When 156 of the best golfers in the world tee it up at the Open Championship in a few weeks, they'll need to understand two things: get your birdies early and bring your best short game.
Of course, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, the host for the 141st playing of the British Open, is more complex than that. But the front nine can be one of the easiest in the Open Championship rotation. In the entire history of the tournament, this front side has surrendered some of the lowest scores.
But, what you win from the front side—if you win on the front side—the back nine will take away. The final six holes are all long, very difficult par fours that will chew up your red numbers and spit you out to the reality of golf over par, especially if the winds pick up.
Lytham is a punishing links course with narrow fairways, small greens and 205 bunkers that almost always guarantee a bogey or worse if you get in them. And you have to be able to deal with bad bounces because you're going to get them. You really need to be able to anticipate where the ball will bounce, which, of course, is much easier said than done.
If there's one thing that has been consistent during the previous 10 times the Open has been played here, it's that the best man has won. There haven't been any surprise victors. Whoever was playing the best golf at that time—whether it was Bobby Jones, Gary Player, Seve or David Duval to name a few—won this tournament.
The winner will need to be a plodder. And he'll need to have the resolve to deal with the little defeats within each round. He will also need to have one heck of a short game because when he misses greens—and he will—he will need to get up and down for par more times than not if he's going to take home the Claret Jug. Then there's the unpredictable weather.
Here are five golfers whose games are suited to succeed at Lytham—with a few predictions thrown in for good measure.
Like all the best golfers in the world—or the best golfers of all time in this case—Tiger Woods has the game to succeed at any golf course he plays on. Lytham is no exception.
Tiger's ball striking numbers on the PGA Tour in 2012 have been outstanding. He's second in Total Driving and second in Scoring Average. My concern with Tiger at this Open Championship is his short game.
Although he has improved his putting since the beginning of the year, his wedge play has been poor and his sand save percentage is less than 50 percent. Tiger will be the first to tell you he's not where he needs, or wants, to be right now:
"I would say certainly my short game has been something that has taken a hit," Tiger admitted recently. "And it did the same thing when I was working with Butch and the same thing when I was working with Hank. During that period of time, my short game went down, and it's because I was working on my full game. Eventually I get to a point where the full game becomes very natural feeling and I can repeat it day after day, and I can dedicate most of my time to my short game again."
Without a fantastic short game, Tiger will struggle to keep himself near the top of the leaderboard here. But when he finally puts all the pieces of his game together—again—he'll be tough to beat—again.
Whether that happens this week or not remains to be seen.
I'm not exactly sure what's going on with Rory McIlroy these days, but I have a pretty good idea.
McIlroy has missed the cut in four of the past five tournaments he's entered, including the U.S. Open where he was the defending champion.
Am I naive to think he's going to flip a switch and be in contention at this Open Championship? It's possible.
Well, this isn't so much about where he'll finish at the 2012 British Open but rather if his game is suited for success at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. And it is. I just don't know if now is his time.
McIlroy is likely distracted because of his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. And that's fine. That's part of life. He'll figure out a way to deal with being in love, being 23 years old and being one of the best golfers in the world.
Really, he will.
McIlroy's game is unquestionably suited for success at Lytham but there's another concern—that comment he made at last year's Open Championship that makes me wonder if he'll ever win one. He prefers warm, sunny weather to the foul forecasts usually found here.
Well, of course. Who doesn't? But if he wants to win a British Open—and I know he does—he'll likely have to endure cold temperatures, wind and rain.
I don't think there's going to be any in between for Phil Mickelson at this Open Championship.
He's either going to be right in the mix to win this thing on Sunday or he's going to be out of it early.
Mickelson has all the short game creativity he'll need to make up for any greens he doesn't hit. He can scramble with the best of them. And he has the mental toughness to handle the misses, whether they're caused by a bad swing, the wind or a bad bounce. Or all three combined. Lefty can take a punch.
As long as he isn't so wildly erratic off the tee that he can't recover—and that's always a distinct possibility with Mickelson—I believe he'll find a way to stay in the hunt.
Remember, he got himself into contention at the British Open last year. During a seven-hole stretch on Sunday, he made up five shots on eventual winner Darren Clarke. But he missed a few short putts coming home that kept him three shots back and prevented his first-ever Open Championship victory.
Mickelson is a streaky player. If he keeps himself in contention and hits a groove on the weekend, look out.
Lee Westwood is a perfect fit for this Open Championship at Lytham.
His game has no weaknesses in the sense that he can hit all the shots necessary for success here. And he'll find a way to hang around, keeping himself in contention until the end.
But that's where my concern begins with Westy. And I'm pretty sure that's where his concern begins, too.
Westwood has 37 professional wins, and after his recent T-10 at the U.S. Open, he now has 14 top 10s in majors, including 10 top five finishes.
Getting to the finish line is half the fun and Westwood is good at it. It's in crossing that finish line where the doubts creep in.
I think Westwood is capable of winning a major championship, but he hasn't done it yet for a reason. Maybe it's a mental block. Maybe he feels like he's just never going to get over this hurdle in his otherwise remarkable career.
Westwood has said before that he feels his game is suited for any course he plays and I would have to agree. He just needs to find a way to win on a major championship course. Once he does, there's no telling how many more majors he can win.
I'm picking Justin Rose to win the 2012 Open Championship.
I think Rose is primed for a breakthrough victory in his career. He's a player that is improving with age and he has won golf tournaments everywhere he's played.
Currently the No. 9 ranked player in the world, Rose has six top 10 finishes in major championships during his career so far. Ever since his T-4 performance at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale, Rose has been discussed as a major championship contender.
He's also been playing well in 2012 with five top 10s, including a win at the WGC-Cadillac.
Rose doesn't hit the ball forever (288 yard average) and he's certainly not the best putter in the field, but he's deadly accurate with his irons and he has the short game and scrambling ability to succeed at Lytham.
I also think he has the demeanor to win here. He won't let a few bad swings or a few bad breaks knock him down. And when the talent level of the competition is so incredibly close, that might be what it takes to make up the difference.