The Open - Inside Track
The Open Championship
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Course: Royal Lytham & St Annes
Location: Lancashire, England
Lowest Winning Score: 13-under-par Tom Lehman (1996)
Course Record: 64 Tom Lehman (1996)
Cut: Top 70 plus ties after 36 holes
Tee Off: Thursday 06:19
The Open Championship, often referred to simply as 'The Open', is the longest running of golf's four major championships and the only one played outside of America.
The first Open was played in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club with a field of only eight professionals and no prize money. This week the 141st Open Championship features 157 players from around the globe playing for £5,000,000.
There are nine courses on The Open rota and this year's event will be held at Royal Lytham & St Annes in Lancashire. This will be the 11th time Lytham has hosted the Open Championship.
American players won ten of the twelve Opens from 1995-2006 but recently Europeans have fared best with three victories in the last five years.
Last Time Out
Lytham last staged the Open in 2001 and World Number One David Duval found himself seven shots adrift of Colin Montgomerie at the halfway stage.
Duval shot a best of the day 65 to tie for the lead but with 13 players within one shot of the lead it was still anyone's Open going into the final round.
As the leading challengers feel away Duval took grip of the tournament with birdies at the 6th, 7th and 11th. Two brilliant par saves on 14th and 15th helped him to a final round 67 and victory by three shots from Niclas Fasth.
Last year at Royal St Georges two opening rounds of 68 saw Darren Clarke tie for the 36-hole lead with Lucas Glover. On a wet and windy Saturday Clarke battled to a 69 and one shot lead over Dustin Johnson with Rickie Fowler and Thomas Bjorn three shots adrift.
Mickelson made a big early charge and got to within one shot but Clarke outstayed him and the other challengers with pars from the 8th to 16th and despite bogeys at the two finishing holes Clarke won by three shots over Mickelson and Johnson.
Royal Lytham & St Annes is a true links although is set away from the sea amongst houses. The Club was founded in 1886 and the course was redesigned by Harry Colt in 1919.
In preparation for this year's Open Championship a number of adjustments have been made to the course to increase the yardage and strategy off the tee.
The course formerly played 6,905 yards but holes 2 (43 yards), 10 (52 yards), 11 (56 yards) and 13 (13 yards) have all been lengthened with the addition of new tees so the course will now play 7,086 yards.
The major change has come at the sixth which was formerly a par five but has been reduced to a long par four and par is now 70 instead of 71.
The course features 206 bunkers and new ones have been added to the fairways on 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 16 and 18 primarily to stop players overpowering the course.
Heavy rain in the lead up to the Championship has left conditions softer than ideal.
The fairways are generally very narrow, flanked by bunkers and thick rough so this week will be more a test of accuracy and strategy than power.
Lytham's main defence is the cleverly placed deep fairway bunkers which are to be avoided at all costs. They have high faces and ball will often role up into the face forcing players to chip out sideways or backward.
In many cases players will take less club off the tee to lay up in front of the bunkers and leave a longer second shot. Even the more aggressive players who want a shortage yardage to the hole still have to negotiate the new bunkers and there are very few places where players can fly all the bunkers.
Whichever strategy a player chooses he must execute it with crisp ball striking and negotiate the wind correctly.
There is a three tier system off rough in most places. A six foot swathe of one inch rough followed by another six foot swathe of two inch rough and then natural tall grass. The tall grass is wispy but at the base it is very thick and although players are unlikely to lose a ball in most cases they will only be able to progress the ball 100 yards with very little control.
The course is deemed to favour drawers of the ball. This may be true for amateurs with out of bounds pre-dominantly on the right side of the course but the fairway bunkers, direction and strength of the wind mean players will need to be able to shape the ball both ways off the tee.
The greens are not as big as you would see on many links courses. They are generally long and narrow in shape with subtle slopes rather than big undulations.
Most of the greens are open fronted, slightly raise and surrounded by runoff areas and deep bunkers. If players miss the green they will be forced to play 'bump and run' shots or escape from the sand and it will be a stiff test of players' short game skills.
The greens are in excellent shape and running smooth and true. They are set at 10-10.5 on the stimpmeter. They are not fast but still remain relatively firm given the rain and long irons will still take a big first bounce although shorter irons will be easier to control.
"You have to step up and hit very good tee shots. The bunkers come into play whether you hit 2-iron, 3-wood or driver. The number on goal is to stay out of the bunkers off the tee. I'm not sure it favours the long hitters there's not too many holes were you can carry it past them." - Luke Donald
"It's very heavily bunkered in the landing areas. Accuracy is going to the key this week. The rough is really tough. If you start spraying the ball around you might as well go home. You also need to be on the right side of the draws. You get good sides, bad sides. The scoring can differ massively because of the weather conditions." - Darren Clarke
"It's soft for a links course but by no means soft. The rough is more lush, the fairways are softer and the ball is not chasing as much. The bunkers are penal. We as players are just going to have to plod our way round." - Tiger Woods
"It's all about short game with all these bunkers and hazards around the greens. It's all about trying to execute and somehow leave it on the right side so you make a couple of putts or get up and down." - Bubba Watson
"It's going to be a tough test. Every aspect of your game has to be strong."- Lee Westwood
Horses for Courses
Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington have won four of the last seven Opens between them but neither has finished better than 18th in the last two Opens at Lytham.
Ernie Els has a very impressive Open resume. In 20 appearances he has recorded one win (Muirfield in 2002), been second three times, registered 8 top fives and 12 top tens. He boasts the best Lytham record with a third place finish in 2001 and second in 1996.
Young American Rickie Fowler has only played in the two Opens but finished 14th and 5th.
A total of 38 players in the field competed in the 2001 Open Championship at Lytham the best finishers were David Duval (1st), Ernie Els (3rd), Darren Clarke (3rd), Miguel Angel Jimenez (3rd) and Sergio Garcia (9th).
Lytham is well known for its tough stretch of finishing holes however holes six and seven might well have a dramatic say in the outcome.
The 492 yard par-four sixth was formerly a par five. If it plays into the wind very few players will make the green in two and anyone making par over all four days will certainly climb up the leaderboard.
The 592 yards par-five seventh demands a very accurate drive and then players are still faced with a tough second shot to the green through a narrow entrance protected by bunkers and dunes. It will be no pushover.
These two holes could see the most dramatic swings in momentum with players going through them in anything from two-under to four-over.
Every links golf course seems to have its own micro climate and the weather forecast seems to change daily if not hourly.
On Thursday strong south-westerly winds of 15-20mph with gusts up to 25mph are expected in the morning but the wind should turn north-westerly and decrease to 5-10mph by the afternoon.
Dry and sunny weather with northwest winds 5-10mph with gusts to 15mph is forecast on Friday and Saturday. Strong southwest winds are forecast again for Sunday.
The prevailing southwest winds will blow from slightly behind and across from right to left on the holes going away from the clubhouse.
A late-early tee time may well prove to be an advantage.
The narrow fairways, thick rough and numerous well placed bunkers make Lytham a stern test off the tee. Players will need to very accurate if they wish to contend this week.
Luck of the draw often plays an important part and this year is likely to be the same with those going out late on Thursday and early on Friday at an advantage if the forecast is correct.
It will be a true examination of links style golf and players will need to the control their ball flight and keep the ball under the wind. Experience of links golf and imagination around the greens will be vital to success.