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Lytham beast will not be easily tamed

Alex Dimond July 17, 2012


ESPN will have live updates and exclusive coverage from the Open Championship when it gets underway this week - with reporters at Royal Lytham & St Annes to bring you all the insight.

Twelve months on from Darren Clarke's emotive victory at a wet and windy Royal St George's, the best players reconvene once more at a golf course where conditions are unlikely to be ideal to compete for perhaps the most prestigious prize in the sport.

The fabled Claret Jug has been held by all the greatest names in the sport - from Bobby Jones through to Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods - and another will be hoping to etch his name into its silver base come Sunday evening.

Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood will all be desperate to ensure a second successive homegrown champion is crowned - having previously waited 12 years between domestic winners - while the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker will be hoping to bring the trophy back to the United States for the first time since Stewart Cink interfered with Tom Watson's fairytale story three years ago.

With the exception of Louis Oosthuizen in 2010, in recent years eventual champions have tended to skew older - but golf also has a list of young players (from the aforementioned McIlroy through to the likes of Matteo Manassero and Rickie Fowler) who will be hoping to buck that general trend and make history on the Blackpool coast.

A look at the past winners at Lytham gives an indication of that most type of players can win if their game is on song - short game wizards with real imagination (Seve Ballesteros, Gary Player) have succeeded, as have sublime putters (Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Tom Lehman) and redoubtable iron players (Tony Jacklin, David Duval).

Lytham is known for providing a fair test of almost every facet at the game - with it being a relief that, at just 7,086 yards, it should not automatically play into the hands of the biggest hitters.

When we were here last...

"A beast of a course, but a just beast."
- golf journalist Bernard Darwin on Royal Lytham

Back in 2001, David Duval claimed his first (and, in all probability, only) major championship title - the former world No. 1 cementing his exalted status by holding off Niclas Fasth and claiming a three-shot victory. The event was perhaps most notable for Ian Woosnam's demise, however - the Welshman came into the final round with a realistic shot at victory and birdied the opening par-three, before his caddie discovered an extra driver in his bag. That cost Woosnam a two-shot penalty (despite having used neither driver at the point of discovery), as he quickly fell out of contention.

Duval, meanwhile, never won again after triumphing at Lytham - embarking on a well-publicised descent into professional anonymity before briefly re-emerging to come second in the 2009 US Open. The American is set to tee it up this week - making the cut would be considered a success.


The Course



Royal Lytham & St Annes has been known as one of the stiffest but shortest courses on the Open rotation, and the R&A have attempted to tinker with the latter characteristic while retaining the former challenge this time around.

A total of 201 yards have been added to the length of the course, while the par has been reduced by a shot to 70 - as the 492-yard sixth is reduced to a par-four after proving the easiest hole last time the championship was here, back in 2001. The eleventh has been lengthened the most - 56 yards to 598 - while the second, third, seventh and tenth have also been pumped up to pose a sterner challenge.

That has changed the character of the course to an extent - while in the past the back-to-back par-fives (six and seven) on the front nine offered you the chance to build a score before holding on over the back nine, now no shot against par will be easy to acquire. The closing stretch of six consecutive par-fours offers almost no respite - especially if played into the wind.

"It's not an easy front nine, tough back nine course [that asks you to] make a bunch of fours to hang on coming in as the greats have done in the past," Paul Casey said recently, after visiting the course. "You can't do that anymore. You have to hang on all over the place. It looks very different."

The rough will be lush - almost inevitable considering the recent weather - but fairways are not so narrow that anything less than perfection will result in a difficult lie - while there will not be the same extreme problem with unpredictable bounces that there was at Royal St Georges 12 months ago. The course's 205 bunkers are where the real trouble really lies - they are positioned so it is very difficult to simply hit long or short of them (as Tiger Woods famously did around St Andrews in 2005), and make precise approaches into the green a necessity.

