IN 12 months’ time it will be East Lothian as the Open returns to Muirfield for the first time since Ernie Els won a four-hole play-off to pick up the Claret Jug in 2002.
But this week the eyes of the sporting world are focused on Lancashire as Royal Lytham plays host to The Open, also after an 11-year gap.
It was American David Duval who defended the title at Muirfield a decade ago after winning here in 2001, when he closed with sparkling rounds of 65 and 67 to finish three shots clear of the field. With the last nine majors all having produced first-time winners, it’s anyone’s guess who will be flying into Edinburgh this time next year as the defending Open champion.
It would be great for the area, of course, if that was Tiger Woods and that’s a possibility with the three-time Open champion having arrived at Lytham with a spring in his step. This time last year the American had lost his winning touch but has since chalked up four successes, including three on the PGA Tour this year.
Woods finished down in 25th here last time around but it was in this part of the world – at Hoylake – where he recorded his last Open victory in 2006.
Few relish the test in the world’s oldest major more than the 36-year-old, who fell in love with links golf when he first came to Britain. “You can have so many different weather conditions,” said the former world No. 1 of seaside golf. “You just don’t know. That’s one of the unique things about the Open and why it’s my favourite major championship. It’s the only tournament besides the sand-belt courses in Australia that we can actually use the ground as a friend and bounce the ball into the greens.”
Woods has not recorded a top-ten finish in the event since that win six years ago and missed last year’s event at Sandwich due to injury. But he has fond memories of Lytham after finishing as low amateur in 1996, when Tom Lehman lifted the title. I like the golf course, they have made some changes since we played there in ’01,” he added. “They have lengthened a few holes, so it will play different. “Plus, in ’01, it was pretty dry and firm. They’ve had a very wet summer, as we saw at Wimbledon, and the golf course is pretty soft.”
That’s one of the reasons Woods reckons he won’t be able to use the same strategy as 2006, when he mainly hit irons off tees on a course that was hard and bouncy. “I’ll need a few more 3-woods and drivers than then,” he said. “One of the reasons for that is that the bunkers here are staggered differently. By that, I mean you have to carry some and then try to stop it (short of the next line of bunkers). You’ve also got to shape it here – it’s not just about hitting it one way.”
Lytham has a staggering 205 bunkers, many of which are fearsome sights. None more so than the cavernous trap that guards the front left of the elevated eighth green.
Staying out of them, as well as rough that has thickened considerably following the recent rain, is going to be imperative, as Padraig Harrington, the winner in 2007 and 2008, acknowledged. “Lytham will put a lot of pressure on your driving,” said the Irishman. “If you’re going to look for something you want at Lytham, I think it’s really good driving. They are not massive dog-legs, but they are slight angles to all of the fairways and you have to carry one set of bunkers on the corner and then the far side on the corner there can be bunkers as well.
“You’re chipping out and there’s no getting to the greens out of these bunkers. But the problem with that is if you hit the ball straight, and you hit it too well, you’re going to run out of fairway. So the two things you want to be at Lytham is you obviously want to be accurate off the tee, but actually it would be quite good if you can control the distance you’re hitting your driver as well.”
If the event does produce another first-time major winner, there’s a good chance that it could be either Luke Donald or Lee Westwood. They both missed the cut at Sandwich 12 months ago and will be using that disappointment in their bids to try and emulate Tony Jacklin, who won here in 1969.
Donald, the world No. 1, returned from a three-week break to put up a decent defence of his Scottish Open title at Castle Stuart. And the omens are good for him as the last three Opens ay Lytham have been won by the world’s top-ranked players at that time – Seve Ballesteros (1988), Tom Lehman (1996) and Duval (2001).
Defending champion Darren Clarke has had a miserable time since his win in Kent but the big Ulsterman is capable of putting himself in the frame again, especially if the poor weather being predicted materialises over the next few days.
A year ago, Rory McIlroy said, after a disappointing last round, that he didn’t have the game to play in bad weather.
But, having dismissed that as something that was said out of “frustration”, he now has a second major firmly in his sights on a course he played as an amateur in the Lytham Trophy.
An exciting event lies ahead and as soon as the final putt drops on Sunday night the countdown will begin for Muirfield 2013.