Saturday 20 January 2018

Driving holds key to unlocking Lytham

Dermot Gilleece

Lancashire's storied links has cranked up its defences for this year's Open.

A potentially fearsome links with the curious distinction of having no view of the sea is the setting this week for the 141st Open Championship. And with impeccable timing, Pádraig Harrington will head to Royal Lytham as a stand-out nominee for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame next year.

In a field headed by Tiger Woods, six Irish challengers provide a sharp reflection of the current golfing hierarchy in Ireland. As the lone representative from the Republic, Harrington is joined by Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Michael Hoey and Alan Dunbar -- Ulstermen all.

With the qualifying process virtually complete, the only way this grouping can be extended is by an Irishman becoming the leading non-exempt finisher in the top-five and ties of the Scottish Open, later today.

Interestingly, it will be Hoey's first Open since he played at Royal Lytham as the reigning British Amateur champion of 2001 and missed the cut. And 11 years on, Dunbar fills precisely the same role, having captured the Amateur title at Royal Troon last month.

Harrington can take considerable pride in the official announcement that he has been added to the so-called International or non-American ballot for induction to the Hall of Fame in 2013, while David Duval and Steve Stricker complete the list of PGA Tour candidates. Given that his rivals are Clarke, Max Faulkner (England), Retief Goosen (South Africa), Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spain), Graham Marsh (Australia), Colin Montgomerie (Scotland), Norman Von Nida (Australia) and Ian Woosnam (Wales), the Dubliner is clearly the most qualified in terms of Major wins.

After capturing the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, Harrington's 2008 victories in the Open at Royal Birkdale and the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, swept him over the required threshold of 50 points. And he met the other criterion by passing his 40th birthday last August. Goosen, with two US Open titles, comes closest to him in Major victories.

Meanwhile, Ireland has a rich history of Open endeavour at Lytham, dating back to 1952 when Fred Daly, in the company of Gene Sarazen, finished third behind Bobby Locke after being undone by a poor second to the 15th hole, his 69th. Six years later, a bunkered drive on the 72nd deprived Christy O'Connor of a play-off place with Dave Thomas and the eventual winner, Peter Thomson. O'Connor also made an impact in 1969, when a course-record second round of 65 led to a fifth-place finish behind Tony Jacklin.

Paul McGinley equalled O'Connor's record in a memorable second round in 1996, when the eventual winner, Tom Lehman, lowered the target on firm, fiery terrain, with a third-round 64.

"I remember starting the round with a four-iron to 15 feet for a birdie at the first," recalled McGinley who has failed to qualify on this occasion. "The next shots that come to mind are a seven-iron approach and an eight-foot putt for a birdie on the eighth. And I couldn't forget the next (164-yard ninth), where my seven-iron tee-shot bounced twice and then ran a few yards before popping in for a hole-in-one." All of which left him tied for the lead with Lehman at the halfway stage.

Clarke, who is now the defending champion, was the leading Irishman on that occasion in a share of 11th place. But he has other reasons for remembering Lytham. "As an 11-year-old who had just taken up the game, I remember seeing Seve (Ballesteros) on TV, playing his famous shot out of the car-park by the 16th on the way to victory in the 1979 Open," he said. Then, of course, there was his own splendid effort in 2001, when he finished third behind Duval.

When Ballesteros won again at Lytham in 1988, his choice of clubs off the tee at driving holes ranged from a four-iron to the driver. This is a measure of the challenge which is posed by rough, which is certain to be extremely lush and clingy after all the recent rain, quite apart from the intensive bunkering of which the latest count is 206.

Those enthusiastic proponents of Royal Portrush as a future Open venue, might note that this is around four times the number of bunkers on the Dunluce links, where the defence of the greens is left to natural hills, mounds and hollows. This, against a background of both courses being quite similar in length, while Lytham, at 7,086 yards, now has a reduced par of 70.

Numerous though they may be, Lytham's bunkers are genuine hazards, as the usually straight-hitting Jim Furyk discovered when running up a 10 on the long 11th in 2001. Having taken on the cavernous bunker at driving distance on the left, he barely cleared it, leaving him with an unplayable lie on the side of a bank. Then, after a penalty-drop, he proceeded to hit a five-iron into a small bunker further up the left. In an attempted escape, the ball hit the face of the trap, bounced back and hit the American to cause a two-stroke penalty. When the ball was eventually exploded clear, Furyk pitched and two-putted for a 10.

