LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Ernie Els walked toward the century-old clubhouse that sits squarely behind the 18th green at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Just the sight of it Monday evening was enough to bring back a memory. It wasn’t a good one.
Els made a furious charge on Sunday in 1996, his first time in serious contention at the British Open. He chipped away at an eight-shot deficit to Tom Lehman until he was slowed by a bogey on the 16th and another on the 18th for 67. That left him two shots behind, having to wait around to see whether Lehman would somehow make a double bogey on the 16th hole.
Next to him in the locker room that day was a 20-year-old amateur, Tiger Woods, who had 66 in the second round and was low amateur for the week. Woods was asking Els for advice on whether he was ready to turn pro.
“He was trying to figure out his future, and I was trying to figure out if the guy was going to make double bogey or not,” Els said. “Tom made par and Tiger turned pro. I was (doomed) either way.”
Els eventually captured the claret jug six years later at Muirfield. Woods has three claret jugs among his 14 majors. Els has been a runner-up to Woods seven times, the most of any player.
They are at different places in their careers coming into the 141st British Open, which returns to Lytham for the 11th time when it starts Thursday.
Royal Lytham & St. Annes is on the smallest piece of property of any links course in the Open rotation, and it is the only course that does not offer a glimpse of the water – the Irish Sea in this case. Then there are the bunkers – now under debate as to whether there are 206 or 205 of them.
Els recently told Scotland on Sunday that advances in equipment “have had a huge effect on the ability of anyone to separate himself from the rest.”
But in links golf, he’s not sure that’s the case. Royal Lytham & St. Annes, at only 7,060 yards as a par 70, is not a course that can be overpowered, even in green conditions.
Links golf is at its best when the grass is brown from sunshine and dry spells, such as Royal Liverpool in 2006 when Woods only hit driver once. This year, when the rain never seems to stop in England, the course is softer and not quite running as fast.
Regardless, it’s about keeping the ball on grass instead of in the bunkers. And it’s about keeping it out of the rough, which Masters Tournament champion Bubba Watson described as hay. Aaron Townsend hit a shot into the rough to the right of the 15th green Sunday, and it took a marshal standing only a few yards away nearly five minutes to find it.
Lytham might look little, but it can play big.
“Like on the sixth hole,” Els said of the 492-yard hole that will be a par 4. “You’ve got the bunker left, so I took 2-iron off the tee, and I still had a 2-iron for my second shot. You can do that. … There’s all kinds of options here. This is great. This is the best one I’ve seen in a long time.”
Perhaps the most compelling characteristic of the course is the list of Open champions it has produced.
Bobby Jones in 1926, the year he became the first player to win the British Open and U.S. Open in the same season. Bobby Locke and Peter Thomson, who combined for eight Open titles in 10 years. Tony Jacklin, the last Englishman to win an Open on English soil. Lehman, nine months before his brief stay at No. 1 in the world. David Duval, two years after he dethroned Woods atop the world ranking.
Watson went around Monday morning before the heavy rain arrived, and he rarely showed off his pink driver. Even on the 592-yard seventh hole, he hit iron off the tee when a big drive would allow him to get home in two shots. It’s all about staying in the fairway, and not deep in a pot bunker or buried in native grass.
“It’s a course where there’s a certain way you’ve got to play it,” Els said, referring to tee shots having to be in the right spots in the fairway. “It’s a lot like Hoylake. You’ll have a lot of guys doing the same thing. So it’s the guy with the best nerves, the best shotmaking, the guy with the best putter. It’s going to come down to the final bit here. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. You’ve got to be sure of yourself.
“It’s a fair test,” he said. “You’re going to get somebody good this week.”
The way the majors have gone, that could be just about anybody. The last 15 majors have gone to 15 players, a streak of parity not seen in golf since 15 different winners from Nick Price at the 1994 PGA Championship through Lee Janzen at the 1998 U.S. Open.
Of those 15 major champions, eight have not won another tournament since capturing their major. That includes Webb Simpson, the U.S. Open champion who has played only twice since Olympic, and is not at Lytham because his wife is expecting.