LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – If history holds at Royal Lytham & St. Annes it will be a ball-striker who wins this week’s Open Championship, a short-game wizard, a driver, a putter, a proven commodity, an up-and-comer.
In short, there is no short list of contenders for the 141st Open, nor short answers, although if the dialogue so far is any indication it seems plausible that something surreal is in the making.
On consecutive days, Lee Westwood was asked about his “groin” (injury), Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews chief Peter Dawson was grilled as to the number of “bunker rakers” on hand for the year’s third major and one car park was deemed “unplayable” by scribes because of, well . . . standing water.
Such is the scrutiny at the game’s oldest member-member, and all this before the first meaningful shot is sent into the grey, damp skies.
As for who will round the ancient links in the fewest strokes depends on who you ask. Tiger Woods – who begins a potentially eventful week vying for his 15th major championship, fourth claret jug and, at least mathematically, the world’s top ranking – figures Lytham for a ball-striker’s ballpark. Think Royal Liverpool with greener grass circa 2006.
“The list of champions here have all been just wonderful ball-strikers because you have to be able to shape the golf ball both ways here, you can’t just hit it one way,” Woods said.
Woods’ “Exhibit A” includes David Duval, who won the Open the last time it was played at Lytham (2001) with perhaps the best driver in the game at the time, Bobby Jones (1926) and Gary Player (1974).
A few hours later, Luke Donald sat in the same chair and explained why he likes his chances despite a driver that, relative to his position as the world No. 1, can be considered on the balky side of brilliant.
“Seve (Ballesteros, a two-time Open winner at Lytham) was known as someone that would hit it wild off the tee and use his short game to get out of trouble,” said Donald, who missed the cut at last month’s U.S. Open. “No matter where he was he felt like he could hole a shot. I’ve got to go into this tournament with that kind of fun attitude, that no matter how I’m hitting it there’s always a way to make a score.”
And if Donald’s take sounds more like rationalizing than reality, consider that when Ballesteros won the Open in 1979 he hit his driver nine times in the final round, found just one fairway and was 14-for-15 in par saves from bunkers for the week.
Speaking of which, Lytham’s 205 bunkers are every bit the hazard officials had hoped they would be, a truth compounded by steady rain this week which has left standing water in some of the pitted caverns, and the rough is what one would expect from an English summer – that is to say gnarly and deep.
But if anyone enjoys the clarity of an unbiased mind it is Westwood, the 39-year-old Englishman who, whether he likes it or not, has assumed the title as the “best player without a major.”
When it was suggested on Tuesday that Westwood would be a solid pick this week because of his ball-striking prowess he bristled: “If that's what it takes to win around here. People have said that the previous winners have all got a great short game,” he smiled. “And apparently I haven't got much of a short game.”
If the tenor of the conversation seems a tad divergent it is by design. Perhaps more so than any other Open rota venue, Lytham is open to dramatically varied interpretations – one man’s walk in the park is another’s forced march.
Lytham defies definition beyond what can be gleaned from its list of champions, from the machine-like Duval to the magician that was Ballesteros the only connecting thread is each player’s status before, and after, his Lytham Open.
In simplest terms, there are no one-off champions. With respect to each winner’s career, a victory at Lytham seems to demand a complete resume regardless of strengths and weaknesses. It is a testament to the seaside linksland that the normal lament that major championship golf has been reduced to a putting contest is largely silenced here along the Irish Sea.
“Most PGA Tour events are decided by the shortest shots (putting); this is the longer the shot the more important it is,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “You’ve got no chance if you’re missing fairways. There’s plenty of space out there, you just have to hit quality shots.”
Perhaps Lytham eschews simple clarification, a no-frills field that favors neither ball-striker (Woods and Westwood) nor plodder (Donald).
It’s a reality supported by the United Kingdom’s ubiquitous betting houses. On the eve of the championship, Woods remained the favorite but his odds had dropped to 10 to 1 despite a run that includes three victories in his last eight Tour starts.
Westwood, Rory McIlroy – undone last year at Royal St. George’s by bad weather – and Donald trail Woods closely in the odds, but if Lytham proves as adept at identifying both pedigree and potential as it has been in the past the list of possible winners is as varied as the types of games that play well on the English gem.
Who will win? A ball-striker, a short-game wizard, a driver, a putter, a proven commodity, an up-and-comer.