Hitting fairways a must at fearsome Royal Lytham

The wet sand might make escaping the bunkers tougher than ever.

Hitting fairways a must at fearsome Lytham

With more than 200 yawning bunkers and rough supercharged by summer rain, Royal Lytham looks absolutely fearsome. That means staying in the fairway is more important than ever.

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Let's see. We have a links course that's about a half-mile removed from the shore, separated from the Irish Sea and its sometimes vexing breezes by clusters of red brick houses, engaging pubs and stately, steepled churches and bordered on one side by a railway line. 

Royal Lytham & St. Annes starts with a par 3, too. How non-traditional is that?

Make no mistake, though. The course that hosts the 141st Open Championship will be a challenge from the first well-struck iron to a green protected by seven of Royal Lytham's 206 bunkers to the final putt holed before the thousands cheering in those towering grandstands at the 18th hole.

Fair, but tough are the words used most frequently to describe the way the R&A has set Royal Lytham up. But unseasonably wet weather has produced rough, wispy at the top but dense at the bottom, that in some spots can best be deemed "absolutely brutal," according to defending champion Darren Clarke, although tabloid reports early this week that Tiger Woods called it "unplayable" left out the important qualifier, almost.

"If you start spraying the ball around this week, you might as well go home," Clarke said simply. "There's no chance coming out of this rough at all. ... There's a really huge premium on accuracy this week."

Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo, who played in 10 Opens before reinventing himself, called the rough "penal" -- particularly the final few inches. "They still have the wispy stuff, but normally you would have firm ground underneath it," he said. "Now, it is like the American two- or three-inch Bermuda with long grass on top of it. A very punishing blend."

Even with volunteers on hand to spot the wayward shots, Clarke said wouldn't be surprised to see balls become lost in the thick stuff this week. And sometimes discovery actually is no bargain. 

"Even if they do find the balls in some of those areas, I don't know if you'll be able to take a full swing and move it," the affable Northern Irishman with that impish grin said. 

Lee Westwood, who is one of the game's best ball-strikers, doesn't figure to get into as much trouble as some so the man who has finished third of better in six of his last 11 majors must be anxious to get going. But he thinks there could be times when a player simply needs to take his medicine if his ball strays off the planet. 

"Find somewhere to drop it and go back in line," Westwood said. "But I think that's part of the game of golf, there should be penalties for hitting it off line."  

The R&A agrees with Westwood's assessment. 

"The champion on Sunday I doubt will have won from the rough," noted its executive director, Peter Dawson. "I think he'll be winning from the short grass, so there's a premium on hitting fairways this week, obviously."

In a weird way, then, the abundant bunkering could be a plus -- even though world No. 1 Luke Donald admitted to feeling a "little bit claustrophobic" on some holes. Rory McIlroy likes the "definition" the bunkers add to the course and the targets they provide. The bunkers don't simply stop in the landing area and return to guard the green, either.

"There's a lot of them, but they're very well placed," Phil Mickelson said. "And it does still give you an opportunity to strategically avoid them off the tee and have decisions as to which line you want to take and which bunkers you want to try to bring into play and take out of play."

Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington said the wet sand could make it harder to get the ball up and out of the steep-faced bunkers quickly enough. Clarke called the ample bunkers a "nightmare" and said he wouldn't be surprised to see players have to take penalty drops out of some, particularly the ones where the faces are revetted.  

"At any links golf course you've got to stay out of the bunkers, because you can't get to the green," said Tiger Woods, the 14-time major champion who looks to end a Grand Slam drought of four years. "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 backwards. 

"But 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. St. Andrews a lot of bunkers you just can't see. But here they're raised up high enough where you can hit a fade or draw, but they're starting points. You can actually see where they begin and end." 

Thread the ball successfully on the short grass around those bunkers and hole putts on greens that will only add fire as the week progresses and you'll have a chance to lift the Claret Jug come Sunday. But don't go out and press for birdies, Westwood says, be practical and play for the pars that can be pivotal.

"I do like this course," Donald said. "... It's certainly, I think, going to produce the guy who plays the best because there's no escaping some holes; you've just got to step up there and hit good tee shots.  You aren't going to find lucky lies in the rough. You're not going to be able to get to the greens from the bunkers.  

"It's about hitting fairways, hitting greens, and hopefully I can do that."