With the British, Royal Lytham is the least favorite of all the Open sites, largely because of Blackpool itself, but there were enough people in town to support everything, from the shows on the piers to the gigantic amusement park in the heart of town to all of the postcard-bingo-rockcandy-fortuneteller-fish and chips-disco-casino places, as well as the British Open itself. It merely drew a record 90,625 over four days.
Although Bobby Jones won the first Open held at Lytham, in 1926, and the other four winners have been men of substance—Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Bob Charles and Tony Jacklin—the course has suffered, at least until last week, a reputation of being one that fails to bring out the best golf from the best players.
Certainly, it has a bizarre layout. It is surely the only course ever to hold a major championship that begins with a par-3 hole. It is also the only one anybody can think of that concludes with six consecutive par-4s. But it was precisely these last holes, all of which had to be played in head winds and crosswinds, that provided most of the tournament's drama and, in fact, settled the championship.
During the first two rounds when the winds blew the hardest, Player appeared to be the only golfer at all capable of handling Lytham. His 69 the first day was managed despite a double bogey at the long, cruel 17th, and his 68 on the second day just might have been one of the finest rounds he has ever played. He pulled that off despite a couple of painful lies on the toughest holes in the toughest gales.
There he is way out in the gorse and garbage of the par-4 17th, where he had made the double bogey the day before. He's about 100 yards from the hole in 2, and the wind is howling. But Player does something miraculous with an eight-iron, punching it blindly into the teeth of the wind, bouncing it over the sandhills, and the ball creeps up to within six inches of the flag.
Now he comes to the 18th, where the drive sort of has to fit into a space about the size of a discount store aisle. He hits into the rough and is faced with a six-iron toward seven bunkers and the Lytham clubhouse, a green with hardly any entrance at all—and in a bitter crosswind. So he gouges the shot up there about three feet from the cup for a birdie.
This gave Player a 4-3 finish on a day in which most in the field were going 6-5, and also left him with a whopping five-stroke lead through 36 holes or, to get downright historic about it, the largest lead anyone had held in the championship at the halfway point in 40 years.
Things continued along in that unprecedented fashion, rather as Player thought they might. He has been in a rare, immensely confident mood all year, one that sometimes borders on the mystic. He declares, for example, that with what he has discovered in his swing and in his head, it is now impossible for him to hit a wild hook. "I'm almost in a trance," he said not long ago, while refusing to shake hands with friends. "I feel I've got tremendous power within myself now. I don't want to shake hands too often because I don't want to transmit my power to someone else."
So, from black clothes to black magic. What else but this incredible faith in himself, in his destiny, can explain how he could so completely conquer Royal Lytham and St. Annes? And it was, as well, the best thing that ever could have happened to the humorous old place, because there certainly couldn't be too much wrong with a golf course that produces Gary Player as the winner.