ROYAL BIRKDALE CLUBHOUSE, SOUTHPORT, England — Greetings from the Golf Coast, the touristic name the Lancashire marketing people have given these flat sprawling beaches in the northwest of England that are dotted with seaside courses. It's Myrtle Beach meets Galveston, minus the heat and humidity, plus a thousand years of war, union and otherwise. It's been cool and rainy for weeks, and the players are packing waterproofs, but on Wednesday afternoon the English summer made an appearance: breezy and cool with some sun.
The three big courses here are Royal Birkdale, where Padraig Harrington won the Open in 2008; Royal Liverpool, where Tiger Woods won in 2006; and Royal Lytham and St. Annes, where David Duval won in 2001 and where the 141st British Open will be contested this week, starting in the first light of Thursday and concluding on Sunday night. (Yes, you play golf at night here, with sunset about 9:30.) Duval and Harrington and Woods are all smarty-pants golfing nerds who exhibited expert use of their navigating tools in their victories. The guy who wins this tournament, the oldest and most international championship in golf, will be the exact same way. Nobody would be surprised to see Harrington or Woods raise the old claret jug on Sunday night. Even Duval, AWOL for years now, could get in the mix. The golf played here is truly a different game from what we play Stateside. It opens doors for some and closes them for others.
You may have heard that Woods called the rough here "almost unplayable," and he was only off by a word. The wet summer has made the course a killer. But the fairways have a sandy undersoil and are virtually incapable of playing soft. In other words, this year the course will only be harder.
It's the land here that dictates the type of golf that wins. It's not duney, as it is at Turnberry and Troon, on the west coast of Scotland. It's not super rugged and nasty, as it is as St. Andrews and Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland. It's not bucolic and posh, as it is at Royal St. Georges, in the southeast of England, where Darren Clarke won last year's Open. The Lancashire courses are (largely) flat minefields, with traps acting as explosive devices and the rough one big booby trap. Oh, it's going to be a nasty four days. Nobody will stay out of the rough and bunkers all week, although everyone will try. Lytham has 206 traps, and the sand in them is not the fluffy American country-club stuff you see Phil and Co. playing at home. This sand is dark and coarse and heavy, making it hard to spin the ball. By Sunday evening, the 70 or so finishers will all have a splitting headache, even the winner. Watching is the way to enjoy this thing.
You'd be tempted to say that Webb Simpson, who won the U.S. Open last month as the last man standing, would have an excellent chance here. He showed excellent tactical golf when he won at Olympic. Survival golf, really, which is what will be called for at Lytham. But young Webb has no chance, not at this year's Open. He's home in North Carolina, with his very pregnant wife.
You'd be tempted to say that Bubba Watson, the long-whacking golfing artiste who won the Masters in April, has no chance here. That's probably correct. He's only played in three Opens: cut, cut, T30. Patience is not his strength. His toweringly high tee shots won't serve him well in the wind here. Lytham is not a course you can overpower, and its slow greens won't serve him well either. He hasn't played since he finished second at the Travelers the week after the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut. Maybe that's why the British oddsmakers are sending Bubba out at 33-to-1. Of course, they're sending Harrington out at the same odds, so who knows? That's why they play 72 holes. Unless you're done after 36. You wouldn't have thought John Daly's high-ball game would lend itself to British Open golf, and his name's on the claret jug.
Hitting it too high has, traditionally, also been a problem for Phil Mickelson at the Open, but he's learned to adapt to the wind here and the running shots. He contended at last year's Open. He contended at last week's Scottish Open. There's no reason he shouldn't play well, if he can maintain focus for all four days. When he won at Pebble in February, he attributed his win to his focus and even talked, in passing, about the psychologist with whom he is working.
At last year's U.S. Open, when Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland/Southern Florida won by eight shots, he used the mushy fairways to hold his hard, long, drawing tee shots. That might work at next year's Masters, but it won't help him here. Graeme McDowell's game is better suited to this week's course, and this week's conditions. There's no reason for McDowell and Jim Furyk and Woods, all of whom played well at Olympic, to not play well here. One could say the same of Davis Love, Jonathan Byrd, Ben Curtis, Louis Oosthuizen, Matt Kuchar, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood.
There's been a lot of recent grill-room chit-chat about the last 15 majors having been won by 15 different players. Expert commentators have offered the opinion that this is the week that trend will end. We take a different view. The winner at Lytham could very well be a first-time major winner. What seems more likely is this: you'll have heard of the guy. You're going to get a brand-name winner. The golf here is just too hard, too hard and too fair, for something freakish to happen.
"There's going to be ebb and flow during the week," Harrington, winner of the 2007 and 2008 Opens, said Tuesday. "You're going to get some good breaks and some bad breaks. You're going to be walking on some holes and you're going to see that rain coming in and you're going to be hoping that it holds off until you get through that tee shot. But that's the nature of links golf. You tend to be able to see the bad weather when it's coming at you.
"I would like some of the golf to be tough this week."
He's going to get his wish, and it's going to suit him.