Monday, July 16, 2012
Expect the unexpected as Open returns to Lytham
By Tom Pilcher
LYTHAM ST ANNES (Reuters) - From American Bobby Jones paying to play his fourth round before winning in 1926 to Seve Ballesteros's 'Car Park Champion' shot in 1979, British Opens at Royal Lytham & St Annes have always been eventful.
The Lancashire links course is primed to host its 11th Open from July 19-22 and 14-times major winner Tiger Woods will want to add his name to a list of illustrious past Lytham champions.
Fellow American Jones, the only player to win all four majors in a year (1930), famously lifted the Claret Jug on its first visit to Lytham in 1926.
Jones forgot his competitor's ticket and was not recognised despite being second in the tournament after three rounds, but calmly paid an entrance fee before claiming the first of his three Opens.
When Lytham's turn next came around 26 years later South African Bobby Locke won the third of his four Opens and Australian five-time Open champion Peter Thomson clinched the 1958 title.
The omens get even better for Woods, seeking a fourth Open victory after wins at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005 and at Hoylake in 2006 when only once in 72 holes did he take a driver off the tee, hitting iron after iron into primary position.
Similarly prolific Open champions in South African Gary Player, who lifted the Claret Jug for a third and final time in 1974 and Spain's Ballesteros, winner at Lytham in 1979 and 1988, highlight the calibre of past champions.
Woods, without a major triumph since his 2008 U.S. Open playoff victory, is itching to get back into the winner's circle having chalked up three PGA Tour titles in 2012.
Lytham's 206 bunkers gobble up almost everything off-line and are best avoided, something Woods managed en-route to his first Open victory at the Old Course where not once did he find sand.
"I'll bring my 5-wood and 2-iron and decide which club to carry once I get there and feel out the conditions," Woods wrote in his pre-tournament blog.
"You can have so many different conditions. You just don't know. That's one of the unique things about the British Open and why it's my favourite major championship."
For the 36-year-old world number four, however, the clock is ticking and he has an army of young pretenders, major-hungry class acts and seasoned old pros waiting to pounce.
PLAY, PLAY, PLAY
Crowds and expectation follow world number two Rory McIlroy everywhere he goes and the Northern Irishman will want to put on a better show than at last year's Open which he described as "not my sort of golf."
McIlroy still finished tied for 25th but confessed the wind and rain had got to him and the 23-year-old is determined to make amends.
"I'm going to embrace it and just camp out there and play, play, play," said the 2011 U.S. Open winner.
After finishing in the top-five regularly at the start of the season and becoming world number one in March, McIlroy's form since a disappointing Masters has dipped with four missed cuts in seven tournaments.
Hard work with coach Michael Bannon and a top-10 at the Irish Open, however have left McIlroy ready for an assault on Lytham.
"My game feels back where it was. I'm excited about Lytham."
McIlroy will hope to follow in the footsteps of defending Open champion Darren Clarke after the 43-year-old's emotional victory 12 months ago.
Clarke, who lost his wife Heather to cancer in 2006, finished tied third when the Open was last held at Lytham in 2001 and showed his links prowess at Sandwich in high winds, skills which will be required this week.
Also in the hunt should be Englishmen Luke Donald, the world number one who finished tied-16th on Sunday in the Scottish Open and third-ranked Lee Westwood who, like Donald, is desperate for a first major triumph.
Westwood hurt his leg as he slid out of contention in the French Open third round this month but has dismissed any fears he would miss the Open.
The 39-year-old has two top-three finishes in his last three Open appearances and will want to improve on last year's missed cut.
The bad news for the British hopefuls is that the Gods have smiled on Americans at the last two Lytham Opens.
Tom Lehmann prevailed in 1996 and David Duval in 2001 and few would rule out four-times major winner Phil Mickelson from going one better than his second place in 2011.
The free-swinging Ryder Cup player found his form in rounds two and three at the Scottish Open before a two-over-par final 18 holes for a share of 16th with Donald.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)