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British Open history bodes well for Ernie Els

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Lytham-St. Annes, England - The Big Easy has been the Big Tease of late. That might change at the 141st British Open.

Ernie Els, winner of three major championships and more than 60 tournaments worldwide, but winless since the 2010 South African Open, keeps looking like he's back in form, only to falter down the stretch. He has four top 10s in 13 PGA Tour starts this season, including a playoff loss to Jason Dufner in New Orleans. Most recently he finished 7th in the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour, 9th at the U.S. Open, and joint 52nd at the Scottish Open.

Els merits watching this week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. The last time the British Open was held here, in 2001, he closed with 67-69 over the weekend and tied for third place, four shots behind winner David Duval. He was co-runner-up at Royal Lytham in 1996, when Tom Lehman held off a host of big-name contenders for a two-shot victory.

It's been the summer of rain in England, and Royal Lytham will be playing slow and wet. After a practice round Sunday, Tiger Woods described the rough as "unplayable" in places. Defending champion Darren Clarke called it "absolutely brutal," and noted that between the thick rough and wet bunkers - 205 of 'em - "if you start spraying the ball around this week, you might as well go home." Conditions were similar when Els won the 2002 British Open at Muirfield.

Interpret that as you wish, but one thing is for sure - flukes don't win British Opens at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. This will be the 10th Open Championship contested here, and the nine previous winners all were at the top of their games when they claimed the Claret Jug. Seven are in the World Golf Hall of Fame, as is Els.

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Tiger Woods has called the rough at St. Lytham "almost unplayable." (Reuters)

Here's the skinny on past Opens at Royal Lytham:

2001 - David Duval

When Duval (69-73-65-67 - 274) scored his 3-shot victory over Sweden's Niclas Fasth, it was expected to be the first of many majors for Double D. After all, at 29 he had won 12 times on the PGA Tour and spent 15 weeks atop the Official World Golf Ranking in 1999. Instead, Duval's mastery of Royal Lytham turned out to be the zenith of his career.

Duval took Royal Lytham by the throat in Round Four. He made five birdies in the first 13 holes and hit an extraordinary recovery shot from foot-high fescue at the 15th - a 6-iron from 220 yards - to 15 feet, making par at Lytham's most difficult hole.

"It's just a silly old game," said Duval, who dominated Lytham's three par 5s, scoring 10-under par on them over four rounds. "I was just trying to hit it solid and move it forward."

If you're looking for hints as to how this year's favorites might fare, Tiger Woods tied for 23rd;; Lee Westwood was joint 47th ; Rory McIlroy was 12 years old; Phil Mickelson tied for 30th; and Luke Donald had graduated from Northwestern University that spring and was prepping for the Walker Cup Match before turning pro in the fall.

1996 - Tom Lehman

This British Open was remarkable for the warm, sunny weather on the Lancashire coast. Lehman (67-67-64-73 - 271) was just as hot, scoring a 2-shot victory over Ernie Els and Mark McCumber. Lehman's 198 through 54 holes remains a British Open record. His 64 on Saturday is the lowest third-round score by an Open winner. He led by six shots after 54 holes.

With only four other victories on the PGA Tour, Lehman is the least accomplished of British Open winners at Royal Lytham. The highlight of his final round 73 - which Lehman called "not pretty, but gritty" - was a birdie at the 12th hole, where he laced a 4-iron approach shot to 8 feet. The victory pushed Lehman to No. 7 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and at year's end he was No. 2 behind Greg Norman.

Tiger Woods was low amateur, shooting an amateur record-tying (and still standing) 281, which was good for a tie for 22nd. A month later, Woods won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur Championship, then turned pro and won his fifth start on the PGA Tour.

1988 - Seve Ballesteros

In claiming the last of his five major championships, Ballesteros (67-71-70-65 - 273) overtook second- and third-round leader Nick Price to win by two shots. A more mature Ballesteros plotted his way around Royal Lytham in a far more controlled fashion than he had in winning the British Open here in 1979 - to a degree.

Ballesteros scored 30 for his opening nine on an unseasonably cold and windy day, but it was his 7-iron to the green at No. 14 - a blind shot played over a stand of trees from which he had take an unplayable lie - that announced Ballesteros hadn't lost his knack for extracting himself from peril. The ball came to rest 15 feet from the hole and Ballesteros made the bogey putt, a far better result than he deserved.

Ballesteros averted another disaster in Round 3 when he hooked his tee shot at the sixth hole into a bush. It took two shots, both played left-handed, for Ballesteros to get his ball back to the fairway. Again he salvaged a critical bogey.

Rain had washed out Saturday's play, and the championship was completed on Monday. Ballesteros' record-tying 65 on that day included six birdies and an eagle.

1979 - Seve Ballesteros

In easily the most adventuresome 72 holes of golf played by a major championship winner, Ballesteros, 22, beat Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus by three shots. "The way I won was a miracle," Ballesteros (73-65-75-70 - 283) would say years later. "I had no game plan then. I just teed it up and hit it."

Indeed, Ballesteros played from all points on the compass. The '79 British Open will always be remembered for his birdie from a parking lot in the final round. Ballesteros' tee shot at the 16th missed the fairway right and ended up under a car. He was granted a free drop. He hit his second to about 30 feet and made the birdie putt that gave him a three-shot lead.

