Golf / The Open Championship: Tee shots hold key to taming the loony dunes: Lyle lines up Big Bertha to blast a path at Royal St George's as Faldo seeks a glorious defence

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THE only thing everybody is agreed upon is that Royal St George's, the wildly inhabited venue for today's 122nd Open Championship, is the hardest course on the Royal and Ancient coastal route. Not even Goldfinger could win here and he cheated like mad. As with any links course, much will ride on the weather but perhaps even more so over the hummocks and hollows of one of the finest sand-dune systems in England.

The course is a naturalist's dream and appropriately Bernard Darwin, the grandson of Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, was a past president of the club. With no apology for a form of nepotism, Darwin (Bernard) said in 1931: 'Finer golfing country there never was: sandhills, bents, valleys, plateaux, hollows, undulations - it has them all. The course as a whole stands higher than ever it did.'

Royal St George's, sandwiched between Deal and Ramsgate in Dad's Army country, is not everybody's cup of tea. When the great amateur FG Tait, who had a terrific record here, was asked his opinion of Sandwich, he replied: 'A good one-shot course.' Donald Steel, a successful golf course architect and the newly elected president of the Association of Golf Writers, said: 'Nowhere is there a richer variety of second shots.'

JH Taylor won the Open at Royal St George's in 1894 and Sandy Lyle won the last time it was held here in 1985. Taylor thought the greens were wonderful. He won with a total of 326. Lyle, who won by a stroke from Payne Stewart, took 282 strokes to negotiate the links and an indication of how hard this is is that the aggregate was two over par. Par is a very miserly 70 and the only man to beat it over four days was the American Bill Rogers in 1981.

Lyle has fared somewhat better than Rogers, whose victory, it could be argued, was the beginning of the end of a career that had all the flashiness and permanence of a shooting star. Rogers chased the dollar in a schedule that made round the world in 80 days look like a slow boat to China, and he burnt himself out. It is all the fault of John Whitbread, the golf man from the Surrey Herald. Rogers, under the impression that his tee time was 9.40am instead of 9.14, was on the practice putting green when Whitbread alerted him. Had Whitbread kept his mouth shut the Texan would probably have been disqualified.

There is no danger of Lyle, who has more holidays than the Duchess of York, suffering the fate of overkill. To Lyle's mind the key to playing St George's is not the approach shot to the green but accuracy off the tee, either with driver or iron. Lyle believes the tee shot is crucial.

Lyle is using a new driver this week which he calls Big Bertha. 'I remember the holes quite clearly,' he said. 'I enjoy the course. I hear other reports that it's too tough and that the ball bounces here and there. I think I'm ready for it. It's due. Compared to 1985 I would say I'm going in this time with a little more confidence. You cannot buy experience.'

Lyle has been hitting some big drives in practice but even his raw power cannot compare to that of The Terminator. John Daly hits it further than anybody, as witnessed by his outrageous drive, with a club called the Killer Whale, to the green at the fifth. It is a par four of 421 yards and there are several others that he can reduce to the status of a par three. Fortunately, golf is not all about long-distance driving and I suspect that Arthur Daley has as much chance of winning the Open as the American.

'I wouldn't attempt to drive the fifth,' Ian Woosnam said. 'It's not worth losing a ball. I'll see John on the tee and the greens.' Woosnam, who has not won a tournament for more than a year, puts this down to a chronic inability to hole a putt. 'People say where has Ian Woosnam been?' Woosnam said. 'A lot of players would like to have had the bad year I had. Faldo has a bad spell, Lyle has a bad spell. It's not as if I'm not playing well, I'm just not getting the putts in.' This week he has poured lead into the head of his putter and it will be one of the heaviest clubs in his bag.

It is an irresistible three-ball: Daly, Woosnam and David Feherty. Daly is America's answer to Brian Barnes. Both have had a drink problem and both have gone teetotal. 'I'm quite proud of myself,' Daly said yesterday. 'I'm very fortunate to be alive and very fortunate to be playing golf.' One way Daly kicked the daily habit was to revert to that time-honoured placebo, chocolate. The trouble is he ate a pound a day. 'I went from one addiction to another,' Daly said.

He is taking this tournament seriously. Chocolate has not passed his lips for 11 days, he has never driven the ball better and has been working on his short game. He says he intends to use his putter even if he is as much as 50 yards short of the green. 'The only reason I came over here is because I played well in the US Open. It gave me a bit more confidence but I'm not at the level of people like Nick Faldo.'

Faldo will be 36 on Sunday and it is very possible that he will be drinking wine from the old silver claret jug with which he is so familiar. Faldo has won the Open three times in the last six years and after his performance in the Carrolls Irish Open at Mount Juliet two weeks ago he is in the mood to win it again. Prior to that Faldo had had a miserable June. He is ready for a glorious July.

'The course is very firm and the key factors are going to be the wind and coping with the bounces. . .trying to get a feel for them and shaping the shots to suit the weather. You need an awful lot of imagination on this course. It's going to be a tough test. Maybe this is the firmest Open course I've ever played.' However, he was forced to revise his view last night when Kent was hit by a furious downpour and the forecast is for more rain during the championship.

Faldo knows Royal St George's. Although he had an unhappy time in the Open here in 1985 - he putted dreadfully and was back on the practice putting green at Sunningdale before Lyle had finished his fourth round - he won the PGA Championship over the Kent links in 1980. 'It is feasible that the winner could be over par,' Faldo said. 'It is going to be very tricky.' One of the criticisms of Royal St George's is that there are too many blind shots. This does not concern the 6ft 3in Englishman.

In Ireland Faldo's putting was particularly impressive and he gave Jose- Maria Olazabal a four-shot lead going into the final round and caught him and beat him in a play-off. 'I am defending,' Faldo said. 'I have not come here for a good time. As long as I have the opportunity and think I am good enough to win majors, every one will be a challenge to me. When they don't I'll head for the river.' The river can wait.

Only the top 15 Open finishers will earn exemptions for next year's event at Turnberry. The previous figure was 25, the purpose of the reduction being to 'give greater recognition to the current form of players at the time of the championship in question', according to the R and A.

Coverage of the Open on BBC Television was guaranteed until 1996 under a deal agreed yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)

Ken Jones on Jack Nicklaus,

The Yanks are coming, page 36

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