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Remembering the Winds of Royal Lytham

By John M. Ross,
Royal Lytham
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Royal Lytham and St. Annes has played host to some great great Open Championship memories. (.)

American golfers are seldom overjoyed at the prospect of playing the British Open, and the reason is quite simple. It is a one-of-a-kind test that presents conditions and challenges they don't face elsewhere, and, all too often, there isn't ample time to prepare for the radical switch.

The wind is a huge factor, of course. And in the British Isles it is devilish and tormenting, necessitating a different type of game and different strategy.

"Over here we play an air game with a lot of emphasis on distance and lofted shots," is the way one of our fellows puts it. "Over there, it's a ground game, bump and run shots. And God help you if you get in the bunkers." (There are 200.)

Royal Lytham and St. Annes, the site for this week's (July 16-22) combat for the oldest and most treasured championship in the game, has not been very hospitable to visiting Americans. Over the span of 75 years, the Open has been played there nine times and the Yanks have been able to solve its challenges only twice. The inimitable Bobby Jones won the first one in 1926, and Tom Lehman the last, five years ago.

In sizing up U.S. chances this year, British handicappers were quick to point out that Tiger Woods won the silver medal there in 1996, when he was the Low Amateur in the British Amateur, putting up a sizzling 66 in the third round. And, of course, he is the defending champion, thanks to his record-breaking onslaught on the sacred grounds of St. Andrews. His 19-under score there was the lowest ever recorded in a major championship.

Located near Blackpool, England's largest northwestern resort area on the Irish Sea, Royal Lytham is considered by the Brits as a links. Actually, it is not on the water, but a mile or two inland, and it has little of the seaside beauty that identifies other tracts of English links land. Indeed, there are some who call Royal Lytham "strange," because it has railroad tracks running along the outer edge of one side and unattractive architecture on the other. I've been there for the Open twice over the years, and while I haven't come away with a longing to return, memories of the championship itself likely will last forever.

And so will those of the weather, midsummer weather that sometimes demanded two sweaters at the height of the afternoon.

My first visit was 1974, the year the Royal and Ancient decreed that only the larger American ball (1.66 inches) could be used in the Open. Prior to that, both the British ball (1.62 inches) and the American ball had been used for many years. Most players believed the smaller ball was easier to maneuver in the wind and had a longer carry. The larger ball was easier to chip and pitch because it sat up a little higher in the grass, and some thought it held the line better on the green. Although the change was somewhat radical, it was accepted with only a minimum of complaint.

The bookmakers had put the all-star American contingent of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf and young Johnny Miller high on the list of favorites, but it was Gary Player who grabbed the spotlight from the start.

Using his long experience with the big ball to cope with the 30-mph winds, the little South African jumped into the lead at the outset and improved on it as he moved along.

"Wind is part of the British Open," he'd tell the press. "It is an examination, and it took me a long time to pass the examination."

The final round was packed with drama. Player had a comfortable three-shot lead, but as he neared the finish line, his second shot on the 17th disappeared into a mass of two-foot high damp grass. When a quick look produced nothing, Gary took off his watch to keep track of time. He had five minutes to find the ball or hit another and take a penalty.

He and his caddie, Rabbit Dyer, an African-American from the States, searched frantically and soon were joined by some fans. A five or seven on the hole was not a distinct possibility but, just as time was running out, the ball was found. He hurriedly hacked it out of the tall stuff, but it went only about four yards, and the pressure mounted. Now he reached back for that little extra that marked him as one of the game's best finishers, and he chipped it to within five feet and made the putt. The bogey-five was a blessing.

But it was only a brief reprieve. On the final 18th, a little arm-weary now, Player's drive was in the heavy weeds again. He reached the green with his second, but he had to hit it so hard the ball went right through the green until it stopped at the sidewalk of the old clubhouse. And now he had another problem.

The wall prevented him from taking his right-handed swing, and Gary paused to ponder the situation. A chorus of unsolicited advice came from the balcony and windows above him, which were jammed with patrons of the clubhouse taproom. Obviously sloshed after a long afternoon of watching the action through the bottom of a bar glass, they took great glee in barking out their 90-proof tips to Gary in his precarious situation. Disturbed by the ruckus, Player turned to his caddie.

"Rabbit, can we win from here?" he asked.

"Mr. Garry, Ray Charles (the blind singer, popular at the time) could win from here!" he responded.

Rather than declare it an unplayable lie and take a penalty (the clubhouse being a part of the course), Player elected to use his putter left-handed.

He managed to send it on its long journey and somehow get it to within ten feet of the cup. He came out of it with a safe bogey. And as he walked off the green with his third British Open, the crowd gave him an ovation that could have shaken the nearby trees to their very roots.

"You take a roar like that to your grave," Player would observe later in an emotional reflection.

My return to Royal Lytham in 1979 produced a similar scenario that zeroed-in on the last few holes. This time it was Seve Ballesteros, the dashing Spaniard, who at 22 was bidding to become the youngest champion since young Tom Morris won the title almost a century earlier. Player also was only 22 when he won in 1959, but Seve would have him by five months.

Thanks to an incredible second-round 65, the young caballero had been at the head of the pack early, but the treacherous winds had made it an exciting journey. He hit only a handful of fairways in the late rounds, and every time he looked over his shoulder, he saw Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw in hot pursuit. But he held on to his lead, causing a resident member to observe: "That's how it is at the Royal Lytham. The fellow who plays his worst shots the best generally wins."

Seve's performance at the 16th underscored that. He had a two-shot lead at that point, and common prudence would have called for a play-safe mode the rest of the way. Seve didn't think that way, and now he pulled out his driver again. It was a big hit, but it landed in a small official parking lot about 60 yards from the green among the cars. He was allowed a free drop, but the surface had been beaten down by traffic and was now almost as hard as a paved area.

Seve wasn't the least bit shaken by this. He promptly stepped up and pitched the ball over a nest of bunkers to within 18 feet of the pin. It was a thing of beauty. He lifted the ball off that hard pan as if it had been teed up, and it reminded me somewhat of Jerry Pate's shot from the rough on the 18th in Atlanta to win the 1976 U.S. Open.

When Seve canned the unconventional 18-foot birdie putt, it virtually wrapped up the championship, since both Nicklaus and Crenshaw failed to muster a challenge over the last holes.

While many were limp from living through Seve's trials and tribulations over the final stretch, the young Spaniard simply walked off the 18th quietly, wearing a polite smile. There was no jumping up and down, no gestures with the fist, no shouts. It was as if he had just finished a walk in the park.

Memories of Royal Lytham.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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