Editor’s note: With the Open Championship commencing this week at Royal Liverpool, GGP+ offers a reprised look at the revamped, storied venue in a story that originally ran April 18.
HOYLAKE, ENGLAND | My ball lay near the middle of Royal Liverpool’s 14th fairway, shining in the spring sunshine much as a white snooker ball does on green baize. It was about as far from the flagstick as Tiger Woods’ had been on the same hole during his second round of the 2006 Open.
You won’t be surprised at the difference between Woods’ approach to the green 17 years ago and mine when I played the course, also known as Hoylake, earlier this year. His ball took two bounces and disappeared into the hole for an eagle; mine did not. Woods’ stroke, hit with a 4-iron, was the high point of a round of 7-under 65 which I described in The Times of London the next morning as one of the most remarkable displays of mid- and long-iron play I had seen in 50 years.
That was during the 11th, and the penultimate, Open to be staged there. The last was in 2014 when Rory McIlroy won. Now once again we turn our attention to the famous Merseyside course, with its storied golf history and pleasing practice of naming all of its holes, because the Open will return there in July.
Once more, the way the members play the course will be altered as it has been at every Open since 1967. What members know as the first hole will be the third, the ninth will be the 11th and so on. The members’ 17th and 18th will play as 1 and 2. This is how I refer to the holes from now on.
Since Royal Liverpool hosted the 2019 Walker Cup, work has been going on to make this course a little more testing and aesthetically pleasing, one able to accommodate more spectators than any Open venue other than St Andrews. Much of this has been done under the watchful eye of Martin Ebert, currently the R&A’s favored architect for renovating Open courses. Remember his good work for the 2019 Open at Royal Portrush?
New greens have been put in place on the fourth and the seventh. A greenside dune on the 12th has been lowered. A swale of daunting shape and dubious merit has been inserted to the right of the 13th green. A new road has been built running behind the fourth green to transport infrastructure, and here and there on these mighty links the scrub has been removed, leaving glaring patches of sand. They are as distinctive as the white faces (actually bunkers) at Merion, in the U.S., and emphasize the club’s proximity to the Irish Sea. These scrapes have had an advantage: 4,000 tons of sand was removed and spread on the golf course, costing the club nothing.
For the first 10 holes at Hoylake, the vistas are of the golf course, but the moment the golfer arrives on the 11th tee and turns to play north, back toward the clubhouse, it all changes. To the left across the Dee Estuary are the brooding Welsh hills. Out to sea are Hilbre Island and its sister islands, Middle Eye and Little Eye. Now that scrub has been removed from various places on the seaward side of the inward holes, the result is that the sweep of the estuary and the dominance of the islands come into clear view. The view is magnificent. We are not talking about the Monterey Peninsula here, once described as the greatest confluence of land and sea, but the morning sun danced on the water and made you realize what visual majesty the scrub had been hiding in years gone by.
But is a hole designed for television an appropriate hole on such a distinguished golf course? The jury is out. Let’s see what the players say in July.
Of the changes that have been made, Ebert’s design of a new 17th, a short hole replacing the old 15th, is likely to cause the most discussion. In fact, it already has. You hear snippets of conversation about it as you move through the clubhouse. The new hole is played west toward Hilbre Island, away from the clubhouse, uphill to a table-top green and provides a strong change of character and a stern challenge.
It plays 134 yards, with a bank like the front of the 15th at Augusta National leading down to a waste area. There is more sand on the left and the right of the green, and over the back the land drops as much as 15 feet to thick grass and reeds. Standing on the tee, I found it hard to draw a bead on the target because so little of the putting surface was visible. In any wind the green could be devilish to hit and hold.
The hole has been built, frankly, for television and to generate excitement for spectators. There is no doubt it breaks up the run of flat holes that precede it, and it strengthens what Bernard Darwin, the great golf writer, called “Hoylake’s doughty finish.” It also begs the questions: Is it a good hole, and is it in the right place in the rotation? Would it cause such discussion if it were, say, the seventh and players had a chance to recover their score?
As it is, the golfer who holds a three- or four-stroke lead over his nearest rivals with two holes to play will not breathe calmly because that lead could disappear in moments – and not just because of the 17th. If that hole is survived without calamity, there is still the 18th, which has been lengthened to more than 600 yards. One of Hoylake’s famous cops, the 2-foot-high raised grass mounds that mark the boundary of the practice ground, has been moved to the left to force the drive further left, and it juts into the fairway as it always has. The player who wants to go for the green has to play over the practice ground, which is out of bounds. On a day with a north wind in a golfer’s face, this is surely a three-stroke hole even in an era of drives of 320 or more yards.
Forty years ago, one noticed the emergence of a trend in golf design. On new golf courses with aspirations to hold big events, the 18th hole often curled gently from right to left, and water ran along the left of the fairway. On the last day of a tournament, the flagstick was positioned as close to the water as was possible. To go for the flag, a player had to take his courage in both hands.
Are we now seeing the emergence of a new trend, the designed-for-television hole? I give you the near-island green of the 17th at TPC Sawgrass and the 16th at TPC Scottsdale, site of the recent WM Phoenix Open, which is as much of a bear pit as a golf hole.
Hoylake’s 17th does not make this testing and historic golf course any easier. Far from it. But is a hole designed for television an appropriate hole on such a distinguished golf course? The jury is out. Let’s see what the players say in July. Will they bless it or curse it? It could be very interesting.
For first- and second-round Open Championship tee times, click HERE.
Top: The new par-3 overlooking the Dee Estuary at Royal Liverpool will play as the 17th hole in 2023 Open. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?