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The Month Ahead - July

By: Tony Dear


July kicked off with the final rounds of both the AT&T National at Congressional, whose set up was more U.S. Open-like than in June 2011 when it did actually host the U.S. Open, and the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, the fantastic Harry Colt-designed course on Ulster's north coast, which proved not only the perfect venue for an Irish Open and attracted sell-out crowds, but perhaps an equally fine place for an Open Championship.

To a man, the players spoke of how great Royal Portrush is and how deserving it would be of a second "British" Open (it became the only course in Ireland to stage the Open in 1951). And the talk from the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which organizes the championship, was positive too, even if it did come up short of actually announcing a return to the home of the 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke, 2010 U.S. Open victor Graeme McDowell, 2012 (British) Amateur Championship winner Alan Dunbar, and Stephanie Meadow, who last weekend won the British Ladies Amateur Championship at Carnoustie.

The stubborn and odious question mark hovering over the whole political situation surely faded a little when England's Queen Elizabeth shook hands with Ireland's Deputy First Minister and former IRA man Martin McGuiness on the Wednesday of Irish Open week. And the issue of whether or not the town of 7,000, a 90-minute drive north of Belfast, might be able to accommodate a quarter-million golf fans for a week was largely answered favorably.

With the venues chosen until 2016, however, Portrush will have to wait a while longer. But it's difficult to imagine the level of excitement and anticipation an Open Championship in Ireland would create.

It's 11 years since this year's venue, Royal Lytham and St. Annes, last held the event. In 2001, David Duval won the major championship he had long deserved but which, he discovered, didn't come with everlasting peace and a sense of fulfillment. The Florida native won thanks to superb weekend rounds of 65, 67 that gave him a three-stroke margin over runner-up Niclas Fasth of Sweden. But Duval would soon understand that, rather than committing to a life-long search for more important trophies, the meaning of his life would be found in building a large and loving family.

Now 40 and having gained a large measure of perspective following a decade of near-disastrous results, Duval will be back at Lytham fully expecting to do well, telling the official R&A Open Championship magazine in May that he has a "very good feeling about the week."

Also hoping for good things will be his long-time coach Puggy Blackmon, who insists Duval still has the "tools" to compete at the very highest level. Doubtless, the Lancashire links, designed by the club's first professional George Lowe in 1897 and updated by Colt in 1919, will be described as "quirky" countless times before and during the tournament.

And sure enough, its location a few hundred yards inland does make it unique among Open Championship venues. Without a view of the sea or the Ribble Estuary half a mile to the south, and surrounded on most sides by Fawlty Towers-style guest houses and snug suburban homes in which curious wives will ask their feet-up-newspaper-reading husbands where that noise is coming from beyond the back fence, Lytham might not strike those seeing it for the first time as a worthy venue for so prestigious an event.

Royal Lytham is not glorious, like Turnberry or the Old Course, you understand. Royal Lytham is stern.

Adding to the quirk factor, the course opens with a par-3, has three short holes and back-to-back par-5s on the front nine (although the sixth has actually been converted into a long par-4 for this year's Open), averages roughly 11-and-a-half bunkers per hole (for a total of 206), and has six consecutive par-4s to finish, with a 200-yard difference between the relatively score-able front side and the demanding back.

But, as Duval says, there is absolutely nothing quirky about the holes themselves. Lytham is as solid a golf test as exists on the Open rota, and in 2001 attracted universal praise for the manner in which it was set up.

Seve Ballesteros won twice here, of course - in 1979 and 1988. The Spaniard's dominance there might suggest the course favors a certain exuberance, flair and bravado, but since Seve's last triumph two of America's least cavalier players have used their no-nonsense, tee-to-green games to emerge victorious: Duval 11 years ago and Tom Lehman five years before that. And when you consider that Mark Brooks, Nick Faldo, Jeff Maggert and Mark McCumber also finished in the top five in '96, you realize a Ballesteros-like flamboyance is not a necessarily a good thing at Lytham.

So, bearing in mind quiet, reliable, greens-in-regulation golfers (Duval, Lehman, Bob Charles, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke) and more excitable players with a little extra dash and verve (Ballesteros, Gary Player, Tony Jacklin, Bobby Jones) have won there, and that 15 different players have won the last 15 majors, good luck in trying to pick a winner.

Padraig Harrington, who finished tied for seventh at the Irish Open on Sunday and shared 37th at Lytham in 2001 as a 29-year-old, will be popular with the bookies, having shown many signs of a return to form lately. And Hunter Mahan, who tied for eighth at Congressional, is too good to remain major-less for long.

But they are just two names from a pool of 50 . . . 60 . . . 70 that can win the Claret Jug. Ben Curtis, remember, was ranked 396th in the world when he won in 2003. The player ranked 396th at the time of this writing is Argentina's Cesar Costilla, a member of the Tour de las Americas who isn't in this year's Open Championship field.

The closest players to 396th that will be playing are Stephen Ames at 392nd and Justin Hicks at 391st (both made it through International Final Qualifying at Gleneagles CC in Dallas on May 21). Ames has won four times on the PGA Tour including the 2006 Players Championship, and Hicks has a couple of "Ws" on the Nationwide Tour, but neither can possibly win the Open . . . can they?

After the Irish Open, Europe's best head to Paris and Le Golf National, the 2018 Ryder Cup venue, for the Alstom French Open, then return to the British Isles for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart near Inverness.

Castle Stuart hosted the event for the first time last year when Biblical rain storms cut the tournament to 54 holes. England's Luke Donald, who had risen to No. 1 in the world for the first time six weeks before, won by four shots following a third - and final - round 63 over the magnificent Gil Hanse/Mark Parsinen-designed links. Donald will be back to defend, but he'll have to overcome another quality field likely to include major winners Ernie Els, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen.

Four new bunkers and three new tees have been built since last year in response to players' feedback about the Castle Stuart course, and a new storm-drainage system was added in response to God's whims.

July ends with a visit to Atzenbrugg, Austria, for the Lyoness Open Powered by Greenfinity which, one suspects, will have a hard time generating much interest given the tournaments that precede it and the WGC Bridgestone at Firestone in Ohio the week after.

July in North America may be without a major, but the month is full of good action nonetheless with Tiger Woods set to play in his first-ever Greenbrier Classic, starting the day after the Fourth of July; Steve Stricker going for his fourth consecutive win at the John Deere Classic; and the RBC Canadian Open being played at many people's choice for best course in the country - Hamilton G&CC in Ontario, which Harry Colt designed in 1916.

And though it has only two events scheduled, July is a big month for the LPGA Tour, with the U.S. Women's Open at the Pete Dye-designed Blackwolf Run (composite of Meadow Valleys and River Courses) in Kohler, Wis., and the Evian Masters in France, which becomes an LPGA major in 2013.

With a trio of Colt layouts, Hanse/Parsinen's Castle Stuart, C.B. Macdonald's Old White at Greenbrier Resort, and Dye's Blackwolf Run on display, July will be a good month for golf course architecture fans. But really, with the Open Championship and U.S. Women's Open in store it should be a good month for golf fans period.

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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