LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – Ernie Els walked toward the century-old clubhouse that sits squarely behind the 18th green at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Just the sight of it was enough to bring back a memory. It wasn’t a particularly good one.
Els made a furious Sunday charge in 1996, his first time in serious contention at the British Open. He chipped away at an eight-shot deficit to Tom Lehman until he was slowed by a bogey on the 16th and another on the 18th for a 67. That left him two shots behind, having to wait around to see if Lehman would somehow make a double bogey on the 16th hole.
“I was sitting in that damn locker room there,” Els said Monday, smiling as he pointed toward a darkened glass window in the clubhouse.
He wasn’t alone.
Next to him that day was a 20-year-old amateur, Tiger Woods, who had a 66 in the second round and was low amateur for the week at Lytham. Woods was asking Els for advice on whether he was ready to turn pro.
“He was trying to figure out his future, and I was trying to figure out if the guy was going to make double bogey or not,” Els said. “Tom made par and Tiger turned pro. I was (doomed) either way.”
Els broke into easy laughter. He eventually won the claret jug six years later at Muirfield. As for the kid at his table? Woods turned pro, and now has three claret jugs among his 14 majors. Els has been a runner-up to Woods seven times, the most of any player.
They are at different places in their careers coming into the 141st British Open, which returns to Lytham for the 11th time when it starts Thursday.
Woods has won three times this year on the PGA Tour, again is the betting favorite whenever he plays and needs only another major championship to silence the skeptics who wonder whether he’ll ever return to being a force in golf.
Els last won at Bay Hill in 2010, though he’s given himself a chance in four tournaments this year, including the U.S. Open last month at Olympic.
The state of their game might be defined by this British Open.
Royal Lytham & St. Annes is identified mainly by its size and its views, or lack thereof in both cases. It is situated on the smallest piece of property of any links course in the Open rotation, and is the only course that does not offer a glimpse of the water – the Irish Sea in this case.
A railway runs along the right side of the outward nine, with homes surrounding the rest of the property. And then there are the bunkers – now under debate whether there are 205 or 206 of them. Masters champion Bubba Watson counted 17 bunkers on the closing hole.
But perhaps the most compelling characteristic of the course is the list of Open champions it has produced.
Bobby Jones in 1926, the year he became the first player to win the British Open and U.S. Open in the same season. Bobby Locke and Peter Thomson, who combined for eight Open titles in 10 years. Tony Jacklin, the last Englishman to win an Open on English soil. Lehman, nine months before his brief stay at No. 1 in the world. David Duval, two years after he dethroned Woods atop the world ranking.
Els recently told newspaper Scotland on Sunday that advances in equipment “have had a huge effect on the ability of anyone to separate himself from the rest.” But in links golf, he’s not sure that’s the case. Royal Lytham & St. Annes, at only 7,060 yards as a par 70, is not a course that can be overpowered, even in green conditions.
Links golf is at its best when the grass is brown from sunshine and dry spells, such as Royal Liverpool in 2006 when Woods used his driver only once. This year, when the rain never seems to stop in England, the course is softer and not quite running as fast.
Regardless, it’s about keeping the ball on grass instead of in the bunkers. And it’s about keeping it out of the rough, which Watson described as hay.
Watson went around Monday morning before the heavy rain arrived, and he rarely showed off his pink driver. Even on the 592-yard seventh hole, he hit iron off the tee when a booming drive would allow him to get home in two shots.