Els made a furious charge on Sunday 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, 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 captured 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 shut up the skeptics who wonder whether he will ever return to being a force in golf. Els last won a tournament at Bay Hill two years ago, though he has 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 it 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 206 or 205 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 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 only hit driver 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, and he wasn’t joking. With rain comes high grass, and it’s so lush that Woods told reporters on Sunday that some spots were unplayable.
That much is certain. Aaron Townsend hit a shot into the rough to the right of the 15th green on Sunday, and it took a marshal standing only a few yards away nearly five minutes to find it.
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 big drive would allow him to get home in two shots. It’s all about staying in the fairway, and not deep in a pot bunker or buried in native grass.
“It’s a course where there’s a certain way you’ve got to play it,” Els said, referring to tee shots having to be in the right spots in the fairway. “It’s a lot like Hoylake. You’ll have a lot of guys doing the same thing. So it’s the guy with the best nerves, the best shotmaking, the guy with the best putter. It’s going to come down to the final bit here. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, you’re going to get yourself in trouble. You’ve got to be sure of yourself.
“It’s a fair test,” he said. “You’re going to get somebody good this week.”
The way the majors have gone, that could be just about anybody. The last 15 majors have gone to 15 players, a streak of parity not seen in golf since 15 different winners from Nick Price at the 1994 PGA Championship through Lee Janzen at the 1998 U.S. Open.
Of those 15 major champions, eight have not won another tournament since capturing their major. That includes Webb Simpson, the U.S. Open champion who has played only twice since Olympic, and is not at Lytham because his wife is expecting.
The weather this week could determine how Lytham plays, with rain in the forecast and a chance for some dry weather during parts of the weekend.
Lytham may look little, but it can play big.
“Like on the sixth hole,” Els said of the 492-yard hole that will be a par 4 for the first time. “You’ve got the bunker left, so I took 2-iron off the tee, and I still had a 2-iron for my second shot. You can do that. Make sure you get it in play. Or, you can take a chance and try to feather it through. There’s all kinds of options here. This is great. This is the best one I’ve seen in a long time.”