By Ted Bishop
Guest sports columnist
— On Monday the headlines in the Daily Express, a local U.K. newspaper, said, “It’s too tough for Tiger — Open favourite Woods claims Lytham hazard is simply unplayable.” Sometimes the media can sensationalize with a headline, but not here.
Neil Spires who wrote the article said, “Tiger Woods took one look at Royal Lytham yesterday and declared the venue for the Open Championship unplayable. The pre-tournament favourite’s verdict after flying overnight for his practice round was that the rough, fed by the wet summer, is so thick as to render it virtually inescapable.”
“Oh my God,” said Woods. “It’s just that you can’t get out of it. The bottom six inches is so lush.
“The wispy stuff we’ve always faced at every British Open, but at the bottom it’s almost unplayable in some places. I’ve never seen the rough this high and dense,” added Woods.
Royal Lytham was already considered by many to be the toughest test in the Open rotation. Now some fear it could become a bloodbath as the rainiest summer on record in the U.K. offers no let up this week. More rain is forecast and it has all of the players talking.
“It’s an eye opener. The course plays very difficult and you really have to drive it well here to have any chance to score,” said Keegan Bradley, PGA Champion. “I am trying to avoid the rough at all costs. It’s very spotty. One foot to the left and you are hitting it to the green. Another foot and you are chipping it out to the fairway. It’s a flip of the coin whether you’re going to get a good lie or not.”
On Monday I played down the road at Royal Birkdale, site of nine Open Championships and a Ryder Cup. I found the playing conditions to be the toughest I ever experienced. Birkdale is a tight driving course by links standards and virtually any ball that bounded into the rough off the fairways or greens was lost. Tiger’s description of Lytham’s rough was accurate. The bottom six inches of the 18 inch rough is like a jungle.
Bradley understated it. It’s a flip of the coin on whether or not you will find your ball. You will lose that flip more times than not. I played Birkdale with PGA secretary Derek Sprague and between the two of us we probably lost a dozen balls.
I told Sprague, “If this was a war, you and I are unloading our guns at an enemy we can’t hit! We are defenseless out here. The course is just waiting us out. Eventually, we could run out of ammo and it’s going to creep up on us and just snap our necks!”
We each made a couple of birdies and we did hit a few good shots. But, the severity of the rough and the consequences of being in it, made each and every hole more intimidating.
On Monday night I ran into Steve Stricker in the hotel lobby. He had a tough finish at the John Deere on Sunday missing his fourth straight win at the Deere due to an errant driver on the final few holes. He had flown overnight to Lytham on a charter provided by John Deere and was just returning from 9 holes at Lytham. Unshaven and a bit weary from jet lag, Stricker was still his pleasant self.
I mentioned his errant tee shots from the day before and he just grinned, shook his head and said, “Yeah, if I do that here I am toast. The rough is probably the most brutal I have ever seen.”
Even Englishman Paul Casey, more used to links conditions, acknowledged to me that the rough could be a major problem.
“I think it’s a fair test, but the rough is brutal in places and the weather forecast is not good.”
Maybe Keegan Bradley, who will be playing in only his third major and first Open Championship, summed it up best. He stopped short of claiming the Open at Lytham is a lottery, but says that without Lady Luck smiling upon you, you have no chance.
“There’s a little more luck involved over here — you get a weird hop and it skips around a bunker — so hopefully I have a little luck stored up,” mused Bradley.
The fact that everybody has shifted their attention from the 206 bunkers that Lytham has buried in its ground to the rough that haunts errant shots is probably the biggest indicator of how tough this place will be.
If you are looking for a winner, here’s a look at some of the PGA Tour’s most accurate drivers. Graeme McDowell is No. 2 on the list. He grew up in Northern Ireland and knows these conditions well. G-Mac has seen his game improve in recent weeks. His tough resolve and accuracy off the tee could be the difference.
Three Americans stand out in the PGA Tour’s Driving Accuracy statistics. Ben Curtis, himself a former Open Champion, ranks in the top 10. Also near the top are Hunter Mahan and Jason Dufner. Curtis seems to play his best in majors and the other two are up and comers who know how to win.
But, after all, this is the U.K. and these conditions would seem to favor an accurate European player. No. 1 one on their Tour stats list in driving accuracy is Adilson Da Silva. He qualified for this Open despite being the 500th ranked player in the world today. His European Tour winnings for 2012 are a paltry $32,500 pounds. Da Silva has hit fairways with an amazing 85 percent accuracy this summer. The leader on the PGA Tour is at 72 percent.
Da Silva tees off at 6:41 a.m. on Thursday. That’s 1:41 a.m. in the Eastern time zone. So, if you wake up and see that name on the leader board, remember that you heard it here first — even though Royal Lytham’s history says that a quality player will win this Open.
• Ted Bishop is a Logansport native and is the PGA Vice President. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.