England's Golf Coast - 40 miles of unadulterated golf heaven

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February 20, 2008
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

At a special meeting of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club's Championship Committee, held in St. Andrews in 1922, the following declaration was made, "The Open shall henceforth be only played on links courses, to provide a true test for the skilled players". As it happens, every Open Championship played prior to that announcement had only been played over links courses. Concerns regarding the "alarming proliferation" of inland courses at the time prompted the 1922 clarification.

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Royal Birkdale hosts the 2008 British Open
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Royal Lytham & St. Annes will host The Open again in 2012
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Royal Liverpool's 11th Open was in 2006
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Southport & Ainsdale has twice hosted The Ryder Cup
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Hillside is Royal Birkdale's neighbor and of a similar high caliber
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Formby is ranked # 30 in the British Isles and a unique Lancashire test
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Lest there be any misunderstanding, the R&A has made it clear, The Open will always be a serious examination of links abilities and will only be played over the very best and most demanding of links courses that meet the exacting standards the R&A has set out.

With that little piece of golf history established, it probably comes as no surprise to learn that in The Open's 148 year history, a grand total of only 14 links courses have been invited to host the event -- 7 located in Scotland, 1 in Northern Ireland and 6 in England. Unfortunately, not all were able to keep pace with the fast developing game of the early 20th century -- some have faltered over the years and been removed from the most exclusive club of Open venues. Today's Open rota, as the prestigious list is officially referred to, has been reduced to just 9 links courses -- 5 in Scotland and 4 in England.

To most American golfers, The Open rota courses located in England are probably the least familiar, although they should be as well known as Scotland's most famous. The standard of England's very best links layouts is nothing less than St. Andrews, Carnoustie or Royal Troon and they are certainly a match for Muirfield and Turnberry - many would argue, they might even be tougher.

With the single exception of Royal St. George's, which lies tucked away on England's most southeasterly coastline, separated from France by 18 miles of water, the remaining English trio is extremely convenient for the visiting American golfer to play. Literally grouped together along a brief length of England's northwest coastline, known as England's Golf Coast, direct trans-Atlantic air service from the USA into Manchester Airport is only a 45-minute drive away and the three Open venues are all equally close to each other.

Royal Birkdale will be familiar, as the scene of this year's nail biting thriller of an Open and Royal Liverpool, which hosted as recently as 2006 when Tiger won, should also ring a bell. Perhaps the least known of this trio of Open Royals is Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where the great Bobby Jones took the first of his three Open titles in 1926. This was also Royal Lytham's inaugural year as an Open venue and 2012 will mark the 11th occasion this very special links has been so honored.

At first glance, Royal Lytham may appear to be an unlikely candidate to be sitting on the elite list of Open venues. But looks are often deceiving and never more so than along this Lancashire coastline.

Surrounded by redbrick suburban sprawl with a railway track on one side and the Irish Sea more than a mile away, Royal Lytham is certainly no beauty contest winner and you may have doubts you have found the right place, but don't judge the book by the cover. This is a pure links and one of the finest in the entire British Isles, where it is ranked # 10, ahead of Ireland's Ballybunion, England's Wentworth, Scotland's Royal Dornoch and even further ahead of such legendary names as Royal Troon, Portmarnock and Lahinch. If you're looking for even more references, consider the fact that on two occasions - 1961 and 1977 - Royal Lytham also hosted the Ryder Cup.

From Bobby Jones' first Open victory here in 1926, it took a full 70 years for the second American to win an Open title over these testing holes, when Tom Lehman broke the jinx in 1996. Five years on, David Duval became only the third American to find victory in the 10 Opens Lytham has hosted, joining Bob Charles, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Tony Jacklin, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros - the select few who have mastered this monster for Open glory.

Royal Lytham's defense arsenal is impressive and for the less experienced links golfer, downright frightening. The course's distance from the sea does nothing to lessen the effects of a merciless wind, which is as cantankerous as can be found on any links layout. For any who may be fearful of deep ominous British bunkers, your fears are well founded here as you will be navigating through a minefield of an astounding 196 of them, each placed with a cunning determination to destroy every scorecard -- Lytham simply demands accuracy and strategy from start to finish.

The greens are maintained immaculately, with a tendency to be slick, pushing the ball toward the ever-present, pot bunkers that surround them. This is a course that presents an ever-changing variety of difficulties and challenges, delighting in relentlessly testing every aspect of your game. It will poke and probe until a weakness is found, then exploit it to the fullest. This is serious golf for serious golfers, with never even a hint of an apology for the severity of the challenges.

Any dreams of achieving par demands nothing less than excellence on the front nine, bounded the full length by a railway track. Though considered somewhat more forgiving than the back nine, these words are used relatively -- Lytham gives nothing away!

The opener is a 206-yard, par 3, the first of three short holes. With out of bounds running down the right hand side and a green jealously protected by a battalion of seven hungry bunkers, it's a fitting though unusual introduction to a great links.

Royal Lytham's true fame is discovered on the back nine, with the wicked 14th, one of the toughest on the course. The 15th shows even less friendliness, demanding a troublesome drive to an angled fairway. The short par-4 16th offers a brief though welcome break, but beware, this is only a prelude to the closing holes, each possessing a frightening determination to crush even the most accomplished player.

By the time you reach the impressive Victorian clubhouse, weary and battle-worn, you will have developed a newfound respect for this ugly duckling of a links as so many have before. Whatever may be lacking in good looks is more than made up for in character, history and a challenge that takes second place to no other course in the Kingdom.

For suggestions on how to include Royal Lytham & St. Annes and other British Open venues on your trip, Click here.

©2008 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Golf International -- Providers of quality golf travel arrangements since 1988.

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