Bernard Darwin, the pre-eminent British journalist of the early years of professional golf - and not a bad player himself - perhaps described Lytham the best: "A beast of a course, but a just beast." The R&A are hoping their changes have maintained that description.


What you need to win

Where Lytham has many differences from the last major championship course, Olympic Club - where Olympic had one fairway bunker, Lytham has well over 100 - it also shares one key similarity, a overall demand for a fade off the tee.

Players who prefer to hit the ball from left-to-right should have an edge, while those who can also turn the ball over (under control, of course) are further advantaged. That should not prove the key to victory, however.

As Duval showed in his victory 11 years ago, iron play is the biggest difference-maker at the course - the player who can best control his iron shots will invariably find himself near the top of the field. Beyond that, as with pretty much every major, how players scramble and putt from inside ten feet will have a significant impact.

The coastal nature of Lytham (it is not on the beach, but not far away) means the wind can affect the break of putts - not something all players are used to - so players who don't have real faith in their putting stroke are unlikely to prosper unless they are finding almost every green in regulation.


Who can contend

It is notoriously difficult to predict with any confidence who will do well on any given week - especially now Tiger Woods is not the sure thing he once was - but here are a selection of players that could find themselves near the top of the leaderboard this week.

Front-runners

Lee Westwood

Westwood has finished in the top ten in four of his last five majors - with a missed cut at Royal St Georges (a course that, history suggests, he simply doesn't like) 12 months ago the only aberration. Westwood's play seems set to suit Lytham - he's both a straight driver and, statistically at least, one of the best bunker players around. His putting is poor and he has had a tendency to start majors nervously - but if he can keep those issues under control it would be a surprise if he isn't in strong contention again this weekend.

Sergio Garcia

The Spaniard quietly had one of the best major campaigns of anyone in 2011, but he never quite got into strong contention anywhere. His record at Lytham is reasonable (a mixed cut in 1996 as a 16-year-old, a top ten finish in 2001) - and he certainly has the game to do well - he can drive it both ways, has great imagination with the irons and has a short game to rival anyone. The question, as always, is how he feels about his putting - if it's on song, a fitting major victory at the site of the late Seve Ballesteros' most memorable triumph is far from impossible.

Graeme McDowell

On song at the US Open, Royal Lytham is a similar course and the Portrush native knows his way around a links. The worry is that - with this week likely to be slightly less punishing than Olympic Club - McDowell doesn't have the birdie-making ability of some of his rivals but, if the wind gets up, he is an obvious candidate to navigate the difficult waters.

Padraig Harrington

He did not set the world alight on his last appearance at Lytham, but a second-round of 66 indicates that the two-time Claret Jug winner does know how to score around the course. The Irishman has taken every opportunity to gain links course practice in recent weeks in order to have a chance of winning this week - and his recent performance at the US Open indicates he is still capable of competing at the highest level, even if he suffers McDowell's slight issue with birdie-making.

Worth watching out for

Rickie Fowler surprised many in poor conditions last year © Getty Images
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Rickie Fowler

The American was one of the revelations of the 2011 Open - showing up newly crowned US Open champion Rory McIlroy with his ability to adapt to links golf and resilience in some of the worst weather imaginable. His dress sense gives the wrong impression about his game - a safe driver with a calm head; he is much more in the mould of Lehman and Duval than Mickelson or Bubba Watson. As a result, you can see Fowler contending and even winning the Claret Jug one day, even if it is not this week.

Justin Rose

Perhaps surprising, perhaps not - but Rose's tied-fourth finish as an amateur at Royal Birkdale in 1998 remains his best finish in the game's oldest major championship. Rose has proven himself as one of the best players around in the last 12-15 months - he hits it arrow straight and is very hard to beat when his erratic putting is having a good day. He does seem to have tweaked his game to suit the 'stadium courses' of the PGA Tour more than traditional links, but if the weather is calm he should be able to navigate his way into contention.