With the exception of St Andrews, Lytham seems to have left us with more memorable tales than all of the other Open venues. There was the occasion in 1974 when Gary Player, having overshot the 72nd green, found his ball against the clubhouse wall from where he played a remarkable, left-handed recovery shot with the back of his putter. Then, on the same hole in 1988, Ballesteros almost holed a glorious, sand-wedge chip and run from off the back left of the green for a winning par against Nick Price.

And the final day in 2001 inevitably brings to mind the two-stroke penalty which Ian Woosnam incurred for having 15 clubs, including two drivers, in his bag, when playing the short first. While much criticism was being focused unfairly afterwards on Irish caddie Myles Byrne, it took an American scribe to lighten the mood by asking, with childlike innocence, if there was a special method for counting clubs. "Yes," replied Woosnam, straight-faced. "You start at one and you finish at 14."

While acknowledging that Woods is, quite correctly, favourite this week, Harrington expressed his admiration for the way the American approaches competition at this level. "You don't see him on the range beating balls in the week of a Major," he said. "He turns up with his game ready. Going into a Major, you have to be very comfortable with who you are, what you've done and where you're at, rather than being the guy trying to figure it all out. You must manage what you've got, rather than be seeking something you haven't got.

"That's where people unfamiliar with Majors, rookies or guys who haven't been there that much, tend to go wrong. I've been there many a time myself where playing 54 holes Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, was great in getting to know the golf course. But I've since learned that having that quiet feeling of readiness is the most important thing. Tiger certainly has a handle on it, as his 14 Majors testify."

Harrington had his first experience of Lytham as a professional in 1996 when, as a three-time Walker Cup player, he was given a rather nice draw with Lehman and Mark McCumber.

"I played well," he recalled, "but on the 36th hole, I hit it in the greenside trap. Then I holed the bunker shot and got so excited that I took the putter out of the bag which, of course, I didn't need. I've never ever been as excited on the golf course. The cheering was unbelievable, making the hairs on the back of my head stand up.

"There's no experience like walking down the 18th hole at an Open Championship when those massive grandstands, to the left and the right, are full. It's like no other Major. The crowds can be clapping you from 250 yards short of the green, which is what happened on that Friday in 1996. It was unbelievably exciting.

"There's always a great atmosphere at Lytham because of the way the course is enclosed. Being cocooned between the houses tends to make noise travel from one fairway to another. There's always a buzz about it. While nothing beats St Andrews, Lytham is definitely a course I enjoy going to."

From a competitive standpoint, Lytham is said to place so much pressure on driving, that if you decide to be brave off the tee, you had better be straight. Yet Harrington claimed: "Though it can be a really tough test, you've got to putt well and hole out well. This applies to all the Majors where your pace-putting become especially important. For me, putting is always the first priority, and thinking well is a very close second."

Though modern technology had delivered the ERC driver and the Titleist Pro V1 golfball by the time 2001 Open came around, Duval might have been anticipating Harrington's comments of last week when summing up his victory. "It's a silly old game," he said after a winning aggregate of 274 which contained a best-of-the-championship 20 birdies. "All I tried to do was hit it solid, move it forward and make some putts. There have been times when I've made golf a lot bigger than it is. But not this time. Maybe that's why I felt so good."

Duval will be back at Lytham this week, having tumbled into virtual golfing oblivion after the biggest win of his career. For him, sic transit gloria mundi was especially stark. After relentless single-mindedness had brought him to world number one in his craft, he made a startling and deeply moving admission to Dr Bob Rotella, who proved to be such a tremendous help to Clarke at Royal St George's last year. The leading sports psychologist later recalled how Duval had woken up the following morning in his hotel bedroom in Lytham and realised that he was all alone, with only the prized Claret Jug as company.

"He discovered that life had not changed," said Rotella. "Then he said to himself, 'I want to find love. I want a wife. I want a family. I want something more than golf . . .' He drifted away from the game, found a woman who already had some children, and he now has kids of his own with her. And he is unbelievably happy."

From the occasion in 1926 when Bobby Jones actually had to pay an admission charge of half-a-crown prior to the final round so as to secure his first Open triumph, Lytham has claimed a very special place in the history of the game's greatest championship. And the stories have been so rich and varied, that only the wildly fanciful would dare predict the latest instalments.

But there is nothing to stop us picturing images of the sea.

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