Getting prepared for the 2012 Open Golf at Royal Lytham and St Annes

Chris Titley talks golf to the man looking after the real star of the show at this year's Open Championship

Golf’s greatest players will be congratulating and cursing Paul Smith this summer. As head greenkeeper at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club on the Fylde coast, Paul is responsible for this year’s Open Championship course. Come July, the world’s most talented golfers will be tested to the limit amid its ruinous roughs and treacherous sand traps.

If they land sweetly on the fairway, they’ll thank Paul from the bottom of their golf bags. Slice onto the railway line or into the bunker and they’ll be swearing under their breath.

Either way, one thing is certain: the proud old Lancashire course will be a true test of ability and nerve. Paul has seen to that.

He had just been appointed head greenkeeper ahead of the last Open to be staged at Lytham in 2001. ‘I was so enthused, motivated and focused that I never stopped to think. I’d only been back at Lytham for a relatively short period so it was a particularly busy time,’ he recalled. ‘Being my first Open was very special, the team I worked alongside and the friendships that were forged I value.’

That year the American David Duval lifted the Claret Jug. Eleven years on and Paul has developed the course into something even more demanding. He’s added bunkers, changed tees and constructed new dune systems and swales. The aim is to force players to think long and hard about their strategy.

‘Fundamentally this has been achieved by making sure the hazards at the driving areas require the golfers to consider whether taking the driver is the best option,’ he said.

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‘The intention was not to take the driver out of the player’s hands but to add a little more risk to the adoption of an aggressive strategy.’Get it wrong, and they’ll be beached in the sand. ‘Royal Lytham and St Annes presents a stern golfing challenge. It is unique in having 206 bunkers which strongly influences golfing strategy and the overall difficulty of the course.’

The philosophy underlying his management of Lytham is to ‘maintain minimal inputs of nutrients, chemicals and water thereby giving nature a helping hand in presenting a natural course’.

A strict schedule of maintenance should ensure that the course will be in perfect nick by July. But Paul knows that there are some things beyond his control.

Preparations for the 2001 Open were hampered by torrential rain and floods the previous winter. He will be keeping one eye on the weather in the lead up to summer.

‘It all sounds a simple and straightforward exercise but it can be anything but if the weather turns against you.

‘We have to be well versed in strategies to cope with the extremes in the weather these days. High winds, strong sunshine and heavy downpours are all conditions that can affect play.’

A love of the outdoors and an interest in golf led Paul on the career path that saw him appointed head greenkeeper 13 years ago.

‘Unfortunately Lytham St Annes links is not a place of great aesthetic natural beauty unlike many other Open venues,’ he admits.

‘The typical iconic sea views afforded by most Open Championship courses have disappeared from view at Lytham and St Annes to be replaced over the centuries largely by Victorian red brick and mortar. Its setting is somewhat unusual – it’s quirky with a real charm all of its own.’

He’s in charge of a core team of 12, although this figure doubles in the fortnight running up to the Open.

Working on such a prestigious course gives him a great sense of pride and privilege. The best thing about the Open being on his doorstep? ‘The entertainment and excitement from watching the supreme skills of the world’s best golfers tackling the challenges of the course and the weather, with the possibility of a last day duel to enhance our enjoyment.’

At the end of the tournament he’ll take away with him ‘sporting memories and perhaps the making of some new golfing history along the way’.Paul’s already witnessed some amazing moments. Among them he cites watching Tiger Woods win the Amateur Medal in 1996 and seeing Ian Woosnam openly dress down his caddie for carrying the wrong number of clubs in 2001.

He loved to watch Seve Ballesteros – ‘one of sports most talented and charismatic figures’. ‘The club, the course and the people of Fylde and beyond all have an affinity with the legend who is Seve,’ he says.

And he’ll never forget seeing David Duval clinch the Open at Lytham in 2001 after four great rounds of golf. His tip for the 2012 title? He can’t look far beyond Rory McIlroy, current US Open champion.

‘But as an outside bet,’ he adds, ‘Paul Casey is a past English Amateur Champion here at Lytham St Annes, so he knows the course reasonably well and is a likely candidate for an Open.’

What advice would he give them? ‘Keep out of the bunkers and rough and don’t be tricked by the subtleness of the greens.’

Got that Paul and Rory? You heard it here first.

The print version of this article appeared in the March 2012  issue of Lancashire Life 

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