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There's Nothing Like It : British Open Course Set Apart by History and Other Factors

July 14, 1988|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — The venerable Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, where the 117th British Open begins today, is one of the most eccentric courses upon which the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews stages the sport's oldest tournament.

Playing the course is sort of like wearing a tweed jacket with a paisley tie. Unlike the other British Open links courses, it is not bordered by water but by a length of railroad track that services the Lancashire coast and brings tourists to the Irish Sea resort of Blackpool, which is England's version of Coney Island.

Royal Lytham is laid out between rows of sturdy red-brick, Victorian houses in a setting that prompted a moment of reflection from defending champion Nick Faldo.

"It's like playing in a little city, isn't it?" Faldo said.

It's like playing nowhere else, for sure, and not just because of the railroad tracks that lurk menacingly close to six fairways, separated from them only by lines of sycamores, Scottish pines and steely nerves off the tee.

"The railroad tracks? I try not to look," Faldo said.

The favorites? Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Curtis Strange, Bernhard Langer, Mark McNulty, Tom Watson, Paul Azinger and Ian Woosnam have all been mentioned. They are some of golf's best shotmakers.

This is in keeping with tradition because some of golf's most memorable shots have been made at Royal Lytham. Not unexpectedly, several of them were rather eccentric themselves, just like the course.

It was here in 1926 that Bobby Jones won the Open, a victory earned on the 17th hole with a bunker shot so miraculous, a plaque marks the spot where he swung.

On June 25, 1926, Al Waltrous led Jones by two strokes and was already on the green in two, waiting to see what Jones did. Jones' drive was off line and landed in sand, some 175 yards from the green.

Many years later, Jones wrote about the options he had considered: "An eighth of an inch too deep with your blade, off dry sand, and the shot expires right in front of your eyes. And if your blade is a thought too high . . . I will dismiss this harrowing reflection. "

Jones drew a mashie, which would be a 5-iron today, and landed the ball on the green inside of a shaken Waltrous, who is supposed to have remarked: "There goes a hundred thousand bucks."

And there went history. Waltrous three-putted the 17th, hit a bunker on No. 18 and found himself a two-shot loser to the formidable combination of Jones and history. Jones might never have had a chance to make it, though. Between rounds that day, he returned home for lunch and when he returned, discovered that he had forgotten his players' badge.

Unable to talk his way onto the grounds, Jones had to buy a general admission ticket to get through the gate.

The mashie that Jones used is displayed in the clubhouse that is only steps beyond the 18th green. The two-story, twin-spired clubhouse twice came into play itself.

In the last round of the 1974 Open, eventual champion Gary Player's approach shot to the 18th ran through the green and lodged against the side of the clubhouse. Player used a putter and stroked the ball left-handed back to the center of the green.

But not even Player was as innovative as Donald Beaver, who in a club competition, thinned his ball out of a bunker at 18 and found it stuck in the ivy on a second-story windowsill of the clubhouse.

Conscious of the no-spike rule, Beaver removed his shoes, walked upstairs to the Clubroom, opened the window and knocked the ball back onto the green.

While Beaver's improvisational technique was applauded, club secretary Pym Williamson was not impressed. Williamson quickly disqualified Beaver. His infraction? Leaving the course.

Actually, Royal Lytham is full of unusual claims. It is the only Open course to open with a par 3, the only Open course with three par 3s on the front nine, the only Open course where it is possible to drive out of bounds on the first three holes and the only Open course in the regular rotation where an American professional has not won. Jones was an amateur.

The wind is likely to be more of a factor than the clubhouse. Most of the holes play with cross winds and not into or against the wind, which the pros find easier to handle.

Greenskeeper Jimmy MacDonald is convinced that the breezes will make Royal Lytham a true test of golf.

"If the wind blows, the course always wins," MacDonald said.

Long ago, golf writer Bernard Darwin spoke of the wind at Royal Lytham: "If the day is calm and we are hitting fairly straight, the golf seems rather easy than otherwise; and yet we must never allow ourselves to think so too pronouncedly or we shall straightaway find it becoming unpleasantly difficult."

Then there are the built-in hazards, particularly the sandy bunkers. They number 201, or more than 10 a hole, which probably puts this course on equal footing with the Sahara for the amount of sand.

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