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Lytham's Test Endures

The Course Remains Challenging as in Bobby Jones' Day

Posted May 01, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

bobby jones

In announcing details of this year’s Open Championship, R and A chief executive, Peter Dawson, admitted that the overall length of Royal Lytham would be “very close to the maximum” possible on this famous piece of Lancashire linkland.   This is after adding 181 yards to the overall length from the 2001 staging at Lytham, bringing the stretch to a total of 7,086 yards.

So, should we be concerned by this disclosure?  Are we looking to the eventual removal of Lytham from the Open rota?  Is all of this an inevitable consequence of a no-holds-barred approach by the R and A and the US Golf Association to modern technology?                  

Some interesting answers to those questions are to be found in the soon-to-be-published book “Bobby’s Open, Mr Jones and the Golf Shot that Defined a Legend”, which deals with the Open triumph of Bobby Jones at Lytham in 1926.  Having been turned down for the 1923 Open, the Lancashire venue was stretched to 6,600 yards for the 1926 staging.  All of which means that this year’s yardage will represent an overall increase of only 7.6 per cent in 86 years.
Now let us consider some shots that were hit on that occasion. As it happened, a long-driving competition was held on the eve of the event from which Jones and Walter Hagen were among leading challengers to opt out.  It was won by England’s Archie Compston with a remarkable  effort of 288yds 3ins and a total of 790yds 7ins for a combined best three drives from four. 

Then there was shot of the championship, the famous four-iron of close on 175 yards which Jones hit from a sandy lie in the rough to the left of the 17th in the final round and which is commemorated with an inscribed stone.  Surely this shot emphasises the huge difference in length between players like Jones and present-day practitioners?  The answer is, not really.

For a start, it can be taken that Jones would have hit a five iron but for the sandy lie which called for an extra club. But most importantly, the lofts on golf irons in those days were very different to today’s implements.  In effect, today’s irons are about two clubs stronger, which means that Jones would have hit a seven iron 175 yards with a modern club. 

On his last visit to St Andrews in 1958 as non-playing captain of the US team in the inaugural Eisenhower Trophy, he gave a press conference on the eve of the event.  In it, the great man gave his impressions of the Old Course as it was then, compared with 30 years previously when he had been defying amateur and professional rivals to magical effect.

He pointed out that advances in greenkeeping and general changes in the care of the course had made for lower scoring.  There was an inescapable hint of criticism, however, in his observation that heavier growth had largely eliminated the running shot to the green, which he regarded as a more skilful shot than the high pitch which had gained universal popularity.

Then there was the introduction of steel shafts which had been legalised only shortly before he retired in 1930.  Jones used them himself for the first time in 1931 and pointed out that present-day experts (1958) could hit with full power all the time whereas with the hickory, much more discretion was required, with the result that low scores in all four rounds of a 72-hole event were rarely achieved, even by Jones himself.

Crucially, he went on to claim that steel, in his view, gave players an advantage of one to two strokes per round.  He also suggested that the development had been responsible for a levelling of standards at the top, thereby making it more difficult for any individual to dominate the game (as he had done).

Finally, he expressed regret at the apparent reluctance of American professionals to travel to the Open Championship, compared with the 1920s, when he was competing.  In his view, weekly, big-money tournaments in the US were proving to be too great a counter-attraction.  It seemed that money was more important than status. Only two years later, however, the arrival of Arnold Palmer for the Centenary Open on the Old Course, was to change all that.

Interestingly, in an interview at Augusta National in 1968, Jones claimed that the biggest difference between the modern player and competitors of his day was putting.  He said: "When I scored 66 at Sunningdale in the Open Qualifying of 1926, I holed only two putts of more than moderate length.  Nowadays, players seem unhappy if they don't get down several long ones.  Incidentally, that 'perfect round' was far from perfect; I was never completely satisfied with more than six shots in any round."  The reference to that as the "perfect round" had to do with the fact that it contained two nines and 33 putts.

All of which serves to emphasise just how good a player he was, to have done such scores in such circumstances.  And we will discover in July that the challenge of Lytham has endured with similar distinction.

- Dermot Gilleece

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