British Open golfers will have to hit the mark from the very first tee when the oldest major championship begins tomorrow.
The Royal Lytham and St. Annes course in northern England starts with a 205-yard, par-3 that forces players to make an immediate pinpoint shot or face dropping an early stroke. Six bunkers front the green, with a seventh on the back left side.
“Psychologically it is different because you have to be on your game right away,” 14-time major winner Tiger Woods said at a news conference yesterday. “You can’t just hit a ball in the fairway any distance you want. You have to hit the ball a precise number.”
The opening hole isn’t the only challenge facing the field, which was reduced to 156 today by the withdrawal of Sweden’s Robert Karlsson. The 7,086-yard, par-70 course near the seaside resort town of Blackpool is also dotted with more than 200 bunkers and lined by a heavy, thick rough caused by the U.K.’s wettest summer on record.
“It’s very fair, but it’s very tough,” Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, told reporters yesterday. “It’s certainly 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.”
Play at the third major of the season begins at 6:30 a.m. local time tomorrow. Although rain has dampened practice rounds, clear skies are forecast for the tournament’s four days, according to the U.K.’s Met Office.
No. 1 Ranking
Woods, the bookmakers’ favorite to win a fourth Claret Jug following victories in 2000, 2005 and 2006, will tee off at 9:42 a.m. tomorrow with Englishman Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia of Spain. Woods, 36, has won three times this season, though he hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open.
Woods has climbed to No. 4 in the world rankings and will take over the top spot for the first time since October 2010 if he wins and Donald fails to finish in the top three.
Donald and fellow Englishman Lee Westwood sandwich Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy at the top of the rankings and join Woods among the favorites. Woods is rated the 9-1 top chance by William Hill Plc, ahead of Westwood at 14-1. Donald and McIlroy are 20-1 shots, meaning a successful $1 bet returns $21.
Donald and Westwood are seeking their first major titles. Westwood finished in a tie for third at the Masters Tournament in April and tied for 10th at last month’s U.S. Open.
McIlroy entered last year’s British Open following a record-setting U.S. Open victory. He faltered at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, finishing 12 shots behind countryman Darren Clarke, the surprise winner.
“The hype and everything was so big last year that it maybe had a little bit to do with it,” McIlroy told reporters. “But at the end of the day, I just didn’t play well enough to figure in the tournament.”
If recent history at the majors is any indication, another unexpected champion may be crowned. The past 15 majors have been won by 15 different players, with first-timers taking nine straight titles since Phil Mickelson captured his third Masters victory in 2010.
“You can’t guess who’s going to win,” said Bubba Watson, who won his first major title at Augusta in April. “There’s more and more talent out there. Every week everybody in the field has a chance to win the golf tournament, no matter how old or young you are.”
Whoever wins will have to put a premium on precision around Royal Lytham and its 206 bunkers. Those who are able to hit the ball at specific target areas and avoid the sand will have the advantage over the more aggressive players, according to golfers including Donald and McIlroy.
The thick rough and soft fairways caused by the weather, and the changing winds of a links golf course, may also make it a tournament for shot-makers rather than long-hitters.
“You’re just going to have to really do a good job of trying to keep it out of the fairway bunkers and keeping it out of the rough,” McIlroy said. “That’s going to be the main thing this week.”