- Open Championship
A test of character and ability, not luckAlex Dimond at Royal Lytham & St Annes July 18, 2012
A lot of random factors might end up deciding this week's Open champion - but it looks like the weather will not be one of them.
Fifteen different major champions have won the last 15 different majors, an indication of the level playing field (figuratively, if almost never literally) today's professional golfers have managed to cultivate.
Some of those winners - for example, Rory McIlroy - have earned their triumph by being far and away the best player on that given week. Others - Stewart Cink, to name one - have needed another party to crumble in order to finally celebrate the sweet taste of success.
Twelve months on from his career-defining victory, only an observer straddling the thin line between brave and foolish would suggest that Darren Clarke did not belong in the latter category. Since completing his professional life's aim and lifting the Claret Jug, the Northern Irishman has gone on a run of golf so desperately poor even Todd Hamilton probably feels bad for him.
Recent results only serve to suggest that Clarke got lucky in Kent last year - and the biggest way in which he got lucky was with the weather.
Selected to play late on Thursday and early on Friday, Clarke (and the rest of the field on his side of the draw) miraculously managed to avoid the worst of the weather on both of the opening two days, allowing himself to take advantage of the best of the conditions and put himself in a strong position going into the weekend.
Of course, he still had to go on and finish off the job - but other strong contenders had already been virtually ruled out of the running due to the sheer misfortune of their tee-time. Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler (who clawed his way to a creditable tied-fifth finish anyway) and Sergio Garcia among them.
McIlroy ended up claiming in a somewhat impetuous fit that he never liked links golf anyway, an outburst he acknowledged on Tuesday was linked to his annoyance about his misfortune with his start time.
"Yeah, those comments were just pure frustration with having really high expectations going into it, coming off a major win, and really wanting to play well, get into contention," McIlroy said. "Blaming the weather, blaming the draw, blaming my luck, basically - that was just frustration. [But] I just didn't play well enough to get into contention and didn't handle the conditions as best as I could have."
That particular mitigating factor should not be in play this week, however - the weather forecast, as inaccurate as that can be, is for conditions to remain broadly similar throughout Thursday and Friday (with the wind stiffening in the evenings), meaning both sides of the draw should get a fair crack of the whip.
What is more, experience of the Fylde layout from past Opens (most likely in 1996 and 2001) should not really help too much. The course that Ernie Els, for example, picked up two top tens at is markedly different this time round, with many holes not just longer, but also subtly redefined.
WEATHER FORECAST FOR WEEK AT LYTHAM
- Thursday: Cloudy with chance of rain early on, clearing up later in the day. Wind 10-20mph, starting south-to-southwest but switching during day to norhwest.
Friday: Mostly dry and sunny. Wind 10-20mph northeast.
Saturday: Mostly dry with sunny spells. Wind north-to-northeast 5-10mph
Sunday: Mostly dry with increased cloud cover. Wind upto 25mph, gusting southeast.
"This is nowhere near the golf course, nowhere near like the golf course we played in 2001 here," Padraig Harrington said on Tuesday, when asked for his impressions of the layout. "It's so different that it's untrue."
The pre-tournament conditions - to put it concisely, 'rain' - have not helped. Greens are running slow and the rough in some places is nigh-on impossible to hack out of, but fairways still run out a bit - bringing bunkers firmly into play - without giving up ridiculous yardage.
"The two years that I played [1996 and 2001] we didn't see it like this," Tiger Woods concurred. "This is different. The rough is more lush. The fairways are softer. The ball is not chasing as much.
"It's a slower golf course, but still, nonetheless, it has some mounding in it. The bunkers are penal. And it's just something that we as players are just going to have to just plod our way around."
Adapting to conditions, then, will be important. Experience of contending in big events will also come in handy, but the actual understanding of the particular test the Royal & Ancient Club have laid on this week will have had to have been garnered in practice.
If Adilson da Silva, a qualifier from Brazil, has practised more diligently than Adam Scott, for example, it could well show up on the 36-hole leaderboard.
Lytham has been presented to give everyone in the field an equal opportunity.
"I think it's a fair golf course, and I think it's one that's a lot harder than it looks, at first impression," Lee Westwood noted. "Yes, it's fairly flat and almost dull-like, but the more you play, I think the more you enjoy it."
But is that not what the Open is about? It's 'Open' for a reason - in theory any player from around the world can qualify for it, and thus go on to win it. We might see our 16th different major winner in four years come Sunday afternoon but, as it should be, that person will almost certainly have reached the summit without help from variables beyond his control.
Well, as much as is possible for a sport where a chip-in or a lip-out can be the difference between the best and the rest.