Both Ballesteros and his caddie that day, Dave Musgrove, claimed that Seve purposely hit his drive to the right, so he could hit his approach at the 334-yard hole into the wind - his only hope of stopping the ball on the green. That may be revisionist history, but who cares. Ballesteros' play was magical all week.

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Seve Ballesteros reveled in the difficult conditions at the British Open. (Turner)

"I'm not worried about the rough," Ballesteros had said after Round Two. "Narrow fairways are better for me. It means everybody is in the rough. And I've had more practice. I hope one day we have a British Open with no fairways."

1974 - Gary Player

The Black Knight led wire to wire (69-68-75-70 - 282) for his third British Open victory, defeating England's Peter Oosterhuis by four shots, with Jack Nicklaus another stroke back. It had been 15 years since Player first kissed the Claret Jug in 1959 at Muirfield. Player led by five shots at the midpoint, and by three after 54 holes.

Two birdies and an eagle in the first six holes of the final round put Player securely in the driver's seat, giving him enough cushion to finish bogey-bogey and still win handily. His victory, however, was tainted by allegations that his caddie, Alfred "Rabbit "Dyer, dropped a ball down his pant leg during the search for an errant shot Player had hit into thick rough on the 71st hole of the tournament. Player still bristles at any suggestion he cheated, but stories persist of Royal Lytham members, watching with binoculars from second-floor windows in the clubhouse some 250 yards away, seeing suspicious behavior by Dyer.

Player led by six shots at the time, so it's difficult to imagine he or his caddie would resort to such chicanery, especially with TV cameras rolling. R&A historians prefer to roll footage from the 72nd hole, where Player's second shot bounded over the green and came to rest inches from the base of the Royal Lytham clubhouse. From there he jabbed it left-handed to 10 feet and two-putted to secure the win.

1969 - Tony Jacklin

Jacklin was the 13th Englishman to win the British Open, giving them a combined 25 victories in the oldest major. Few would have imagined that 18 years would pass before another Englishman hoisted the Claret Jug (Nick Faldo in 1987 at Muirfield). Faldo won again in 1990 and '92, but England has been shut out since.

Jacklin (68-70-70-72 -280) beat New Zealand's Bob Charles by two shots. Ironically, Jacklin's victory in the 1970 U.S. Open also was followed by a 42-year - and counting - drought for Englishmen in America's national championship. Charles, he had won the British Open six years earlier at Royal Lytham, led after the first (66) and second (69) rounds, but his third-round 75 opened the door for Jacklin.

1963 - Bob Charles

New Zealand has a rich golf history, and Charles is the best Kiwi ever to play the game. His victory at the British Open (68-72-66-71 - 277) was the eighth among his 30 career victories worldwide. As Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson are well aware, Charles is the only left-hander to have won the British Open.

Weather was not a factor this year at Lytham, but Charles' victory didn't come easily. He tied for first with short-game wizard Phil Rodgers and posted 140 to win the last 36-hole playoff in a British Open by eight shots. Charles took only 56 putts during the playoff, nine fewer than Rodgers. The winner had 11 one-putts in the morning round.

1958 - Peter Thomson

This was the fourth of five British Open victories by the legendary Australian, winner of 67 tournaments worldwide. Thomson (66-72-67-73 - 278) and Dave Thomas of Wales set an Open scoring record, which stood until Arnold Palmer posted 276 in 1962 at Royal Troon. Thompson shot 139 to win their 36-hole playoff by four strokes.

Not to take anything away from Thomson, but his victory came during an era when the British Open wasn't representative of a global championship. Gene Sarazen, who won the 1932 British Open at Prince's, was the only American in the field of 96.

1952 - Bobby Locke

Locke was the first of the great players from South Africa - a 57-time winner worldwide, including eight victories in America - and this was the third of his four British Open titles. Locke (69-71-74-73 - 287), renowned as one of the game's great putters, defeated Peter Thomson by one shot.

Locke nearly missed his tee time for the morning round of the closing 36 holes on Saturday. His car and his clubs were locked overnight in a secure garage near his hotel in Blackpool, and when he left for Royal Lytham in the morning he discovered that no one had unlocked the garage, as had been arranged. As luck would have it, Locke encountered a milkman who knew the garage owner. Locke made it to the course in time to change shoes, walk briskly to the first tee and make history.

1926 - Bobby Jones

This was the first of his three British Open titles in a five-year span for Jones (72-72-73-74 - 291). He beat fellow American Al Watrous by two shots.

Seven of the top10 were from the United States, including four-time British Open champ Walter Hagen and George Von Elm, who tied for third. The result underscored, to Britain's chagrin, American dominance between the two world wars; Americans won the British Open 11 times between 1922 and 1934.

Hagen became the first player to break 70 in a British Open, opening with a 68. But the championship is remembered for Jones' miracle shot at the 17th during the final round. Trailing Watrous by two shots with five holes to play, Jones had drawn even with three consecutive pars. At the 17th, he hooked his drive into a ragged area (near where a bunker is today) where the hole doglegs left, leaving him a blind shot over dunes, 175 yards to the green. From a dodgy lie, Jones hit a mashie iron - roughly today's 4 iron - onto the green. Unnerved, Watrous three-putted and Jones made par.

Dave Seanor is an award-winning sports writer who has covered golf for more than 20 years. He's attending his 13th British Open this year.

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