LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — The most valuable slip of paper found at any British Open is not a list of the odds. It’s the forecast.
Neither of them can be trusted.
Pot bunkers that are staggered down the fairway and surround the green were all the talk Tuesday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and no doubt they will play a critical role in deciding who has his name engraved on the claret jug. Because of a wet spring — really wet — the native grass covering the dunes and hillocks is so thick and deep that any ball going that far off line could be lost forever.
No matter which links course golf’s oldest championship is played on, however, weather is as significant as a burn, a bunker or even an out-of-bounds stake. This is the only major remaining with a full field that does not send half the players off on the first tee and the other half on the 10th tee. Barry Lane will get the Open started on Thursday at 6:19 a.m. Ashley Hall will be the last to tee off at 4:11 p.m.
Now, consider the weather on Britain’s seaside links can change in a New York minute.
“Being on the right side of the draw always plays a part in the Open Championship,” Darren Clarke said. “You get good sides, bad sides. That’s part of the Open Championship. The scoring can differ massively because of these weather conditions. But that’s part and parcel of the Open Championship. Thankfully, I got a good one last year.”
Clarke wound up winning at Royal St. George’s, and Saturday was the key.
He was dressed in full rain gear, all black, when he walked onto the first tee with a share of the 36-hole lead. When he walked up to the 18th green, he was wearing short sleeves and blinked in the bright sunshine of late afternoon. The morning group faced raging wind and rain. They had no chance to make up ground.
It was quite the opposite on a Saturday at Muirfield in 2002.
Steve Elkington made the cut on the number and wound up in a four-way playoff, helped in part by playing Saturday morning in pleasant conditions. Justin Leonard went from a tie for 50th to a tie for third by playing before the 30 mph gusts and bone-chilling rain arrived. Tiger Woods? He wasn’t so fortunate. Going for the third leg of the Grand Slam that year, he had a career-high 81.
“I was on the first tee when that stormed rolled in, Tiger Woods a group or two behind me,” Clarke said. “That was a tough one.”
The forecast for the week? Seems like it changes every day.
Woods put great detail into his practice round Sunday, his first time at Lytham in 11 years, fearful that the rest of the practice rounds would be washed out and that would be his best chances. He wound up playing the next two mornings, and the umbrella never came out of the bag.
Lee Westwood felt like a genius Monday afternoon when he and Luke Donald decided to go out for a practice round in the rain. Well before they finished, the sun was out, the breeze was gentle, and it was ideal.
“It was one of the best Open Championship practices I ever had,” Westwood said.
The latest forecast — hold your umbrellas — is for rain on Wednesday, ending sometime Thursday morning, followed by something called a “dry spell” that could last into the weekend, accompanied by gusts anywhere from 15 mph to 25 mph, more or less.
Rory McIlroy was the heir apparent in golf last year at Royal St. George’s, lost his way in the wind and rain and then stunned British writers, who found out that the kid from Northern Ireland prefers sunny and calm weather. He did join the PGA Tour this year and lives part of the year in Florida.
He also learned from his mistakes, which in this case was his attitude.
“Those comments were just pure frustration, having really high expectations going into it, coming off a major win, really wanting to play well, get into contention and not doing that,” McIlroy said. “And blaming the weather, blaming the draw, blaming my luck, basically.”
No other major championship requires more luck than the British Open, though that’s been the case since it was first played at Prestwick in 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for U.S. president. It’s links golf. There are funny bounces on the ground. Some golf balls bounce to the right and go into a pot bunker, some bounce to the left and wind up close to the pin.
It can be just as mysterious in the air.
Geoff Ogilvy recalls seeing McIlroy coming up the 18th at St. Andrews two years ago with a chance to break the major championship record of 63. He had to settle for par in such easy scoring conditions that it still only gave him a two-shot lead. That was among early starters, of course.
“By the time I got to the third hole, it was blowing 30,” Ogilvy said.
Payback came the next day, when the wind blew so hard in the afternoon that play was stopped because golf balls were moving on the putting greens. McIlroy shot 80. Louis Oosthuizen was early enough Thursday afternoon to miss some of the nasty stuff, and super early Friday morning to again dodge the worst of it. He won by seven shots.
Most of the time in America, especially in the summer, the hope is to play in the morning before the wind arrives, or the threat of thunderstorms. In Britain, anything goes. Not until Thursday — and perhaps Friday, Saturday and Sunday — will players get a sense of whether they got the good end of the draw.
Not everyone has to face the bad weather, if there even is any. But everyone has to face it.
And that might be the secret.
Ogilvy has missed his last five cuts in the Open, which he attributes to bad play some years, and a bad draw in other years. Royal Birkdale, for example, served up wind and rain so brutal Thursday morning in 2008 that Sandy Lyle and Rich Beem walked off the course. Ogilvy was right in the middle of it. He opened with a 77 and was on his way to missing the cut. He left Birkdale feeling as though he were the victim of another bad draw.
Except for one thing.
“Padraig Harrington played in the group behind me,” Ogilvy said. “And he won the tournament.”