LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Darren Clarke was seated in the interview room at Royal Lytham & St. Annes on Monday when a reporter asked the defending champion about the 205 bunkers on this course.
Immediately he perked up, a broad smile emerging across his face.
“You’ve just enlightened me to something,” he revealed. “I have the number 205 on my golf bag this week and I had no idea what it meant until now.”
Exactly 24 hours later, Tiger Woods perched himself in the very same seat and was posed with a similar yet un-identical question about the venue’s 206 bunkers.
“Is that what there are – 206?” he asked in response.
There has been some obvious confusion in the days leading up to the start of this week’s Open Championship – and it all has to do with the numbers game.
Some reports list the bunker total at 205; others have it at 206. Does it matter? Well, maybe not in the grand scheme of determining a winner, but for the sake of accuracy throughout the week, of course it does.
So I figured, I’m decent at counting. I’ve got nothing better to do. And it’s a beautiful day for a rain-soaked slog through increasingly muddy conditions.
Walking and counting. Counting and walking. Sounds like an easy way to solve a major conundrum.
And so I set forth to find out whether there are exactly 205 or 206 bunkers at Royal Lytham.
The first one I encounter is so small you can barely stamp a footprint in it. Located 150 yards from the tee on the 205-yard, par-3 opening hole, unless a few 22-handicappers sneak into the Open and commence chunking, this should serve as nothing more than a landmark.
Onto the second bunker and – same thing. Located just a few yards beyond the first, this one has all the usefulness of a donated appendix. Boy, if they’re all this benign and out of the way, then maybe this course isn’t so…
Whoa. Hold that thought.
That’s because the first green is guarded by seven bunkers – Royal Lytham’s interpretation of team defense. Surrounded in all directions, the putting surface has all the charm of a picnic blanket lying in the middle of a beach. Or maybe a towel.
Time to keep walking before I start making sandcastles.
Another hole, another nontuple-bunkered layout. Unlike the opener, though, the par-4 second hole has only four around its green, which means they’re more spread out. Sort of like expanding the search party for a missing person. Fittingly, some players’ chances of winning could go missing here, too.
19, 20, 21…
The bunker count only increases the farther I traverse on the course. Ten on No. 3. Twelve on 4. Six on 5. Twelve on 6. It sounds like an Abbott and Costello sketch, only there’s nothing funny about these monsters.
On the par-5 seventh, there are 15 bunkers. The hole features a fairway narrower than most English side streets. If cars were driving it in opposite directions, one might have to pull over into the rough to let the other pass. Only problem? It would probably get stuck in one of the many bunkers that border the entirety of the fairway.
74, 75, 76…
Every bunker is technically a hazard, but some are obviously more hazardous than others. The par-5 11th owns a modest pair on the left side of the fairway that will catch any slightly pulled drive of 275-300 yards.
It’s one reason Woods says, “At any links golf course you've got to stay out of the bunkers, because you can't get to the green. That's just a fact. If you hit the ball in there, it's going to go up against the face, because it goes in there with some steam and you're pitching it out sideways or sometimes even backwards.”
110, 111, 112…
As the course methodically winds its way inward, the bunkers only seem to multiply like bunnies.
Fifteen on No. 13. Ten on 14. Thirteen on 15. Fourteen on 16.
Some are so diminutive that players will barely make note of them on the yardage book. Others are so immense you can lose a small child inside.
The one thing they have in common, though, is that none are untroublesome. Armed with steep faces and wet, packed sand, would-be contenders will need to avoid these traps – and yes, “traps” is an apt portrayal. Don’t be surprised if more than a few players describe their situations in bunkers as being “trapped.”
169, 170, 171…
“Not that I counted, but there's 17 on 18,” Bubba Watson said after an early practice round.
Maybe he should have counted. There are actually 19 on the penultimate hole, making it the official team leader on the Lytham squad.
And here’s where our mystery is solved.
The yardage book lists 20 bunkers on No. 17, but one that was supposed to be off the right fairway wasn’t built in time for the tournament, leaving it with a meager 19 instead.
I’ve spent vacations by the ocean that didn’t involve that much sand.
“I don't understand why there's that many,” Watson contended, “but they didn't ask me to design it.”
188, 189, 190…
The bunker bunch certainly doesn’t stop on the final hole.
The last of the 205 – in geological order – is a kidney-shaped bunker precariously resting two-thirds of the way back off the right side of the 18th green. Undoubtedly, after long days of avoiding and failing to avoid these traps, there are players who will find themselves one last time mired in the sand.
It will be no day at the beach, but then again these are supposed to be hazards. They are traps in the truest sense of the word.
All 205 of ‘em.