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Host nation's Faldo and Lyle are among top British Open choices

This week's British Open venue, as the site is called overseas, is unspectacular, unfair, and un-American. The oldest major championship in golf will be played for the eighth time at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's near the western coastline of England.

The course is not on the water, though, and from many tees lacks definition and beauty. The usual backdrop is dullish red brick housing or the railroad line.

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Some of the bunkering is found where a player least should expect it - in the middle of the fairway.

``That location,'' says Gary Player, who won at Lytham 14 years ago, ``is where I was always taught to hit the ball.''

An American professional has never won at Lytham. The great Bobby Jones won the first Open played there in 1926, but he was an amateur. A plaque marks the spot where Jones struck a sensational blind recovery shot from the rough on the 17th hole the final day to save par.

Jack Nicklaus has been close a couple of times at Lytham, but the more recent champions have been England's Tony Jacklin in 1969, South Africa's Player in 1974, and Spain's Seve Ballesteros in 1979.

Ballesteros is remembered mostly for driving his ball into a termporary overflow parking lot on the 16th hole, getting a free drop from under a car, and making a key birdie. He has been known as a wild driver ever since.

He contends today that he deliberately drove the ball toward the cars because it was a shorter route, because the rough was mild, and because he knew he'd be given a drop if he went too far. He sounds convincing.

Ballesteros is always a favorite in the Open. He also won in 1984 at St. Andrews, catching Tom Watson at the wire.

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Watson, who last won it in 1983, is still looking for his sixth Open victory that would tie Harry Vardon. He has not won this season, and has a mediocre track record at Lytham, but the experts give him a good chance.

``I always get fired up for it,'' he said before leaving his home in Kansas City. ``Many people outside America consider it the world championship, and it has that grand international aura about it.

``I'm not in love with the course, but I like playing the British style of golf, where you put the ball on the ground more than we do over here. You have to be able to run the ball onto the green and judge the bounces and roll. British courses are built to be playable when the wind blows, which it usually does. Most of our new courses are not, which is bad architecture in my view.

``My most striking memory of Lytham is that the bunkers are quite penal. Those deep little pot bunkers in the fairway are very dangerous. You can barely advance the ball from some of them - you just take a lofted club and make sure to get the ball out.

``Lytham ends with a tough, tough stretch of par 4 holes. The winner will be tested at the finish.''

The last six holes are all par 4s. The 14th, 15th, and 17th are over 445 yards long.

Says Ballesteros, ``I won the open on those holes.'' The second day he played the final five holes in only 16 strokes, causing Hale Irwin to exclaim: ``He must have left a hole out!''

Besides Ballesteros, the favorites this year are Britain's own Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo, both of whom have been playing very well lately.

Lyle, the 1985 winner, won the Masters in April. Faldo, the defending champion, has been involved in a couple of exciting finishes in recent majors. He won this tournament a year ago at Muirfield in Scotland, overtaking a faltering Paul Azinger in the final holes to emerge victorious by one stroke. Then last month he was on the losing end of another dramatic windup, tying Curtis Strange for first place in the US Open but losing out the next day in an 18-hole playoff.

Strange, who has not even traveled to Britain in some recent years, is on top of his game and must rate a reasonable shot. He does nothing awesomely, but has no real weakness either.

Greg Norman, the 1986 champion, would have been among the favorites but did not enter because he was not at full strength after injuring his wrist at the US Open.

Ian Woosnam, the fiery little Welshman who made more money around the world than any other golfer in 1987, has been a disappointment this year but will be a popular figure with the crowds.

Ben Crenshaw is one who likes the course and loves the British sense of tradition. Perhaps he can end the American drought at Less Than Royal Lytham.

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