The British Open opened with decent weather and a few early birdies Thursday despite the hundreds of bunkers and brutally thick rough at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
After a rainy spring and summer, even by the standards of this water-logged nation, the 141st edition of golf’s oldest major championship began with a hint of the sun trying to crack through the low-hanging clouds. A light rain shortly after dawn gave way to dry weather that was expected to last through the weekend. There was hardly any the breeze blowing in off the nearby Irish Sea, the flags atop the 18th grandstand barely rippling.
The last guy to qualify for the tournament, India’s Jeev Milkha Singh, was among the early leaders with a 2-under 32 at the turn, beginning his round with a 25-foot birdie putt at the par-3 opening hole. He earned his spot at Royal Lytham & St. Annes by winning the Scottish Open last weekend.
England’s Barry Lane hit the opening tee shot, while unheralded American James Driscoll, playing this major for only the second time, made an early splash by rolling in a 50-foot birdie putt across the first green.
But Lytham bit back big time.
Before he was done with the front nine, Driscoll had two double-bogeys on his card, along with a triple-bogey 8 on the seventh. He headed to the back side with an ugly 9-over 43, essentially out of contention before most of the 156-player field was even on the course.
Accuracy off the tee was at premium on a layout that featured 206 bunkers, more than any other club in the Open rotation. Also, the persistent rain left the rough even thicker than usual, which should keep the spotters busy looking for balls.
Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood, among those favoured to contend, were among the early starters. So was 2011 winner Darren Clarke, who began defence of his title with a tee shot to 10 feet, but missed the birdie attempt.
Luke Donald, the world’s top-ranked player but never much of a threat in the majors, joined Rory McIlroy in the afternoon side of the draw.
The key to this British Open was to get off to a good start not just on Thursday, but on every hole.
“The easy part is around the greens,” 2003 Open champion Ben Curtis said. “The hard part is off the tee.”
Royal Lytham is the shortest course on the Open rotation over the last decade, and it’s on the smallest piece of property, tucked a mile or so away from the ocean and surrounded by homes and a railway.
The powerful hitters can hit over the bunkers, as long as they avoid the next set of traps. But it’s not so simple to think that players can hit well short of the bunkers for a longer shot into the green, because they might not be able to reach the green.
“It’s a tee-shot golf course,” Graeme McDowell said, who grew up on Royal Portrush and knows a thing or two about links golf. “You’ve got to position yourself off the tee to give yourself a chance. You’ve got to keep it out of the bunkers. It’s a good test. I don’t think you can hide on this golf course.”
The defence of any links course is pot bunkers and the wind. Woods famously won his first claret jug at St. Andrews in 2000 by going the entire week without hitting into a bunker. But there’s something different about Royal Lytham that can make it look particularly daunting. Accuracy is important. So is the right distance.
This is a green Open, and it’s not about the environment. Links golf is notoriously fast and tough in dry conditions that bake the grass, such as St. Andrews in 2000 and Royal Liverpool in 2006, both won by Woods. It was at Liverpool where Woods only hit one driver the entire week on the 16th hole of the first round, and it went into the 17th fairway on his way to a two-shot win.
Woods most likely won’t leave that Tiger head cover on his driver all week at Lytham. The par 5s at Liverpool were much shorter, and the turf was so brittle that Woods was hitting 3—iron some 300 yards. He didn’t need a driver there.
The list of Open champions at Royal Lytham is impressive David Duval and Tom Lehman, both formerly No. 1 in the world, won the last two times. The rest of the winners showcased in the brick clubhouse are in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Then again, trying to figure out the next winner isn’t that simple.
Next to the 206 bunkers, the number getting the most attention at this major is 15 the number of players who have won the last 15 majors. An even greater sign of parity is that the last nine major champions had never won a major before.
The streak could go to 16 if the betting favorite Woods were to win his fourth claret jug and get back on track in his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 majors. Or the 16th different major champion could be No. 1 or No. 3 in the world ranking. Those guys would be Donald and Westwood, both from England playing on home soil, both trying to capture their first major title.