We had an appointment with Sarah Petulengro, the Gypsy
fortune-teller on Blackpool's North Pier, for four o'clock last
Thursday afternoon, but something unforeseen came up, and she
had to cancel. So it was Saturday morning when we handed her
David Feherty's golf ball, its aura weakened by two nights in
the pocket of an American. The Gypsy handled the Titleist 1
warily and frowned over the five green dimples that are
"It's always better when the subject is present," she said,
wiping sea salt off the larger of two crystal balls. We
apologized and explained that Feherty, an Irish pro, had given
us his Titleist on the practice green at nearby Royal Lytham and
St. Annes, where, with beads of sweat on his forehead, he was
holding a seance with a dead putter.
"Well, I think he has a very strong personality," the Gypsy
began confidently. "Green's a good color, especially with him
being Irish. He will be lucky because the Irish are very lucky."
Was the number five significant? The five green dimples? She
shook her head. "Not really."
Then, taking a deep breath, she made her call. "I think he's got
a good chance, don't you?"
Actually we didn't. Feherty had already shot 77-67 and missed
the cut by a stroke.
"Oh, well," she said, smiling brightly, "I don't know anything
To be fair, you didn't have to be a fortune-teller to get it
wrong last week--not in Blackpool. The Open championship tends
to overwhelm Scottish towns like St. Andrews, Turnberry and
Troon, but its visits to Royal Lytham and St. Annes near
Blackpool in northwest England are virtual pinpricks on a
shoreline that welcomes 17 million travelers a year. Mere
minutes north of the golf course and an easy drive from the
industrial towns of Liverpool and Manchester, Blackpool (pop.
148,000) is variously promoted as the Las Vegas of England or
the Workingman's Riviera.
It is, in fact, a sight to scare Old Tom Morris back into one of
his revetted bunkers: seven miles of noise, glitter, seagulls,
naughty postcards and pubs. And no golf--unless you count the
ubiquitous miniature golf courses with their side rails and
dollops of painted concrete. "It is a peculiar place, I tell
you," says Bill Batty, a retired air-traffic engineer living by
the tram terminus where the resort meets staid old St. Annes on
the Sea. "You either love it or hate it."
Most Britons love it. Blackpool boasts an unbelievable 3,500
hotels and guest houses, most of them three- to five-story
structures with table lamps glowing in perfect rows in the
windows of second-floor lounges. Many of these establishments
have heated indoor swimming pools and "en suite" rooms--i.e.,
private baths. Just as many do not, which is why vacationers can
enjoy Blackpool for as little as $15 a night.
Whatever they pay, they get the essential Blackpool experience:
three piers, a seven-mile-long Promenade, hundreds of two-penny
slots, a giant Ferris wheel, the world-class Pleasure Beach
amusement park and the famous Blackpool Tower--a half-scale
knockoff of la Tour Eiffel. (The Paris tower, a Blackpool
spokesman points out helpfully, looms over "gardens and the
like." Blackpool's tower, on the other hand, rises above "an
entertainment complex on seven floors. On a wet day you've got
something to do!") What they don't get is a swim in the Irish
Sea. In 1985 the European Economic Community declared the water
unfit for bathing, forcing beachgoers to play tag with a tide
that leaves acres of sand exposed one hour and inundated the
next. Less chancy are the Prom's many benches, upon which
pensioners sunbathe in postures of lassitude, sometimes dozing.
It was not always so. In the Victorian era Blackpool's
innkeepers kept their fires warm for upscale travelers who came
to "take the waters"--that is, drink the seawater for its
supposed curative properties. The piers, the first of which went
up in 1863, were built to carry health seekers out past the
waves. Then came a series of technological innovations that made
Blackpool to seaside resorts what St. Andrews is to golf. In
1879 the town threw the switch on the world's first electric-arc
streetlights. Six years later the world's first permanent
electric tramway opened. Finally, in 1912, in a move that
humbled competing resorts, the town introduced the Blackpool
Illuminations, a five-mile-long outdoor lighting extravaganza
that draws millions of visitors to the Promenade in September
"You wouldn't believe the people who come to see the lights,"
says Andrea Dolan, a University of Lancashire student who works
in the ticket office of the Pleasure Beach casino. "It can be
cold, rainy, horrible and stormy, but they drive through, three
lines of cars and coaches, nose to tail. The lights blow in the
wind till you think they're going to fall down, but the people
in the cars keep eating their chips. They're having a wonderful
So popular is this illuminated stretch of the Promenade, with
its 500,000 lamps, 60 tableaux and 21 themed sections, that
Blackpool built a coach park for 1,800 buses. "On a weekend it's
full," says George Hill, the town's director of publications and
marketing. "You can walk across the tops of the coaches."
So peculiarly British are these activities that a recent
American edition of Frommer's Guide to the U.K. omitted
Blackpool despite its 120,000 "holiday beds" and a tourism base
larger than that of Greece and the Greek Isles combined. Those
Americans who do visit are either Air Force veterans who fell in
love with the place during World War II or roller coaster
enthusiasts making a pilgrimage to the Pleasure Beach amusement
park. Built on sand dunes once inhabited by Gypsy tents, the
park is in its centenary, all under the ownership and direction
of the remarkable Thompson family. It is Pleasure Beach, with
its American-inspired rides and carny games, that most of the
British golfers playing in the Open recall from long-ago
holidays. ("I used to throw up a lot," Feherty says wistfully
recalling visits as a teen.)
The chairman of Pleasure Beach, at 93, is the indomitable Doris
Thompson, M.B.E. Treated to her first carnival ride at the age
of three, she became a coaster fanatic and now wishes she could
make a run on her park's Big One, which is the world's tallest
and fastest roller coaster, at 235 feet and 85 mph. She admitted
last week, over lunch on the rooftop terrace of her casino, that
she had lined up to ride the Big One when it opened in '94--only
to be pulled out of the queue by her son Geoffrey, the park's
managing director. "He thought I might die midway," she says
with delight, "and that would not be good publicity."
Hardly anyone we met in Blackpool seemed aware of the golf being
played down the road. An orange-vested electrician, testing the
Illuminations late Friday night, confessed he had attended the
second round. "I saw Jack Nicklaus practicing, and he looked
awful," the electrician said, gazing down a North Promenade
pulsing with incandescent energy. "Then he went around in 66."
Otherwise, indifference prevailed. "Wouldn't go near it," said a
fireman conducting a fire drill near the Central Pier. "Is there
golf?" asked a ticket seller at the Opera House, which is home
to Britain's largest stage. It had us wondering if Blackpool's
residents followed sports at all--a point which Geoffrey
Thompson of Pleasure Beach answered by saying, "We have some
Mexican cliff divers, and that's a sport, I suppose. One's in
hospital, but the rest are all right."
So we left it to Gypsy Petulengro to put things in perspective.
Consulting the larger of her crystal balls one last time, she
saw the Open returning to Royal Lytham and St. Annes for a 10th
time. She saw thousands of swimmers bobbing in the waters along
the Prom as early as next year (when a new sewage-treatment plan
goes into effect). And finally--after consulting the European
tour media guide--she divined a splendid future for David
Feherty, with no less than an Open title to look forward to.
"It's not the ball I pick it up from, but reading that book,"
she said. "He's going to shock a few this year."
She pushed away the crystal ball and looked up expectantly. "So,
who do you think is going to win?"
SIX COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Whether posing, purchasing, riding or relaxing, visitors to Blackpool often find the sights illuminating, not to mention familiar. [Sequence of scenes from Blackpool, England]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG While the pros plod along up the road at Royal Lytham, the crowds in town prefer to whiz around the King's championship 19. [People playing miniature golf; sign for "Arnold Palmer 19 hole PUTTING COURSE"]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Even at 93, Thompson (below) is ready for the Big One, while Madame Petulengro is unable to see much future in golf. [Doris Thompson with roller coaster in background; Sarah Petulengro with fortune-telling paraphernalia]