By Tom LaMarre
Although the great Bobby Jones captured the Open Championship three times, it’s safe to say that it was not love at first sight when it came to links golf.
Jones tore up his scorecard after 11 holes of the third round, in essence disqualifying himself from the 1921 Open on the Old Course at St. Andrews, although he played out the rest of the 72 holes.
The British press vilified Jones, who nevertheless returned and later became a hero in the home of golf. In fact, in 1958, Jones was named a Freeman of the City of St. Andrews, an honor bestowed on only one other American, Benjamin Franklin in 1759.
Jones’ love affair with links golf undoubtedly began in 1926 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, England, where the best players in the game today will gather on July 19-22 for the 141st playing of the oldest championship in the world.
The greatest golfer of this era always has loved links golf and has said in recent years that the Open Championship has become his favorite major.
“It allows you to be creative,” Tiger Woods said. “Augusta used to be like that. The U.S. Open is obviously not. And the PGA is similar to a U.S. Open setup. We play so much in the States where everything is up in the air.
“Over here, you get to use the ground as an ally and hit different shots. It is neat to hit bump and runs, and to putt from 50 yards off the green, and to hit five-irons from 135 yards and run the ball in. I wish we played more courses like [these].”
Woods has captured the Open Championship three times, in 2000 and 2005 at St. Andrews and in 2006 at Royal Liverpool, but in his two appearances at Royal Lytham & St. Annes he tied for 22nd in 1996 and tied for 21st in 2001.
The Open has been played at Lytham on 10 previous occasions and Woods would love to creep closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles by adding his name to the illustrious list of winners on the links course located to the south of Blackpool and north of Liverpool on the northwest coast of England.
In addition to Jones, the Open victors at Royal Lytham & St. Annes have been Bobby Locke of South Africa in 1952; five-time Open champion Peter Thomson of Australia in 1958; Bob Charles of New Zealand, the first left-hander to win a major, in 1963; Tony Jacklin of England in 1969; Gary Player of South Africa, the third of five players to complete the career Grand Slam, in 1974; Seve Ballesteros of Spain in 1979 and 1988; Tom Lehman in 1996 and David Duval in 2001.
The Women’s British Open also has been contested at Lytham four times, with Sherri Steinhauer winning in 1998 and 2006, Annika Sorenstam of Sweden claiming the title in 2003, and Catriona Matthew of Scotland prevailing in 2009.
As they were a year ago at Royal St. George’s, the English fans will be rooting for a homegrown golfer to capture the Open Championship on home soil, which hasn’t happened since Jacklin won at Lytham in 1969.
In fact, an Englishman has not claimed the Claret Jug since Sir Nick Faldo earned the last of his three in 1992 at Muirfield, Scotland.
The English are getting a little touchy about the fact that Northern Ireland, the neighbor to the north, has had Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, who won the Open last year at Royal St. George’s, take home major titles in recent years.
And not simply for bragging rights.
“A major win from [Luke] Donald or [Lee] Westwood this year would certainly benefit golf tourism from an international perspective,” said Euan Gillon, head of product marketing and strategy for Your Golf Travel. “The ideal scenario would be an Englishman winning at Royal Lytham & St Annes, one of England’s greatest courses.
“We saw a huge spike in interest in Northern Ireland [with McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke winning]. The local tourism industry owes a debt of gratitude to its golf stars.”
The problem is that the best English players these days, including Donald, Westwood, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, never have won major championships.
They aren’t even that familiar with Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
“I haven’t played it as a professional,” said Donald, the No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings, who has lived mostly in the United States since coming over to attend Northwestern University in 1997.
“I tried to qualify there in 2001 as an amateur and didn’t make it. But I have played there as an amateur before that. Last time I played would have been 14, 15 years ago.”
As for Westwood, he claims he enjoys Lytham, even though he shot 71-74 (145) there in 1996 to miss the cut by two strokes and tied for 47th the last time the Open was played there in 2001.
And he hasn’t been back.
“I love Lytham,” said Westwood, who has finished in the top three in the majors seven times since 2008 without winning. “I think it’s a great golf course, a good test. And it’s a bit different to your stereotypical links course where it’s actually not right on the sea.
“It’s got houses around it and you’ve got the usual rail line right down the side of it. But it certainly plays like a links golf course. You’ve got shots where you’ve got to run it in 40 yards short, let it bounce up. It’s a good test.”
Of course, Bobby Jones had never seen Royal Lytham & St. Annes before he showed up in 1926 at the course designed by George Lowe in 1886 and reworked by the legendary Harry Shapland Colt in 1919.
In fact, Jones wasn’t even supposed to be there.
The plan was for America’s best amateur to play in the Walker Cup and the British Amateur before returning to the United States, but after he was upset by local player Andrew Jamieson in the Amateur at Muirfield, he decided to stick around.
Jones led regional qualifying, being held for the first time, by shooting 66-68 (134) at Sunningdale to get into the Open Championship at Lytham, where he rallied past fellow Americans Al Watrous and the great Walter Hagen on the last five holes to win by two strokes.
It was still four years before Jones would claim the Grand Slam, winning the United States Open and Amateur, plus the Open Championship and British Amateur during the 1930 season.
After sailing home in 1926, he received a ticker tape parade down Broadway in New York, probably not even realizing he had put Royal Lytham & St. Annes on the golf map.
THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
Some of the game’s greatest champions from across the globe have won the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Here’s a look:
1926: Bobby Jones (USA)
1952: Bobby Locke (South Africa)
1958: Peter Thompson (Australia)
1963: Bob Charles (New Zealand)
1969: Tony Jacklin (England)
1974: Gary Player (South Africa)
1979: Seve Ballesteros (Spain)
1988: Seve Ballesteros (Spain)
1996: Tom Lehman (USA)
2001: David Duval (USA)