Tiger hits ground running at Lytham

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- There is little to suggest that Tiger Woods became nostalgic when he arrived on the grounds at Royal Lytham & St. Annes on Sunday for an early-morning practice round. It is not his nature to reflect, his pursuit of greater goals still in full force.

That is why he was on the old links, the preparation for Thursday's opening round of the Open Championship moving from Florida across the Atlantic to the venue being used for the 11th time in the game's oldest tournament.

Woods flew overnight, landed at the nearby Blackpool airport at 7:30 a.m. and was on the Royal Lytham course by 9 local time. From there, it was an 18-hole practice round in which he plotted his way around with only caddie Joe LaCava, paying particular attention to the greens and their contours.

Of course, Woods would very much like to add to his collection of three Claret Jugs, now having gone four full years without a major championship victory, his total stuck on 14.

But before he began piling up the 74 PGA Tour victories and the slew of major wins that includes two victories on the Old Course at St. Andrews and another at Royal Liverpool, Woods played Royal Lytham as an amateur.

And it was an experience he said helped him realize he was ready to play for pay, that he could leave college at Stanford and move on from the amateur game. Just a few weeks after his first trip to Lytham, he would claim his third consecutive U.S. Amateur title.

"That gave me so much confidence,'' Woods, now 36, said about the first time he played here in 1996. "I tied the amateur record at the time for 72 holes. At the time, it gave me confidence that I could do it at a high level. And the fact that I shot that low round -- I made seven birdies in a 12-hole stretch -- I thought for an amateur in a major championship, that was a big step.''

That low score was a 66 in the second round after Woods opened the tournament with a 75. He added rounds of 70-70 on the weekend to finish as the low amateur and his score of 281 matched the record set by Englishman Iain Pyman in 1993 -- which has yet to be matched or broken.

All of this perhaps seems so inconsequential 16 years later, but it is easy to forget -- given all of Woods' success -- that he never threatened to win a pro event as an amateur. He missed his first seven cuts in PGA Tour events as an amateur and his best finish in 14 tries was the Open at Lytham.

Perhaps that is why Woods holds the course in high regard among the nine Open venues. At the top of the list is obviously the Old Course at St. Andrews.

"I love Carnoustie, too,'' said Woods, who noted that the Open Championship is his favorite tournament. "I just think that's a fantastic golf course. Lytham is certainly up there. I like the layout. It's fair. They don't have to trick it up. They don't have to do anything with it. They can play it as the members play it, and it would still be difficult. It's not that long.''

The course will measure 7,086, which is relatively short by today's tour standards. Having played to par 71 during the past two Opens, it has been reduced to par-70, the sixth hole having been converted from a par 5 to a 492-yard par 4.

The outgoing nine is par 34 and par 36 on the incoming nine. Royal Lytham starts with a par 3, has two par 5s and ends with six straight par 4s, only one (the 16th at 336 yards) of which is considered benign. If the prevailing wind is in force, those finishing holes will have players attempting to hang on to their rounds.

Woods noted that the rough is more difficult than he remembered it at Lytham, likely due to the prolific rain the area has seen. "In some places, it is almost unplayable,'' he said.

Nonetheless, Woods was thankful to see the course on a relatively nice day, with the sun shining and the wind blowing.

In each of his previous visits, Woods was under par for the tournament, although not contending on Sunday. Tom Lehman won in '96 and David Duval was the champion in 2001, when Woods tied for 25th.

"It's all dependent on the weather,'' Woods said. "If it's calm, we can shoot some good scores. If it's wet, lush, you've got to be more aggressive. Have to see how it's playing. Some years, it's fast and some it's not. The two years I played it was quick. The ball was traveling quite a bit. They've made a few changes in tee boxes, lengthened a few holes. Most of the bunker adjustments were made the last time.''

The course is unique with 205 bunkers, meaning players have to be extremely cautious off the tees and place their drives in the correct spots. Unlike bunkers in the U.S., the pot bunkers on a links course are extremely penal, often leading to a sideways shot or one that simply gets the ball back in play.

Royal Lytham opens with a 205-yard par 3, and requires a player to try to quickly make something happen.

"You have a nice little start,'' Woods said. "[On] the front nine there is a reachable par 5 and a couple of other easy holes. Once you turn for home, the wind is usually off the left, and you've got some really long par 4s. Wind off the left, long par 4s. It's a tough combo.''

Record rainfall in the United Kingdom has made Royal Lytham soft and lush, although a few rainless days coupled with wind would get the links running quite quickly again. The tournament would gladly take the type of day it had Sunday, as the sun came out and a brisk breeze swept the links.

But that has been abnormal. The locals have all complained about their horrible summer, and more rain is in the forecast for this week, making it possible the course will not be as fiery as hoped.

"That's why I did a lot of work out here,'' Woods said before heading to the driving range. "The next three days I might not get any.''

Still, it is tough to complain about an Open at Lytham, where Bobby Jones won the first of his three Claret Jugs in 1926. Unlike this year's U.S. Open venue, the Olympic Club, known much for producing the unlikely winner over the star player, Lytham has seen a litany of well-known champions.

In addition to Jones, Bobby Locke (1952), Bob Charles (1963), Tony Jacklin (1969), Gary Player (1974), Seve Ballesteros (1979, 88), Tom Lehman (1996) and Duval (2001) were all among the best in the world at the time of their victories. Six of those players are in the Hall of Fame.

Woods, of course, is headed there. But he's not had a top-10 at an Open Championship (he's missed two due to injury) since winning in 2006 at Hoylake.

Not that he's reminiscing. The true work began on Sunday, with the true goal to be holding the Claret Jug on the 18th green in a week's time.