The Magic of Lytham & St Annes
Swirling winds, stinging rain, waving hayfields and friendly ruddy-faced natives greeting you like a lost brother as you hoof along a narrow path.
I’m not thinking here of a summer ramble through the Swedish outback or even the Scottish Highlands.
I am speaking of the 2012 Open Championship which concludes today at Royal Lytham & St Annes on the rugged Lancashire coast.
Golf’s oldest championship is, without apology, my favorite of the major championships, the one which, if I can’t be there in person, I endeavor to catch every televised moment.
It’s my favorite championship by a wide margin because I’m mad for foul weather and links golf in general and Lytham & St Annes in particular because that's where my dad became smitten with the game during the latter days of the World War II.
Though the game of golf most likely began at St Andrews in the early 1600s, I prefer to say that my golf game began at Lytham in 1943.
That’s when my dad was a staff sergeant in the 8th Army Air Corps, a pleasant Carolinian in his late 20s stationed at Wharton Air Base Depot No. 2 just a few short miles down the coast road at Freckleton, an area locals referred to as “Little America.”
Before arriving in Lancashire and rated as one of the highest rated glider pilots to come out of training at Chanute Field outside Chicago, my old man had taken up the game at the old Gillespie Park muni in east Greensboro, then played a few times around the Windy City before shipping out to England.
In Little America, owing to his background as a newspaper man, among other things, he was assigned to write the weekly base newspaper and shoot photographs of locals for a community bulletin board at the local pub. He often photographed kids and shopgoers in the village square of Freckleton and young children enrolled at the local kindergarten run out of Trinity Church off the Preston Road, the local Anglican church at the end of the base’s main runway. Wharton Base Depot No. 2 was primarily a major maintenance and refitting facility for B-17s and B-24 bombers.
On days off, Sgt. Dodson pedaled his bicycle up the road to Lytham & St Annes where the club secretary made clear American servicemen were welcome to come and play for free.
Moreover, servicemen like my dad were invited to use the clubs of members who were serving elsewhere, a courtesy that gave a whole new meaning to the idea of brothers in arms. In my dad’s case, he even found a pair of older members who regularly invited him to join them, learning, among other things, the beauty of a links run-up shot and developing an ability to pitch with a 7-iron that had to be seen to be believed.
As an amateur history buff, he was also drawn to Lytham's magnificent place in golfing lore. Bordered by the working-class holiday towns of Lytham and St Annes, the club was the site of Bobby Jones’ first victory in Britain in 1926, the first of his three Open Championship titles. That alone made it special to a homesick yank in love with the game.
In the years to come, Lytham is where South African “Old Baggy Pants” Bobby Locke — one of the game’s finest putters — would capture his third British Open in four tries. Australian Peter Thomson would take the second of his four Open titles in 1958. New Zealand’s rail-thin lefty Bob Charles broke through in 1963; and Tony Jacklin became, in 1969, the first home pro in 18 years to capture his native championship — and the hearts of his fellow countrymen.
It was Gary Player’s turn to make history in 1974, becoming the first player since Harry Vardon to win the Open in three different decades. Five years later, swashbuckling 22-year-old Seve Ballesteros beat Jack Nicklaus to announce the birth of a new star. In 1988, a far more controlled Ballesteros struck an inspiring recovery shot from the temporary car park by the 16th hole to nip Nick Faldo and Nick Price at the wire, earning his third Claret Jug in just nine years. In 1996, likeable Tom Lehman held off a sterling international field to become the first American since Jones to win at Lytham, a feat followed by David Duval — then at the peak of his game — in 2001.
Father’s Great Secret
In summer 1994, when my ailing pop and I rolled into the village just weeks after Nick Price bested the field at Turnberry, we enjoyed a lovely and gracious welcome by Lytham's longtime club champion and defacto historian, Tony Nickson.
At one point after lunch in the main dining room before Nickson sent us out to play, I went off to introduce myself to the pro and came back to find the two elderly men sitting in a patch of warm sunshine in the men’s club room, having a small snoot of Churchill brandy and sharing memories of their war days. Nickson, who served in Burma, was half convinced that the clubs my dad used to get himself hooked on golf had, in fact, belonged to him.
“Could well be,” he insisted with a snow-haired, cherubic smile. “These things aren’t just coincidental."
It was a cool windy day, a Wednesday as I recall, with almost nobody about. My father and I played, pulling trolleys and talking about what beautiful turf and diabolical bunkering defined the course. I was struck by how ruddy brick neighborhoods framed the course on almost all sides, save for a rail line as you entered. The land looked linksy but I failed to catch even a glimpse of the sea.
“That’s because we’re 500 yards or more from the water,” my father explained at the western edge of the course. “This is where the dunes and beach once started. The houses you see came later.”
Afterward, we went to the popular pub in town and met a group of friendly locals demanded to know if we were there for the reunion and special memorial service marking D-Day’s 50th anniversary and the village of Freckleton's darkest day. That was when a repaired American bomber on a test flight with tanks full of petrol attempted to land in a morning thunderstorm and plowed through Trinity hurch into the square, turning it into an inferno that killed 10 Americans, four sergeants from the Royal Air Force, 38 children at the school and nine other residents of Freckleton. A framed newspaper on the wall detailed, “The Day Freckleton Wept.”
By accident, I’d exhumed my father’s greatest secret — a tragedy he was actually part of. On that fateful morning, he had just returned to his Quonset near the end of the runway from supervising all-night parachute packing when the bomber crashed. Though it took some doing to get the story out of him, I learned he’d been among the first responders on the scene, carrying burned children and teachers — several of whom he knew — from the rubble.
He wound up in the base infirmary with severely burned hands, feet and arms, so bandaged up he even missed the village-wide memorial service a fortnight later, when Bing Crosby was quietly flown in to serenade the grieving citizens of Freckleton. Owing to Allied censors, no account of the tragedy reached the London newspapers.
During his stay in the base infirmary — it probably cost him the chance to fly a glider into Normandy and thus saved his life (mortality rates in gliders was frighteningly high) — several townspeople showed up hoping he might have taken photographs of their children. He gave them all of the photographs he had, including one mother who had no images of her deceased child, my dad’s favorite kid, a little blond girl he nicknamed “Lady Sunshine” because she always greeted him with a warm and cheerful hug and grin.
Weeks later, two days after D-Day, he shipped out to France where he ran a POW camp near Compeigne, France, for captured German soldiers.
He never spoke of the tragedy again. Well, briefly to my mother, upon his return stateside, who vowed to never mention it, but never to his two sons.
‘Add the Joy’
I only learned about the tragedy that shaped his life 50 years and a few days after the fact. I also learned a great deal about my father during those few highly emotional days at Lytham & St Annes, before we pushed on to Scotland and the birthplace of our favorite game.
Among other things, I learned why Opti the Mystic — the smug nickname I bestowed on him around age 13 for his high crime of being so doggone cheerful — was so unshakably upbeat in life, no matter what transpired. “Life promises us sorrow,” he said to me one night up in St Andrews, in the aftermath of reliving these traumatic events. “It’s up to us to add the joy.”
For better or worse, even though I lost him to cancer a short time later, I’ve tried to keep my father’s voice in my head and his words in my heart ever since.
And I’ve never ceased to be grateful to Tony Nickson and the members of beautiful Lytham & St Annes for the way they welcomed us. When an account of these events appeared in a book I wrote called “Final Rounds,” I was touched to my core to receive hundreds of notes and letters from folks who appreciated the wisdom of Opti the Mystic, including numerous veterans who’d been at Freckleton. The letters have never stopped coming.
So I’ll be among the millions glued to their TV sets today to see how this latest installment of British Open lore unfolds. For the record, I’m pinning my hopes on Ernie Els or Adam Scott, maybe even the Americans Jason Duffner and Brandt Snedecker, the kind of classy and generous players my dad would have rooted for.
Truth is, I haven’t been back to Lytham since that fateful visit with my father in the summer of 1994. But next May, if all goes as planned, I’ll lead a tour of golfers sponsored by PineStraw and O.Henry magazines to the shrines of the Lancashire coast.
I suspect it will be strange and maybe even a little painful to return to the course where Opti the Mystic — and my love of the game — was born.
But life only promises us sorrow and Opti’s always with me.
Besides, it’s up to us to add the joy.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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