LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England (AP) – There are no sheep to be found around this lush patch of northwestern England.
Their legacy lives on through a landscape pockmarked with deep, treacherous traps – hundreds of them, in fact.
Welcome to Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
There are a staggering 206 bunkers dotting this historic course, where the British Open begins Thursday. The golfer who does the best job staying out of these sandy spots of doom could very well wind up with the claret jug in his grasp come Sunday evening.
“Rule No. 1, avoid the bunkers,'' England's Paul Casey said. “Rule No. 2, if you're in a bunker, just get it out. Don't go for the glory shot.''
While pot bunkers can be found at golf clubs around the world, they are a distinctive feature on links courses, right up there with inclement weather. What they lack in size they make up for in depth, leaving a much tougher escape route than the traps typically found on PGA Tour layouts.
The origins of the pot bunker supposedly traces back centuries, when sheep burrowed into the ground seeking warmth and shelter from the notorious coastal weather. The modern version is created with layers of sod stacked atop each other, similar to bricklaying, which creates a menacing wall that usually leaves the offender with little chance of pulling off a decent shot.
Tony Jacklin, who won the 1969 Open at Lytham, defined the bunker mentality this way: players accepting that fate every time a ball tumbles into the sand.
“The bunkers essentially have a red line around them,'' he said. “I mean, they're a one-shot penalty.''
Maintaining that imposing line of defense takes up plenty of the grounds crew's time and efforts. To prevent weeds sprouting from the sodden bricks, a herbicide is applied using a soft bristle brush, almost like painting the side of a house.
“Last week, we went out there and pulled out any stray weeds by hand,'' Lloyd Balazs, a full-time groundskeeper at the club, said as he walked along the 18th fairway under a setting sun Wednesday, the start of the tournament just hours away. “If we need to, we'll brush the sides to get any sand off.''
Of course, the bunkers don't get nearly as much of a workout during the British Open as they do when regular duffers are playing. And either way, there was even some disagreement over just how many there were. Some media outlets reported 205. Others, including the Royal & Ancient governing body, said it was 206. Not that one less bunker will be much consolation for the 156 players chasing golf's oldest major title.
“At any links golf course you've got to stay out of the bunkers, because you can't get to the green,'' Tiger Woods said. “That's just a fact. If you hit the ball in there, it's going to go up against the face, because it goes in there with some steam, and you're pitching it out sideways or sometimes even backward.''
If it's any solace, the pot bunkers at Lytham tend to be more visible off the tee than other Open courses like St. Andrews, where the drive requires a bit of blind faith and an accurate yardage book.
“The neat thing about these bunkers is how I think they're raised up a lot so that you can visually see them and then shape the ball off of them. … You can hit a fade or draw. They're starting points. You can actually see where they begin and end,'' Woods added.
Not that seeing them makes avoiding them all that easy. At the 18th hole, for instance, there are 10 bunkers sprinkled across a wide range of possible landing areas, requiring an extremely precise tee shot.
The first four come rat-a-tat-tat, starting in the middle of the fairway and branching off to the right, about 200 to 250 yards out. Three more hug the left side – boom, boom, boom. Farther down on the right, two tiny bunkers lurk ominously. Finally, if the wind turns and a player really cranks a drive, he might find himself deposited in the sand of last resort, seemingly carved out of the ground for no apparent reason some 350 yards away.
“I'm not sure it favors the longer hitter, especially, because some courses, some Open championship courses, you have bunkers at 280 and past that, you're OK,'' said Luke Donald, the world's top-ranked player. “But here there's another one 20 yards further, there's another one 20 yards past that. There's not too many holes where if you can carry it a certain distance you get past them. They seem to be continually going along the holes.''
Bubba Watson knocked a couple of shots into the bunkers during a practice round earlier this week. While it goes against everything he's about, the left-hander knows that a little patience and caution are required if he's to follow up his Masters championship with another major title.
“I don't understand why there's that many, but they didn't ask me to design it,'' Watson quipped.
In all there are 17 bunkers on the closing hole, the rest standing guard around the green. For some reason, Watson found that amusing.
“Not that I counted, but there's 17 on 18,'' he said. “They should have just thrown one more on 18 and made it 18 on No. 18.''
Watson is certainly in the minority when it comes to calling for even more pot bunkers at Lytham.
Seriously, enough's enough.
“You do feel a little bit claustrophobic on a lot of holes,'' Donald moaned. “They're everywhere.''