Golf: Legendary links tough to master

British women's Open: Players fail to cope with wind and rain as classic championship course exacts a brutal toll
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WHEN THE first British Ladies Amateur Championship was played at Royal Lytham in 1893 the competitors, all 35 of them, were not unduly impressed with the course. They described it as "not very sporting and as flat as a pancake". To make matters worse, they were considerably handicapped.

They wore boaters, boots, thick skirts, on top of two petticoats, starched collars and formal red coats. "How on earth any of us managed to hit the ball is one of the great unsolved mysteries," one player, dressed to the nines, with scores to match, remarked.

One hundred and five years on and 138 professionals from all over the world were finding Lytham not at all sporting. They were not restricted by petticoats and starched collars but, in the first round in particular, by layers of waterproofs to keep out driving rain, high winds and unseasonal temperatures. Many, including the mighty Laura Davies, were blown away.

This is the first time the Weetabix Women's British Open has been played on a classic links course - even though you're closer to houses and a railway line than the sea - since visiting Royal Birkdale in 1986 when Davies won. The championship, with prize money of pounds 575,000 (today the winner will receive pounds 100,000 compared to Tony Jacklin's pounds 4,250 for winning the Open here in 1969) is by far the biggest in Europe.

A few years ago Sir Richard George, the chairman of Weetabix, had the idea of moving his event from its home at Woburn and raising its profile by competing on courses that regularly host the Open championship. For men. When Tom Lehman won the Open at Lytham in 1996 the course measured 6,892 yards - par 71. In the third round when the American set a course record of 64 in favourable conditions he used his driver only three times. At the third hole (457 yards, stroke index 1) Lehman was on with a 3 iron, 9 iron.

This week the women were playing a different game and it was a game with which they were not familiar. Off the ladies tees, the members play Lytham at 5,814 yards - par 75. For the professionals a balance was struck between the Open course and the one Lytham ladies play on: Davies and company faced 6,355 yards - par 72 and, for the most part, they couldn't handle it. The average score for the first round was an embarrassing 80. Only two players, the Americans Brandie Burton and Betsy King, broke par and by the half-way stage Burton was at the top of the leaderboard at one over. Lytham is meant to sort out the men from the boys, not the women from the girls.

"In the wind and the rain it was just impossible," Davies, who shot 79 and 79, said. She missed the half-way cut by one stroke and the scores were so high the guillotine fell at an extraordinary 13 over par. Davies was in the worst of the conditions in the first round on Thursday afternoon but it was not half as bad when she went out early on Friday morning. Yet she still shot 79 after three-putting the 18th. She did not stop to sign autographs or smell the roses of Lancashire. She jumped into her BMW and shot out of the car park.

Alison Nicholas, who won the US Open last year, said: "Playing links in the wind is the most difficult form of golf. The yardage book goes out the window. You have to hit different types of shots. I wouldn't want to do it every week. It would drive you insane." Her observations were made after a first round of 79. In the second she had seven threes in going to the turn in 31 en route to level par 72.

"It's also a good test for the caddies," Nicholas added. There have been some top-rate caddies on duty but the anguished cry of: "What the hell did you give me that club for?" has still been echoing over the links. Andy Proger, Nick Faldo's former caddie who has been riding shotgun with the Korean sensation Se Ri Pak, was having his first experience of a women's tournament. "I am very impressed with their short game," Proger said: "The biggest difference is that men can make the clubs fit the circumstances. They can hit it high, low, long, anything. The women can't penetrate through the wind. Miss Pak hasn't got used to hitting a low ball."

Miss Pak, aged 20 and in her rookie season, won the US Open at Blackwolf Run last month. That was as tough as it gets and she was six over par. And then they came to Lytham, a course that used to boast it had as many bunkers as days in the year. In 1996 the men at the Open were able to clear most of the trouble. This week the sand has been almost constantly in play.

"Around here I would be happy at any time to play to my handicap," Bill Beaumont, the former England lock and a Lytham member, said. With a handicap of 16 Big Bill would be content with a score of 88. But then Beaumont is an amateur in every sense of the word.