This is the last installment of our Northwest England trip with Golfbreaks.com Please check out both Part I and Part II of the podcast that we recorded on the last night of the trip prior to flying back to our respective locales. The trip included rounds at six courses over four days, starting with The Belfry, and followed by West Lancashire, Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool, Wallasey, and Royal Lytham & St Annes.
Royal Lytham & St Annes
Lytham was the last stop on our whirlwind tour of Northwest England. Sitting here finishing this writeup months after the fact, my recollection of our time at Lytham is distinctly different from the rest of the trip. The placid conditions and brilliant sunshine we encountered for the previous three-plus days gradually morphed into a hazier, windswept day that felt more like October than March. Add the Sunday Scaries, an eerily empty course, and 206 bunkers to the mix and it was like the trip had ended and we were facing a layover in the tribal regions of Tora Bora before connecting homeward to our respective destinations. We rolled in from a morning round at Wallasey and drove the hour or so north, past Southport, to the conurbation of Lytham St Annes (and we all learned a new word!)
My expectations for Lytham were somewhat subdued, owing partly to playing five distinctly unique courses over the previous three days and partly to our host, James, tempering expectations for the afternoon when he glossed Lytham as a brutally difficult test lacking the scenic elements of the other courses on the itinerary (we later found out he grew up nearby and had a couple rough tournament rounds in juniors out there, possibly coloring his recollection a tad.) And while the course is hemmed in on all sides by houses and does not meet the sea, I found it distinctly charming and unique. The routing, the railroad tracks that abut the front nine, the clubhouse, the stereotypically English row-houses, and the walking paths criss-crossing the course all contributed to the atmosphere. But in the end the 206 bunkers are my enduring memory.
Any discussion of Lytham begins and ends with the routing, which is “out and back” all the way – the ninth green being the farthest point from the clubhouse. As such, the direction of the wind was of the utmost importance, and as was the case for the entirety of the trip, we were buffeted by a wind that came from the opposite that complicated matters on the normally-benign par three opening hole (love a one-shotter to lead things off – all too rare), turning a straightforward 200 yard poke into a litmus test that eviscerated anything with too much backspin. The 2nd hole was 425 dead into the wind, the third was 460 dead-in with train tracks all down the right on both. I probably looked more like a hobo than a golfer, having spent the bulk of the second and third holes on/over/near the tracks.
The one refrain that we heard from anyone before we showed up was “gotta make the most of the scoring opportunities on that front nine and then buckle up!” At this point in the round it seemed like everyone had just been blowing smoke up our asses.
The 4th hole (pictured above) provided a brief respite before the windward 5-9 stretch, all dead in. This flat, relatively nondescript piece of land has a lot more bite than bark, with hollows, mounding and rolls that would make Perry Maxwell blush. The bunkers were impeccably-placed, many times in clusters, which made the sheer number of them that much more astounding. The sixth (pictured below) provided a perfect example of this, with the fairway breaking more severely in multiple directions than most of the greens we played on the trip.
The stretch of holes 8 through 11 was my favorite of the entire trip – strategic, quirky and fun. The 8th is a 400 yard two-shotter to an elevated green, the train tracks all down the right and the green fronted by cavernous bunkers. At first glance the green looked out of place, belonging more at Bethpage, but once we reached the top of it and saw the rest of this corner of the property it blended in seamlessly. Below are the train tracks from 8 tee:The approach up the hill to 8 green:A spot of bother on 8:The 9th (below) is reminiscent of the corner pocket on a billiards table. Tucked into a quaint nook with a church behind, seven gratuitously deep bunkers, and the falsest of fronts. This one was like a mid-round recess – a distinct change of pace from the long irons we’d been grappling with.The 10th (below) is a fantastic shorter four with a demanding drive between two mounds, but since it was downwind for us it was nearly drivable, albeit to a severe back to front green. I’d decided that I loved the place by the time we reached the 11th, a hulking, dogleg-left par five. Instead of bunkers looming brutishly and aggressively, at Royal Lytham they blend seamlessly into the surrounds, sitting light on the terrain, some featuring curves that softened their presentation. Also, the penalty exacted for finding bunkers varied widely, as if Harry Colt very consciously assigned different penalty values ranging from a half shot to two shots depending upon how egregious your miss. That strategic nuance, coupled with the understated, classy curves, provide for an emminently fair test. Before I stop gushing about the 11th I’ll add that the tight rolls in the fairway were unforgettable.
Looking back at the bunker guarding the right side of 11 green:The 12th is as tough a flat, hazardless par three as you’ll find. Also notable because I somehow ended up in the “taint” between the right bunkers (seen below) and wrecked my round trying to thread the needle between them with a texas wedge, which I was hopelessly addicted to by the end of the trip.One of my keenest Open Championship memories is of Adam Scott bogeying the last four holes in 2012 to lose in an unbearable fashion to Ernie Els. I was gutted for him at the time and carried that with me as we played the closing stretch. The last six holes are par fours, and once you get through the 13th it gets downright mean, especially off the tee. Here’s genteel 13th:After growing accustomed to the long, consistent routing of the first twelve holes, the zig-zag of the last six is a jolt, as each hole plays in a distinctly different direction, making shot shape a priority. With sand hills outlining the fairways, OB directly right of 14 green, a semi-blind approach into the 464 yard 15th, a completely blind tee shot on the short 16th, the sixteen bunkers lining the 467-yard hellscape that is the 17th, and the menacing lines of fairway bunkers on the 18th it this is undoubtedly one of the most demanding finishing stretches in golf. You can’t hide. If you get out of position you get exposed quickly and bleed out to close your round out (unless you’re Seve, who I would’ve paid top dollar to watch shape the ball around this course with a balata). The 18th is eminently fun – so gettable, yet so much trouble lurking at the same time. I apologize for the lack of pictures of the last five holes – the lighting got a little dark and we were grinding! Here’s a look at 15 tee showing the expanse of the property:
Of the six courses we played this was the one that I yearn to go back and play the most, particularly late in the season when it plays even firmer (and also on an occasion when we can enjoy the macked-out clubhouse, as our timing did not allow us to spend any time in there.) The course presents a unique strategic challenge, forcing decisive shots on every nearly every hole and rewarding those who can shape the ball and hold the wind.
This write-up led me down the rabbit hole of Opens heat Royal Lytham & St Annes and I had a few takeaways, mostly having to do with this being the ultimate “horses for courses” venue for the choicest ballstrikers (see: Duval, Sorenstam, Lehman, Jones, Els):
- Because of the way Adam Scott lost in 2012, Ernie Els doesn’t seem to get enough credit for his 68-68 weekend. In the other two times the Open was held here during his career he finished T2 (’96 when Lehman won) and T3 (’01 when Duval won)
- Peter Thomson, who won seemingly everywhere we played on the trip, finished solo second in ’52, then won in ’58, fifth in ’63, T3 in ’69, and T26 at the age of 50 in ’79.
- Nicklaus never won here but he stacked up a few top fives (in the midst of his 18 year stretch in the Open when he finished outside the top 10 just once (a T12) and outside the top 5 just twice. Insane.
- BigCat should’ve been right there in 2012 – tripled 6 and then bogeyed 9, 13, 14, 15 coming in to lose by four. Not good!
All said, perfect place to close out the long weekend. I’d highly recommend hitting Lytham & St Annes on a day when you’re playing just one round, and after you have a few rounds under your belt on the trip, as you’ll want your game sharp and your tank full for a course that demonstrates better than most how to defend par without distance.Special thanks to James’ dad, Scott Somerside for the fantastic photos. A few more: