14 years ago tomorrow the late great Seve Ballesteros shot a breath-taking six under par 65 in the final round of The Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes to take the Claret Jug for the third time. His final score of -11 gave him victory by two strokes ahead of Zimbabwean Nick Price. The links course in the North-West of England continued to yield low scores the next two times golf's biggest tournament was held there. In 1996 Tom Lehman shot 13 under par while a number of low scores were shot, including three 65s. Five years on and Colin Montgomerie lit up the course with a magnificent opening day 65 before falling away as American David Duval won by three strokes on ten under.
If it was a tough course then it has become even harder to negotiate over the last eleven years. Subtle changes have been made as the course has been lengthened by 213 yards and the sixth hole changed from a par five to a par four; meaning that it now plays as a par 70, not 71. Add 206 bunkers over the eighteen holes and this becomes a real test with good or bad weather. The forecast suggests some sun and some rain with a definite breeze but not overly disruptive winds. Sunday could be the day when the rains really come and the wind increases in speed and this could make for carnage on the final day.
Much has been made of the rough at the course so far this week with many of the top players saying after their practice rounds that it is almost unplayable. Tiger Woods said: "It's just that you can't get out of it. That bottom six inches, in some places is almost unplayable, I've never seen the rough this high or thick and dense." Defending champion Darren Clarke said that there 'could be some lost balls in there'.
Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the Royal and Ancient has defended the rough on the course saying: "The rough is up but the course is reasonably generous on width and most of the players seem happy with it, at least those I have spoken to, maybe 20 or so." Links courses are always difficult and the players should be prepared for a tough examination of their game. World number two Lee Westwood agreed with Dawson: "I'm sure there are some unplayable places in the rough. It's pretty thick and brutal, but if you don't go in it then you don't have a problem with it."
Whoever wins this weekend they will have to be hitting the ball very straight and that is what The Open is about; only players with the best ball control can hope to be successful. Westwood was quietly confident about his chances: I played the golf course last night, which was a genius move because it was nice weather and there was hardly anybody out there, it was one of the best Open Championship practices I ever had.
I was going around yesterday trying to figure out where the birdie opportunities are, and I'm still trying to figure that out. Rather than pick out the birdie opportunities, there's going to be holes out there where par is going to be a good score. That's the way to approach it." The Englishman will go into Thursday as one of the favourites and rightly so after eight top ten finishes in his last 12 major appearances.
Despite there being the usual suspects in the field, the likes of Donald, Westwood, Woods, Mickelson, Harrington and McIlroy, it could be anyone's Claret Jug this year. With the rough high and the course littered with bunkers all the players will struggle if they cannot keep the ball on the fairway. While good putting is always key during an Open championship the accuracy from tee-to-green will be most important this week. This is why Westwood will go in as a hot favourite, as will Woods. Nevertheless any player who can hit form will be in with an excellent chance. Two-time champion Padraig Harrington goes into the tournament in good spirits after top 15 finishes in his last four PGA Tour events and a tie for 16th in the Scottish Open last week and many will tip him for glory.
This year's Open championship is sure to be decided by who can combine precise hitting with solid putting. The winner could well be a first-time winner, like the previous nine major tournaments, or a person with experience of victory, possibly Woods or Harrington. Anyone who fails to keep their swing in good order will be found out by a Royal Lytham course that will clamp down its jaws on any erratic shots.