Open Championship Preview

By: Tony Dear


The polar jet stream that affects the UK's climate tends to be positioned much farther north at this time of year, usually ensuring temperatures in the high 60s and 70s, and keeping the rain out . . . well, most of it. The unusual path this high-altitude band of wind has taken so far in 2012 has wrought havoc on the country's weather, however, taking the blame for Britain's wettest April since records have been kept, and the wettest June, with eight inches recorded in some parts. Last week, news agencies reported more than double the amount of rainfall July typically receives, had already been dumped on the sceptered isle in the month's first nine days.

Wednesday may have ended with some welcome sunshine, but there was more heavy rain earlier in the day and a Met office (the UK's national weather service) flood warning was in place.

Provided it's not actually dropping buckets while they are playing, professional golfers tend to lick their chops when the venue for that week's tournament gets a little moist underfoot. Drives might not travel quite so far as when it's dry, but what's one extra club when the likelihood they can fire their approach shot directly at the pin and expect it to stop is greatly increased? And when the course is only 7,118 yards long anyway, the wet conditions really shouldn't be that great a factor.

But there's a flip side, of course. Rain grows rough. And when a course has seen this much rain the rough can get alarmingly lush. Eddie Birchenough, Royal Lytham's head pro for the last 25 years (he retires on December 31st) insists this corner of Lancashire on the northern edge of the Ribble Estuary possesses a micro-climate that shields it from the worst of the weather. Birchenough's theory hasn't really worked for him this year though with the course suffering 72 days of rain out of the last 109.

The talk prior to this week's championship, the 141st edition, has focused on two main topics: If the run of different major champions will hit 16 (also if the streak of first-time major winners will reach 10), and how on Earth players are going to recover from what is surely the most malevolent rough the Open has seen since Carnoustie in 1999?

Ah, Carnoustie. Most readers will remember how a similarly wet spring 13 years ago caused the Angus course's rough to get out of hand. Combined with some wind, rain and fairways the R&A should have known would be far too narrow, the long grass that week was responsible for a winning score of 6-over 290, a cut line of 13-over 155, and the helpless 19-year-old Sergio Garcia's 36-hole total of 30-over 172.

Mercifully, Lytham's fairways are somewhat wider but, as Darren Clarke has indicated, anyone spraying the ball off the tee Thursday and Friday will have absolutely no chance of surviving to the weekend.

Not only is the rough long, it is thick in a way that might actually humble some U.S. Open venues. Tiger Woods has said the bottom six inches (note, the "bottom" six inches as if that wasn't tall enough) are as dense as any he's ever seen, while others are predicting some balls will inevitably be swallowed up and lost despite large galleries and volunteer ball-spotters tracking their paths.

The forecast does offer hope for a bright(ish) and warm(ish) weekend, but until then players will have to contend with more showers and temperatures in the high-50s. Safely arriving on the first tee Saturday will obviously call for both world-class shot-making and a mix of patience and resilience that few players possess.

It's certain the week will not be a happy time for many, bound up in raingear making violent slashes at a ball they can barely see and upon which they will have little or no control.

It would be easy to assume a golfer from the British Isles would fare best in conditions like these, just as Clarke (2011), Padraig Harrington (2008), Paul Lawrie (1999), Nick Faldo (1987 and '92) did. But that assumption neglects two important factors. Firstly, Britain's young professionals play the majority of their golf in the sunshine of America, Asia or Continental Europe these days and have done so for many years, and that golfers from overseas are equally adept at adapting to adversarial weather, most notably perhaps Tom Weiskopf at a rainy Royal Troon in 1973 and Greg Norman at an equally unappetizing Turnberry in 1986.

That said, three British golfers - Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Lee Westwood - will begin the tournament among the favorites even if they do have a combined total of zero major titles between them. Donald, the No. 1 player in the world for 53 of the last 60 weeks (only four players have ever accumulated more weeks at No. 1 since the rankings began in 1986 - Woods, Norman, Faldo, and Seve Ballesteros), arrives at Lytham after a disappointing final-round 73 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart that saw him drop into a tie for 16th.

Colin Montgomerie, eight-time European Order of Merit winner and now a TV analyst, suggests that because the Englishman is so short off the tee (relatively speaking of course - he's averaging 287 yards in Europe and 274 Stateside) he will need to hit more drivers than other players and will most likely miss more fairways as a result. Counter that though with Donald's ability to get up and down from around the green and out of bunkers and a strong case can be made for him winning the major championship that has so far proved elusive.

But Donald is the first to admit his major record is not yet worthy of letters home. In 36 appearances he has made the top 10 just five times; his best performances third-place finishes at the 2005 Masters and 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah. At the U.S. Open four weeks ago, he chopped his way to a two-round total of 151 and missed the cut by three shots. His best finish at the Open is a fifth at Turnberry in 2009, when he finished two shots out of the Stewart Cink/Tom Watson playoff.

You'd expect the best player in the world to put on a good show in his home country, but might he toil in vain to capture that first major championship just as Montgomerie did? Donald is only 34 so has plenty of time to build a collection of majors. His putting and short-game prowess will surely keep him competitive for many years to come, and he retains the calm exterior and unruffled composure people said a decade ago would be ideally-suited to the majors.

Only slightly more animated is Westwood, whose ball-striking is significantly superior to Donald's but whose putting lags far behind. The 39-year-old missed the cut here in 1996 when Tom Lehman won, and finished 47th when it was last here in 2001, the year David Duval won his first (and only) major.

Westwood returns as a former world No. 1 (22 weeks total in 2010 and '11) and the current No. 3 and with a hugely impressive record at the majors over the last four or five years. He has come close to landing his first major on several occasions, but hasn't yet holed the all-important last putt or come through with a storming final nine holes. As the years drift by, one wonders if Westwood is becoming slightly anxious about the "0" in the majors column, and thus harming his chances of winning the Grand Slam event his game has long deserved.

With two Open appearances and a handful of Lytham Trophies from his amateur days behind him, Westwood is very familiar with a course he says is one of the best on the Open rota. A victory here would come as no surprise. And yet Westwood and his fans would no doubt breathe an audible sigh of relief were he to remove that nagging, tedious monkey from his back.

So much water, some toxic some sweet, has passed under the bridge since Rose holed his third shot at Royal Birkdale's 18th to finish fourth as an amateur at the 1998 Open Championship. After enduring 21 missed cuts on the European Tour early in his pro career, the 31-year-old Englishman's star is rising steadily. Now No. 9 in the world (he has actually been as high as 6), and the winner of four prestigious tournaments on the PGA Tour and four in Europe, Rose finished 30th here in 2001 and, one gets the feeling, is well-prepared physically and mentally to win his first major.

So too might be Tiger Woods who, after three big wins on this year's PGA Tour, has only to win a major to convince the doubters he is genuinely, positively, absolutely back. Despite saying the rough is unplayable in spots, Woods believes Lytham is a fair test and has good memories of the course, having finished as low-amateur here in 1996. Five years later he finished a disappointing 25th, but there seems little reason to doubt he can rack up major No. 15 this week. He certainly doesn't have a good record in really bad conditions, and he strangely fell down the leaderboard at the U.S. Open at Olympic Club last month after going into the weekend tied for the lead. But if he packed his "A" game this week and if he can make it to the weekend in good position, he may just be the man to beat.

World No. 2 Rory McIlroy has been rather subdued for the last few weeks, missing the Scottish Open and missing four cuts in five tournaments (including the U.S. Open and BMW Championship at Wentworth), so it's difficult to know what to expect from the Ulsterman, especially as he indicated last year that poor weather and links courses might not be an ideal recipe for him (although he did downplay that remark earlier this week).

If McIlroy were to win, the 2011 U.S. Open champion would of course break the sequences of different and first-time winners, sequences that Donald, Westwood, Rose, Bill Haas, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Steve Stricker, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan and Matt Kuchar will want to continue. You have to say the last three on that list may possess swings that are excessively flat to attack the ball out of the rough, but their stature in the game now almost demands that they begin adding majors to their records.

Others looking good this week include Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington. And what about recent Irish Open winner Jaime Donaldson, who won his first European Tour event at the magnificent Royal Portrush? Or Jeev Milka Singh who captured last week's Scottish Open?

Yes, Lytham has an impressive list of winners, including six Hall of Famers (Bobby Jones, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles, Gary Player, Ballesteros), so Donaldson or Singh would be regarded as anomalies. But weren't Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, winners of the Masters and U.S. Open, similarly unfancied at the start of the week? I'm not saying Donaldson or Singh are going to win. But they could.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.


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