LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND - It does not have the tradition of St. Andrews.
It might not have the stature of Carnoustie or the history of Muirfield.
What the links course at Royal Lytham and St. Annes has, as shown below in the 10 previous times it has been host of the British Open, is the ability to crown champions who are at or near the summit of the game.
It starts with legendary amateur Bobby Jones, who won the first Open contested over the Lancashire course on the west coast of northern England in 1926.
South Africa's Bobby Locke, New Zealand's Bob Charles, England's Tony Jacklin and South Africa's Gary Player were all among the most accomplished players in the game whose reputations were validated by victories over the course designed by George Lowe (who also conceived Royal Birkdale just to the south). The course was reinvigorated in 1919 by Harry Colt (who also designed the Hamilton Golf and Country Club, host of this year's RBC Canadian Open) and has undergone more renovations under the hand of Martin Ebert for this year's Open. Tom Lehman, the winner in 1996, and David Duvall, who won in 2001, were among the top players in the world when they lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham and St. Annes.
For all the players who walked triumphantly over Lytham's punishing terrain, none used it to launch and define a career like the late Spaniard Seve Ballesteros. He won his first of five major championships here in 1979 and his last in 1988.
The man and the course each owe the other for helping craft their reputations.
Ballesteros finished second in the Open as a 19-year-old three years earlier at Royal Birkdale, announcing to the world he would be a flamboyant force in golf.
After an opening 73, Ballesteros had a brilliant 65 in the second round. Like the rest of the field, he struggled in the third round (only one of the leaders broke 70 that day) and then closed out the championship with a final-round 70 that would come to define his reputation as a swashbuckler.
The defining moment, of course, was his sliced tee ball on the par-4 16th hole, which sailed into a temporary parking lot. After receiving a drop, he hit his ball on to the green and drained a 30-footer for a birdie.
Ballesteros used his driver nine times in that final round and hit only one fairway.
He did not hit the fairway in the last six holes and yet still managed to play them in one-under par for a three-shot win over Jack Nicklaus, who was at the height of his powers, and Ben Crenshaw.
At just 22 years of age, Ballesteros grabbed the stage as one of the game's great and most colourful players.
The stage was Lytham.
His emergence was the catalyst for the rise of European golf. Later in 1979, the Europeans joined the Brits in the Ryder Cup and Ballesteros' unabashed gamesmanship and fist-pumping fervour ignited the competition. His presence in helping the European side become competitive again is the biggest single reason the Ryder Cup has become a premier golf event.
After winning two Masters titles and another British Open (that one at St. Andrews), Ballesteros returned to Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1988.
Nick Price had the lead going into that final round and shot 69, usually enough to win a major championship.
Ballesteros shot 65 to win. In that final round, he had an 11-hole stretch where he made only two pars. He had two bogeys, six birdies and an eagle.
"I played as good as you can hope to play this game," he said.
On the World Golf Hall of Fame website, he said of that round: "I knew at the time I won the Open in 1988 that I had reached some sort of peak, that it was a round of golf that I would think fondly about for the rest of my life."
Lytham, though hardly inspiring by its appearance -- it is just outside the resort town of Blackpool, swallowed by suburbs and hard by a railway line -- has inspired greatness.
It is quirky, with an opening par-3 (which has nine of the course's 200-plus bunkers). There is a lack of balance between the front and back nines. The front, according to Golf Digest, has surrendered five of the 12 sub-30 nine-hole scores in the Open rota (due in large part to the fact it has three par-3s, the only Open course so configured).
In preparation for this year's Open, most of the strengthening of the course by Ebert has taken place on the front nine. The second, third, sixth and seventh holes have undergone changes, the biggest perhaps being the sixth, 492 yards, will now play as a par-4 after being played as a par-5, making the course a par-70 this time around.
The back nine is just tough.
This is a plotter's course that will reward the shot-maker who tiptoes among the sod-walled bunkers and can recognize when to be bold and when to exercise caution. Imagination and a deft short game -- characteristics which marked Ballesteros' victories -- will be necessary to overcome the inevitable forays off the beaten path.
If form and the course's legacy hold, this tournament will be won by a top-15 player in the world.
This is not a place that has been kind to the darkhorse.
Legends have conquered Royal Lytham and St. Annes
Royal Lytham and St. Annes has been host of the British Open 10 times -- six of those from 1952 through 1979. It is among the most brutal tests in the rotation and has crowned an admirable group of champions:
1926: Legendary American amateur Bobby Jones finished 4-3-4-4-4 to come from behind and beat Al Watrous by two shots. The signature shot was a blow with a mashie from the rough on the 17th hole from 175 yards that found the green. There's a plaque there now to mark the shot.
1952: South African Bobby Locke won his third Open title, shooting 74 and 73 on the final day -- foul weather forced him to play 36 holes that day -- to beat out Peter Thomson of Australia. Locke was saved by a milkman, who knew where to find the keys to the garage in which Locke's car was parked (his clubs were in the trunk). Locke got to the course just in time to tee off.
1958: Thomson won his fourth Open title (he had won three in a row, 1954-56), but it took 36 extra holes to do it. Thomson was tied with Welshman Dave Thomas after 72 holes. Thomson beat the long-hitting Thomas by four shots in the playoff.
1963: Lefty Bob Charles of New Zealand won the second consecutive 36-hole playoff at Lytham and St. Annes. He beat American Phil Rodgers, who got a chuckle from the crowd when he ran over and put his hat over the hole after making a long putt. Charles' great putting touch was the difference as he one-putted 11 times in the morning round of the playoff and won by eight.
1969: Tony Jacklin became the first British winner in 18 years as he came from two shots down to Charles after 36 holes. He famously obeyed a tip from friend Bert Yancey, who put a note in Jacklin's locker that had one word: "Tempo." According to the Open website, his win sparked a new generation of golfers in Great Britain.
1974: Gary Player won his third Open in a third decade. He jumped out to a solid lead with opening rounds of 68 and 69 in windy conditions and held it together over the final 36 holes, including a couple of bobbles during the closing holes which included a shot left-handed from beside a wall by the clubhouse. He beat Peter Oosterhuis by four shots. Player also won it in 1959 and 1968.
1979: Seve Ballesteros, three years after bursting on to the scene with a tie for second at Royal Birkdale, carved out his reputation as one of the game's most flamboyant performers with a series of spectacular recoveries. None was better than an up-and-down from a parking lot on the 16th for birdie on his way to a win over Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw.
1988: Ballesteros won his third Open title and the fifth and final major of his career during torrential rain. Because of the weather delays, the final round was played in threesomes with Ballesteros, Nick Price and Nick Faldo in the same group. Price shot 69 on a Sunday at a major -- and lost. Ballesteros shot 65 and won by two.
1996: Tom Lehman became the first American to win at Royal Lytham and St. Annes since Jones in that first Open Championship here. Lehman opened with two rounds of 67 followed by a 65 in the third round for a six-shot lead. It didn't turn out to be easy, although his closing 73 was enough to hold off Mark McCumber and Ernie Els.
2001: A third-round 65 by David Duval moved him into a four-way tie for first place going into the final 18 holes. Ian Woosnam, also tied for the lead, took a two-shot penalty for having 15 clubs in his bag on the first tee. Colin Montgomerie, Tiger Woods and Alex Cejka all fell away and Duval's closing 67 was good for a three-shot win over Open rookie Niclas Fasth.