LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — The wind on the Lancashire coast rose a trifle Thursday afternoon, and then it began to sprinkle. Which was a good thing, because golfers coming off Royal Lytham & St. Annes in the morning were saying awful things about the venerable Open venue. "Soft," said Tiger Woods. "Benign," said defending champion Darren Clarke. "No wind today," said Jeev Milkha Singh, the freshly-crowned Scottish Open champ.
Ouch. Calling a British links "benign" isn't even faint praise. It's a flat-out insult.
And who expected it? During practice rounds, golfers had trouble holding their brollies steady in a pelting rain. They frowned over yardage books that charted Lytham's 206 revetted bunkers. They tested the rough and found it to be as heavy and tangled as a pile of television cables. Tiger Woods deemed it "almost unplayable."
But when the first round started, our wary strokesters had to rub their eyes. The fairways were soft and receptive. The greens held. The flags failed to flap. Adam Scott, exploiting this suddenly-lethargic Lytham, got to seven under par by the 16th hole and seized the first-round lead with a 64. Adding insult to injury, three other pros shot 65. "It was kind of weird," said Graeme McDowell, "[to be] standing out there in shirtsleeves on the ninth tee box with guys being four, five and six under par." Ernie Els agreed, saying, "You get it in play, you can get at the golf course."
Woods, who joined McDowell and Els at 67, was one of those who kept it in play. But he showed that Lytham still had some bite when he needed two tries to get his ball out of the rough on the 15th hole. "I was just trying to hit the ball 80 yards," Tiger said of his first attempt, which advanced his ball with the trajectory and range of a tossed horseshoe. "Unfortunately, [the grass] didn't grab just the hosel. It grabbed the shaft and just turned it down."
Clarke, meanwhile, had the dubious distinction of "half-shanking" a shot from a greenside bunker into an adjoining bunker. But at least he could commiserate with his pal Lee Westwood, who had to play left-handed out of a Lytham sandbox. (Said Westwood, "I can't remember the last time I had to play a left-handed shot, never mind out of the bunker.")
But it wasn't until Thursday afternoon, when the flags started to flutter, that Lytham's menace began to show. Phil Mickelson demonstrated the dire potential when he tried to reach the green from a fairway bunker on No. 8. His ball, hit with authority, rocketed into the bunker face inches above the sod wall and disappeared into herbage so thick that it took several minutes for the golfer and six others, searching on hands and knees, to find it. Deeming his ball unplayable, Mickelson took a drop and managed to salvage bogey.
Some time later, Keegan Bradley and Rory McIlroy — both winners of major championships in 2011 and both cruising at three under — got roughed up on No. 14. Bradley drove into the right rough and then gouged one across the fairway into the left rough, where he decided to take an unplayable rather than risk a sideways pitch back to safety. McIlroy, from a better lie in the right rough, managed to reach the front edge of the green with a muscular swipe, but several grass stalks attached themselves to the bill of his cap. He looked like an infantryman in camouflage.
But there was no escaping the fact that Lytham, today, was not a links in full. "Normally with links golf, if you have 165 yards, you're trying to work it and all that," said Martin Laird. "But today you were just trying to play 165 yards, and [the ball] was stopping. I'm not surprised there's five and six unders out there. You could really attack the golf course."
Those very words, if you think about it, were an attack on the golf course.
But nobody is fooled. McDowell called Royal Lytham a "sleeping giant," and Paul Casey invoked the law of averages, saying, "You're going to have to take your medicine and play sideways out of bunkers. The golfing gods always figure that out." Jamie Donaldson, the wisest golfer of all — for a day, at least — made the unassailable point that "tomorrow is another day."
What kind of day remains to be seen. Personally, I'd like to see some wind.