LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Royal Lytham & St. Annes is an underrated gem. That has been the battle cry most of the week here in rainy England, a few blocks away from the Irish Sea.
It doesn’t have the beauty of Turnberry, which is widely regarded as Scotland’s version of Pebble Beach. It doesn’t have the history of the Old Course. It doesn’t roll off the tongue like Hoylake, Troon or Muirfield.
But, dammit, this is a great golf course.
Venerable British TV commentator Peter Alliss has attended the past 51 Open Championships. He said Thursday that, Old Course aside, Royal Lytham is his favorite course in the Open rota. Tiger Woods reminded us earlier this week that this place convinced him he was good enough to turn pro in 1996. Graeme McDowell dubbed it a “sleeping giant.”
Not only is this place a treasure, the top of its leaderboard produced the biggest names in the game after the first round of the 141st Open Championship. Seven of the top 13 are major champions. Seven. Two of those seven have won a major in the past 13 months.
“It’s a fair test,” said Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion who shot 67 and is part of the aforementioned group. “On a golf course like this, the cream will rise to the top.”
Scott – whose infamous caddie, Steve Williams, was part of 13 major wins on Woods’ bag – had visions of 62 on a benign day but settled for 6-under 64. Major champions Paul Lawrie and Zach Johnson joined Nicolas Colsaerts at 65. McIlroy, Woods, Ernie Els, Bubba Watson and Graeme McDowell are all major champs in a large group tied for sixth place at 67.
“I haven't achieved my goal of winning major championships,” Scott said. “That's what I've dreamt of as a kid and that's what I made (as) goals when I turned pro and what I've thought about since turning pro. I haven't achieved what I wanted until I win a major or more.”
Woods and Els are two intriguing names that jump off the leaderboard for different reasons. Els has struggled with confidence and putting in the past year and many have wondered aloud if a fourth major championship is in his future. He did contend at the U.S. Open last month at The Olympic Club, but faltered down the stretch with bogeys on two of the final three holes.
Leave it to Royal Lytham to get Els’ competitive juices flowing again. The Big Easy has always played these links well, finishing tied for second in 1996 here behind Tom Lehman and finishing tied for third here in 2001 behind David Duval.
During Round 1, Els was a nonfactor at 1 over after six holes. But he made five birdies in the next 12 holes, including one on 18.
“It’s all about confidence,” Els said Thursday. “It’s starting to grow a little bit on me. So today was a big day.”
Then there is Woods, the man everyone in golf is looking at even if they don’t want to admit it.
Woods calmly hit his approach on the par-3 opening hole to 12 feet and rolled in the birdie to get the party started Thursday morning. Birdies on Nos. 4, 6 and 7 gave him a spiffy 30 on the opening nine holes and anyone still wondering if Woods was “back” knew the answer. A lone bogey on 15 dropped him to 3 under, but 67 eerily is the same opening-round score Woods shot in British victories in 2000 at the Old Course and in 2006 at Hoylake.
“I felt like I had pretty good control,” Woods said. “I was shaping the golf ball both ways. Sometimes I rode the wind, sometimes I held it against it. I was playing to my spots. I had certain sections I wanted to put the ball in, and I did that all day.”
Watson said he’d shelve “Bubba Golf” for the week but calm, windless conditions allowed him to shape more shots than he thought he would. McDowell dusted off U.S. Open disappointment last month and made six birdies in his round. It appeared that McIlroy would get the bad end of the draw in the afternoon but weather stayed fairly consistent and he birdied two of the last three holes to announce his presence.
You get the point.
Anyone worried that this Open Championship won’t provide a moment to remember need not worry. Duds don’t win Open Championships here, studs do. Feel comfort in looking at past champions like Bobby Jones, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros, and know that Royal Lytham & St. Annes will produce an epic result.
She may not always get the respect she deserves, but she always delivers.