LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — It’s rare to see Tiger Woods hit iron off the tee on a par 5, except in links golf, and especially at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
With a stiff breeze in his face on the 598-yard 11th hole, he most likely could not reach the green in two. The idea was to be able to get there in three shots, which meant staying out of trouble off the tee. His low bullet of a shot stopped 10 paces short of feeding into a pot bunker. If the shot had gone much longer, Woods might have had to blast out sideways, and still had some 300 yards left to the green.
The key to this British Open is to get off to a good start — not just on Thursday, but on every hole.
“At most PGA Tour events, the shorter the shot, the more important it is,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “This one, the longer the shot the more important it is.”
The tired adage of “drive for show, putt for dough” doesn’t necessarily apply at Lytham.
“The easy part is around the greens,” 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 Irish Sea and surrounded by homes and a railway. The challenge comes from 206 bunkers, and thick grass from a wet spring that should keep the spotters busy looking for balls.
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. “The second shots are not particularly taxing. There’s not a lot of trouble around the greens. There are bunkers, but not a lot of heavy rough. 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 defense 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.
“You get very cautious off the tee,” Ogilvy said. “It’s not like St. Andrews, where you can go away from the bunkers, hit the middle of the green and two-putt from 60 feet all day. Here, you’ve got to take them on. There’s a distance requirement, as well as a line requirement, so it’s a two-dimensional drive. And if it were yellow, it would be three-dimensional.”
By yellow, Ogilvy was referring to the color of the grass.
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.
“Got to hit probably a few more 3-woods and drivers here than I did then,” he said. “The bunkers are staggered differently here. You can’t just either lay it up or bomb it over the top. There has to be some shape to shots. I think that’s one of the reasons why you’ve seen the list of champions here have all been just wonderful ball strikers, because you have to be able to shape the golf ball both ways.”
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 Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, both from England playing on home soil, both trying to capture their first major title.
Along with the hazards are the elements, which tend to play a big role in links golf. This week, the forecast has been a mystery.
Carl Pettersson wasn’t planning to come to the course on Wednesday because the forecast was for an 80 percent chance of heavy rain. This was supposed to be the worst of the bad weather. He showed up wearing sunglasses.
The Royal & Ancient puts out an update three times a day on the weather, and the only thing that can be trusted is the small print at the bottom: “This forecast may be amended at any time.” Don’t hold your breath, but rain is supposed to clear overnight and leave mostly dry conditions until some clouds arrive on Sunday.
Then again, the rain already has left its mark with incredibly thick rough some 10 yards off the fairway.
“We always say with the rough, we leave it to nature,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. “And nature this year has given us the thick stuff.”
One player not getting much attention this week is Rory McIlroy, who went from the high of reaching No. 1 earlier this year to missing three straight cuts. At 23, this will be his first Open at Lytham, yet he played more than a dozen times on this course during his amateur days.
He is aggressive by nature, but McIlroy sounds like he knows where to pick his spots.
“You’re going to have to be very smart off the tees here and just sort of plot your way around, just to navigate your way through all these fairway bunkers,” McIlroy said. “If you can do that — put your ball in the fairway — you do have chances to be aggressive going into some of the greens.
“As I said, the whole key this week will just be trying to drive it on the fairway.”