Tait: Royal Lytham simply gets the job done

The par-4 18th hole, measuring 410 yards, at Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club.

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England - If the main job of Open Championship courses is to identify major champions, then give Royal Lytham & St. Annes an A-plus.

Its roll of honor stands beside any other Open Championship venue, although you probably wouldn’t think of it first.

Royal Lytham’s list of Open winners: Bobby Jones (1926), Bobby Locke (’52), Peter Thomson (’58), Bob Charles (’63), Tony Jacklin (’69), Gary Player (1974), Seve Ballesteros (1979, ’88), Tom Lehman (’96) and David Duval (2001). No duff champions in that group.

Yet the view from Lytham’s first tee doesn’t scream quality. A railway line borders the course on the outward nine. Local Lytham businesses sit hard against the ninth green and 10th tee at the south end of the course, and houses frame the other two sides. You could mistakenly think that you’ve arrived at some pumped-up muni. For aesthetic qualities, Lytham is at the bottom of the list.

Turnberry, it isn’t.

“There’s more to Lytham than meets the eye,” two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington said. “It’s a surprisingly big golf course.”

Eddie Birchenough retires after this year’s Open Championship after 26 years as Lytham’s club professional. He has grown accustomed to people changing their initial impressions quite quickly.

“The buildings around us take the wildness away,” Birchenough said. “It’s not like Turnberry, where you stand on the fourth tee and realize how wild the place is. People take it for granted. Then they come off the golf course after one round and their opinion has changed dramatically.”

Lytham’s place in the Open Championship rota was sealed from the moment Jones won there in 1926. A plaque to the left of the 17th fairway commemorates Jones’ 5-iron from a fairway bunker. He found the green, made par and went on to defeat Al Watrous.

It was the first of many great Open Championship shots at Lytham.

“It’s a fair examination of all parts of a golfer’s game,” Birchenough said. “You have to do everything well, not just one thing.”

Ballesteros’ two victories at the Lancashire course only enhanced Lytham’s reputation, especially his first, in 1979. He was dubbed the “car park champion” after he birdied the par-4 16th from a temporary car park. Birchenough believes those two triumphs were no mere coincidence.

“Seve was an artist,” he said, “and you need artistry to play this course.”

Paul McGinley tied for 14th at the 1996 Open Championship, and he was third at the Lytham Trophy as an amateur.

“I’m disappointed I’m not playing this year because I love the course,” McGinley said. “You’ve got to drive the ball really well and stay out of the bunkers.”

Harrington agrees. “It’s a golf course that requires a lot of big hits. You’ve got to open up the shoulders and move it out there. . . . You want to get it in the air at Lytham.”

Longtime amateur Gary Wolstenholme, now on the European Senior Tour, played Royal Lytham many times in the Lytham Trophy. He says the key to playing well is to start strong and finish steady.

“Conventional wisdom says you make your score on the way out at Royal Lytham and hang on to it on the way back, because you don’t get much from the last five holes,” Wolstenholme said.

That adage still holds true, despite changes to toughen the second and third holes. Former European Tour pro Paul Eales served as assistant professional at Royal Lytham for three-plus years (1987-1990) and had an attachment with the club until 2005.

“The first three holes, in particular, you have to have your wits about you, but generally the prevailing wind is behind you,” Eales said. “The course has a soft middle where you can make a score, but no one should expect to go low over the last five. They are extremely hard.”

The prevailing wind is generally from the northwest and helps all the way to the ninth green. However, competitors received just the opposite at last year’s Lytham Trophy. Winds of 25 to 30 mph blew from the southeast, creating carnage over the front nine.

England’s Jack Senior won with rounds of 71-82-72-74 for a 19-over 299, one of the highest-scoring Lytham Trophy tournaments ever. No player bettered par in any round, and only one managed to return a level-par 70. Only 12 players in the 141-man field avoided a score in the 80s.

Anyone who turns up at Royal Lytham and thinks “ordinary” is in for a shock.

Said McGinley: “You don’t stand on the first tee and think, ‘Wow’ . . . But once you get out there, you realize why it’s a great Open course.”

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