another piece of history.

Seve Ballesteros had been there before, of course, nine years previous when he floated a sand wedge from a temporary car park and ignited his legend.

Long before that, when the game was played in plus-fours and viewed on black and white televisions, Bobby Jones, the consummate professional in all but rank, outlasted his rivals during a championship newly extended to three days.

Then there was Tony Jacklin, the English noble whose deadeye drive down 18 on Sunday repelled America's advances on the gentleman's game; a shot still regarded by many as the most important in British golf.

And five years later, the US Masters champion Gary Player, not realising on the 71st hole he was six shots ahead of the field, turned to his caddie "Rabbit" Dyer and asked if he had a chance of claiming victory. "My little brother," his bagman responded, "Ray Charles could win from here."

Shoot past Ballesteros's double and find a 20-year-old Tiger Woods, by then the three-time US Amateur champion, posting a five-under 66 on Friday to convince his father Earl he was ready to turn professional.

Or take in, a year into the new millennium, the bumptious David Duval's valedictory speech, an address so unexpectedly emotional it garnered the brash American a new-found respect, not to mention a swarm of fresh fans.

So many indelible moments, yet all recorded at the same enduring venue. Royal Lytham and St Annes, home of the 141st British Open this week, may not offer the history of St Andrews, or the purity of Muirfield, or even the scenic beauty of Turnberry, yet George Lowe's masterpiece on Lancashire's Flyde coast reserves a special place in the heart of golf's oldest major. Nine of its finest champions, and countless entries on its highlights reel, have taken root there.

A true links-style golf course despite being divorced from the shoreline by suburban housing and a railway line - a peculiarity noted on Monday by the reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson – Royal Lytham took its place on the British Open roster in 1926, with Jones becoming the first amateur to land the Claret Jug since Harold Hilton in 1897.

An amateur success, but by no means on an amateurish layout. Royal Lytham boasts the greatest number of bunkers of all the venues used for the British Open – more than 200 – making it a severe examination of nerve and accuracy off every tee. Strategy has therefore always been key, where careful placing of drives determines your approach and the friendliness of your scorecard.

There is, though, one glaring exception.

In 1979, a buccaneering Ballesteros sprayed his ball to such an extent that he managed to hit only nine of 56 fairways throughout the week. He also found 15 bunkers at the side of the greens, yet, to add to his great allure, somehow got up and down for par from all but one.

The Spaniard would return in 1988 to ensure his position as Royal Lytham's only two-time winner, when he concocted a final round of 65 even though the eight out of nine times he employed his driver he sent his ball askew.

Ballesteros later captured the perils of Royal Lytham when he noted: "You have to be very patient on this course because it's very easy to make bogeys and bogeys and never stop.

"Here you have to wait. When you attack this golf course, the golf course kills you."

It is fitting Royal Lytham that year provided Ballesteros with the last of his five major triumphs; after all, it was the course with which he shared the most special of affinities.

Player, a nine-time major champion, sealed the last of his three British Open titles there, too, and still marvels at the majesty of the 7,086-yard, par 70 course.

"The 12th is one of the greatest par-threes in the world," the South African said. He should know, having claimed to have accrued more air miles than any other person in living memory.

"It is such an exacting shot. That's the beauty of Lytham; the shots into the greens have to be precise. After that, it's all about putting."

Even Jack Nicklaus, the man who tamed the greatest number of major courses, was finally forced to surrender to Royal Lytham's charm.

Nicklaus, who eventually collected three Claret Jugs, was made to wait to sample British Open glory 49 years ago, courtesy of Bob Charles, his red-hot putter, and Royal Lytham's cruel hand.

"In 1963, aged 23, I was on the brink of winning my first Open when my youthful inexperience, combined with the fiendishly difficult last four holes, denied me that chance," Nicklaus once said. "I greatly admire the way it tests the complete game."

And that is Royal Lytham's irresistibility.

In the modern game, where technology renders redundant some of the game's finest courses, this 126-year-old track, steeped in history, still holds firm.

The art of stoic shot-making and steely putting, the very essence of the sport, finds a comfortable bedfellow there.

Its finishing stretch of six par-fours have offered countless evidence of why the British Open, especially when housed in those parts, can claim to be golf's greatest test.

Unless, of course, you are a mercurial Spanish matador in 1988, encased in royal blue and engulfed by an iron will, needing to birdie four of the final five to cement your legend.

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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