Dustin Johnson

If Darren Clarke hadn't caught lightning in a bottle last year, 'DJ' might already have his first Claret Jug. He has the power to just bore shots through the wind, while his course management (up until crunch time, at least) is deceptive for a player who does not strike anyone as particularly smart. Back after an injury lay-off that doesn't seem to have had any long-term effects, he could do well.

Ernie Els

He likes the Open Championship; he's playing pretty well at the moment. Arguably the greatest bunker player around, the South African will certainly consider himself to have a great chance of victory.

Outside chances

Davis Love III remains a classy player © Getty Images
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Davis Love III

His status as the United States Ryder Cup captain immediately makes you think the 1997 US PGA champion is past it, but he remains a decent big-event golfer. He was in the mix for a while at the US Open but his experience at the Open Championship offers him a bigger advantage - he could easily repeat last year's top ten finish without holing many putts, and do even better if the flatstick gets hot.

Matthew Baldwin

The Englishman keeps progressing his career - moving through the satellite tours before reaching the big leagues, and now qualifying for majors. Amateur experience means he should know links golf, and his high finish at the recent Scottish Open indicates he is in good form. A top-five finish is not impossible.

Alex Noren

He played well at last week's Scottish Open - throwing away his chance of victory - but the Swede's recent record suggests he does not mind miserable conditions and is not knocked out of his rhythm by strong winds. Along with fellow Scandinavian Thorbjorn Olesen, Noren has the game to keep pace with almost anyone in the field.


Woods watch

Tiger Woods has had an erratic season so far - many highs and a few lows © Getty Images
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It's hard to believe that Tiger Woods will be returning to British shores to play an event for the first time since the Ryder Cup almost two years ago. Injury forced the three-time Open champion to skip Royal St Georges last year, so he will come to Lytham this week having gone six years since a victory in the event (only in the Masters, surprisingly, has he suffered a longer drought).

But while Woods has many top tens at Augusta to lean back on in recent times, at the Open his best finish since 2006 is a rather lacklustre tie for 12th (2007), although he has not played twice (2008, 2011). It's fair to say Woods is a bit short of recent links practice, and that could cost him dear.

His record at Lytham is average - he finished 28th in 2001 having been in contention after 36 holes, and 22nd as an amateur in 1996. It's not that the course doesn't suit him at Lytham, but that it doesn't accentuate his strengths as some (St Andrews, Hoylake) have done in the past.

As for current form, Woods has a win (in an event he knows intimately) and a missed cut (in an event he had never played before) on his recent record, meaning it is hard to gauge how he is really faring. It's fair to say his driving is better than it has been in a long time, while his iron play is solid when his swing changes hold up and somewhat erratic when he reverts to bad habits (as he did over the weekend at the US Open).

"I'm excited about the consistency of it," Woods said after missing the cut at the Greenbrier. "I'm able to shape the ball better with better trajectory control.

"Last year was a tough year battling those injuries. This year I've done well in spurts but now it's becoming more consistent, day in and day out.

On links golf he added: "I've always preferred it to be more difficult and when the golf course gets harder and faster it is certainly something I like. You can't set up and hit your ball to a number and have it plug. The ball is going to have run out. That's the reason I love playing links golf, because the ball does chase, it does move on the ground."

His putting, however, is not what it once was - so he will likely have to produce what he likes to call a "stripe show" from tee to green if he is to contend. That is not beyond his capabilities, however.


Predictions

All this talk would mean little without a few equally meaningless predictions also thrown in. Bear in mind, at the US Open we tipped Luke Donald (missed cut, thanks) to win it all...

Winning score: Seven-under
Winning margin: Two
Lowest round: 66
Low amateur: Adam Dunbar

Top European: Lee Westwood
Top American: Tiger Woods
Top Rest of World: Louis Oosthuizen

Winner: Lee Westwood

You heard it here first. Or not.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk