HOYLAKE, ENGLAND | We know the practice of using red figures to indicate an under-par score at the Open Championship originated at Royal Lytham and St Annes in 1963. We know the idea of raising the lowest tier of a stand 6 or so feet off the ground to allow spectators to stand in front of it without obstructing the view of those behind was trialled at Royal Lytham, about the same time.
But wraparound stands shaped like a person’s cupped hand? Stands that form the letter W were evident at Le Golf National near Paris for the 2018 Ryder Cup where they went in a continuous wave from one side of the first tee to the other side of the 18th green?
But horseshoe-shaped stands such as on the 17th here are a relatively new addition and a welcome one in golf, too, part of improving the spectator’s lot at an Open or Ryder Cup. The stand for the 18th green extends perhaps 50 yards back up the left side of the fairway, around the back of the green and for 80 yards up the right side of the fairway. It is huge. If it were laid out flat, it would be as long as many a short hole.
As is also a growing practice, tournament organisers spend a considerable amount of time selecting groups of golfers to play together, marrying skill, charisma, and popularity among the watching crowds. Sometimes these can be humorous. One famous grouping at Augusta National 40 years ago involved Herman Keiser, the 1946 Masters champion, and Frank Fuhrer, then a struggling twentysomething on the PGA Tour. At another event, Luke Donald, currently the Europe Ryder Cup captain, was paired with his England teammate Robert Duck.
We were treated to the best of these advances at Royal Liverpool, namely a very high-octane grouping of Jon Rahm, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, three major champions, and all Europeans who will surely form the backbone of Europe’s team at the Ryder Cup in September. This modern-day Great Triumvirate was watched and cheered by thousands from the comfort of one of these stands.
First, was this year’s Masters champion, Rahm, all rolling, bull-like shoulders and raw power. A dramatic pause followed, allowing the tension to rise until Rory McIlroy walked slightly shyly and diffidently onto the first tee to enormous roars and cheers. Born in Northern Ireland, just across the Irish Sea, McIlroy won the 2014 Open, the last to be held at Royal Liverpool, and he enjoys the status of a national treasure in golf on this side of the Atlantic.
Then came the 2013 U.S. Open champion, Justin Rose, who was trying to become the first Englishman to win an Open in England since Tony Jacklin in 1969. Not so much a rose between two thorns as one alongside two stars. If this wasn’t a grouping of exceptional skill, then goodness knows what was.
It is a characteristic, some say an eccentric quirk, of the Open that players tee off from only one tee, which ensures that play having started at 6:35 a.m. when the light has often not appeared fully will continue sometimes until near darkness. Matthew Jordan, who grew up in Hoylake and is a club member, attracted a considerable following when he was accorded the honour of hitting the first tee shot of the 151st Open Championship. Many were there supporting him on the course at this early hour and no doubt many were settling down in front of their television sets in their dressing gowns and pyjamas to give him fervent and vocal, if remote, support.
It is another characteristic of the oldest of major championships that star players are dotted throughout the day for the purposes of television. The simplest way of explaining this is to say there is a morning wave and an afternoon wave.
So it was that Wyndham Clark, the reigning U.S. Open champion, had concluded his round, a 3-under-par 68, Jordan Spieth had signed for a 69, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay, Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele for 70s and Cameron Smith, the defending champion, a 72 before Europe’s Great Triumvirate arrived on the first tee to begin their rounds at 2:59.
Brooks Koepka offered an insight into his tactics earlier in the week when he said that keeping out of the bunkers was the key to playing links courses in general and Royal Liverpool in particular, well. The same applies at the Old Course at St Andrews.
Rose may have been listening, but in striving to get to the right side of the first two fairways to get himself into the best position from which to attack with his second shot, he was less accurate than he would have liked. His tee shot on the first and second holes ended in bunkers, and each of these wayward strokes cost him a shot. As he walked to the third tee he was 2 over par while McIlroy, after a powerful explosion from wispy rough to a distance shorter than the length of his putter, was 1 under, thanks to a birdie 3 on the second.
But by the 12th, McIlroy was 2-over par and his playing competitors were similar or worse. He had missed a really short putt on the eighth and failed to hole a slightly longer one on the ninth. Somehow McIlroy squeezed birdies out of the 14th and 15th and handled the reimagined par-3 17th, which had the capability of being treacherous, with care. Turning his back on a setting sun, he drove down the 18th with every expectation of a birdie. Even at more than 600 yards, it was an easy green to reach in two with a following wind.
First Rahm hit into a greenside bunker from which he had to play out sideways. Then McIlroy found sand in a bunker a little nearer the flag and failed to get out with his first attempt, also played sideways. It took a deft explosion shot to get out and stop his ball 8 feet from the flag after four strokes. His dinner and his mood were considerably improved by the way he sank the putt for a par 5 and a round of 71, level par.
For the two JRs, it was a day when they struggled, both scoring 3-over 74s. Rahm’s face was as black as his shirt when he finished. Rose will have to go low in the second round. They are eight strokes off the lead, shared by local favourite Tommy Fleetwood, Argentine Emiliano Grillo and South African amateur Christo Lamprecht.
“I am pleased even though I had hoped for more at the start of the day,” McIlroy said. “To be plus-2 after 12 holes and get it back to even by the end is good.”
There was a little jauntiness in his walk as he made his way off the final green. Not as much as if he had birdied the hole or even eagled it, but enough. He had been tested, he had wilted and then he fought back.
“We’ll see what I can do early tomorrow morning,” he said. “I hope I’ll be better then.”
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