Conquering Lytham

The gauntlet has been thrown down to the 156 golfers whose ambition today is to become British Open champion at Royal Lytham & St Annes on Sunday evening — play it straight or you are in trouble.

As the jet stream that has hammered Britain and Ireland this summer was forecast to dump rain on the already sodden links on England’s north-west coast until 4am, championship officials admitted to concerns about “half a dozen” of the course’s 206 bunkers but were unapologetic about the thickness of the rough that threatens to consume any errant strokes.

“The course is at the moment perfectly playable,” R&A Championship Committee chairman Jim McArthur said yesterday.

“Obviously the weather has caused us some problems, and perhaps some more to come.

“The greens are fine. They’re putting well. The trueness and the smoothness are good. They’re a bit soft and a bit slower than we’d probably like at this stage of the championship. There are some bunkers which are causing us some concern because of the water table and the level of the groundwater, but we’re confident that the Rules of Golf, which are available, will help us cope with any situations which develop there.”

Preferred lies and lift, clean and place, McArthur added, “will be a last resort for us”.

As for the very thick rough, areas of which tournament favourite Tiger Woods deemed “unplayable” earlier this week, R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said: “The champion on Sunday I doubt will have won from the rough.

“I think he’ll be winning from the short grass, so there’s a premium on hitting fairways this week, obviously. But if you stray a long way off the fairways, and the fairways are reasonably generous... if you stray a long way off, then you’re going to be penalised.”

No wonder Woods was concerned. His remodelled swing may have delivered three regular tournament wins this year but it has not stood up the challenge of major consistency, nor has the 14-time major winner played a genuine links course since the 2010 Open at St Andrews. His last major victory came in at the 2008 US Open but it’s 2006 since his last British Open title.

On a course riddled with bunkers and skirted by thick rough, accuracy will be a premium and a more realistic American challenge could come from 23-year-old Rickie Fowler. Yet only one of last five British Open champions has been an American, Stewart Cink in 2009 at Turnberry, and the Europeans exposure to this course as amateurs via the Lytham Trophy, perhaps we should be looking closer to home.

There are at least three live contenders from Ireland, with world number two Rory McIlroy looking remarkably relaxed a year on from the self-described “madness” that greeted him when he landed as the newly-minted US Open champion at Royal St George’s.

Gone too are the nagging doubts about form that gave him mid-season blues. If McIlroy’s ball-striking is back to its best, then his ambition to move from a one-hit wonder to multiple major winner could well be realised.

Graeme McDowell, too, is in good form following his runner-up US Open finish at Olympic last month and declared Lytham his favourite Open venue, while Harrington looks well worth his return to the business end of the bookmakers’ odds lists.

However, Clarke’s ambitions as defending champion may be less adventurous.. The player who won hearts at Sandwich last year is short of form but returning the Claret Jug that brought so much expectation could ease the pressure.

There could well be a silver medal to go with the Claret Jug if Portrush’s British Amateur champion Alan Dunbar outlasts Austria’s Manuel Trappel to become top amateur while fellow Irishman Michael Hoey returns to the majors for the first time since his 2001 Open debut at Lytham.

If it is not to be a fourth Irish victory in six years, then perhaps an Englishman could win an Open on English soil. No-one since Tony Jacklin here in 1969 has managed that, although Nick Faldo won his last Claret Jug 20 years ago at Muirfield in Scotland.

The major monkey has been on Lee Westwood’s back for so long now it defies logic, given his form, and perhaps Lytham is the place that best suits him, so good is his play from tee to green. The same could be said of world number one Luke Donald although both need to start better today than in recent majors.

Given that the last 15 majors have been won by 15 different players, picking a winner is a mug’s game. After all, which of us pondered Darren Clarke a year ago?

Yet the conditions defining this course suggest an experienced links player will win and the run of first-time major winners will come to an end. Sunday’s champion could come from anywhere.

Anywhere in Ireland will do.

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