The look here is stark, with golf holes stripped down to their bare essentials. Royal Liverpool Golf Club might not be an elegant venue. It’s certainly not scenic. Like many championship links courses, it’s inland enough thanks to intervening dunes and/or residential development as to be isolated from the sea. But invariably, you can feel the Irish Sea and smell the salt water in the air when the wind comes in, as it always does in July, from out of the west to blow across the golf course. That’s when this austere ground really comes alive. This is the 10th time for the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. They keep coming back because, despite its initial modest look, the course has depth of character.
Last time they held an Open Championship here, in 2006, the place looked like a dust bowl. Every time Tiger Woods hit an iron shot – which he did off virtually every tee throughout the windy championship -- a cloud of dirt flew up, an austere reminder of what firm, fast links conditions look like.
This time around, the summer has been kinder, with more rain and, and so Hoylake, as they call the golf course, won’t be quite so stark and boney as it was eight years ago. The par-72 layout, 7,312 yards, only 54 yards longer than the 2006 layout, comprises a staccato rhythm of a routing, consistently shifting directions. It’s a hard place to feel comfortable playing. The rolling dunes hide as much as they expose to the oncoming golfer.
Expect to see lots of fairway metals and long irons off the tees, even on the par 5s. The chief object of drives, other than getting onto the fairway, is to avoid Hoylake’s deep-dish bunkers. The presence of four par 5s will mean that scores are likely to be low at this year’s British Open. But it also leaves the door open for contenders to make up lots of ground late. Two of the last three holes in fact, the 16th and 18th, are downwind par 5s. That means plenty of birdie and eagle chances – providing players hit the fairway.
No. 1, 458 yards, par 4
Into a headwind, with three of those small, circular bunkers in play off the tee in the main landing area, and with four more bunkers squeezing the green, three of them up front that carefully guard approach shots.
No. 2, 454 yards, par 4
Straight downwind, no need for a driver here given a tightly bunkered landing area and out-of-bounds left. Here and elsewhere, players have to play the fairway contours on their tee shots much as they would play the slope of greens while putting. Australian great Peter Thomson, whose five Open Championships (1954-56, ’58, ’65) include a win here at Hoylake, is found of saying that “in links golf, it’s easy to hit the green, hard to hold it.” That’s exactly the issue here at the second hole. With a trio of greenside bunkers short and left of the entry, the hardest part of this approaching downwind iron shot is to keep it from running long.
No. 3, 426 yards, par 4
This is normally the club’s opening hole for everyday play, with the tee shot played right down a line that runs right in front of the clubhouse. The only unbunkered hole on the course has one ominous hazard that looms over both the tee shot and approach – the club’s 15-acre practice ground (used for corporate tents during the championship), immediately to the right the length of the hole and serving as an out-of-bounds. That’s a tough hazard to deal with on a hole that will play into the wind. It’s easy to lose it left off the tee, into densely grassed dunes and conceivably, for really wayward shots, yet another OB on the left.
No. 4, 372 yards, par 4
This is the start of a 12-hole stretch of crosswinds – a real test of championship mettle. On this short hole – the shortest of par-4s at Hoylake, virtually everyone will lay up with a long iron, ideally played as close as possible to the pair of fairways bunkers on the left. That leaves a short iron in to a low-lying green that’s heavily protected along its right side but that opens up on a diagonal axis from the left.
No. 5, 528 yards, par 5
Big banana hook of a par 5, steadily right to left, with the wind on the right the whole way, partially into you, then sheer across. The wind drives the tee shot into the short left side of the dogleg, making it impossible to get home in two. The safer drive with the better line flirts with three bunkers on the outside right of the dogleg. From that side, the slightly raised green opens up readily for a bold second shot.
No. 6, 201 yards, par 3
Hoylake has four of the most naturally shaped par 3s to be found anywhere in championship golf. A stiff crosswind from the right brings the three steep front bunkers into play.
No. 7, 480 yards, par 4
One of the few holes lengthened from 2006, this steady dogleg right plays with a helping wind from the left that pushes everything towards a steep bunker and heavy mounding on the inside of the dogleg. This is one of the magical fairways – dead flat, framed by two diagonal series of sand ridges that create a sense of theatricality upon what is a very simple stage set for golf.
No. 8, 431 yards, par 4
Sweeping dogleg left, with the wind out of the right again, this one bending around a nasty line of briars (thus the name of the hole). There’s a fascinating double-bunker formation on the outside right that’s divided by a ridge that floats out into the fairway. It creates a diving line or fall line: If you get it below that, the balls steers hard left; if you get it just past the crest, the ball power-boots forward and considerably shortens the hole. It’s brilliant natural strategy, created by a routing that makes ideal use of native contours and lets bunkers abut the ideal line of play.
No. 9, 197 yards, par 3
Now we’re into the seriously crumpled part of the course, with dunes formations that a shaper on a bulldozer would spend decades working on and never get right. As with all the par-3 holes here, this one sits like a moment of emerald repose amidst random sand-strewn hillocks.
No. 10, 532 yards, par 5
Here’s the second-easiest hole on the course, a slight double dogleg whose fairway is interrupted at the farthest end of the drive zone by a wild set of mounds. The crosswind from the right here means drives have to start on the seaward side of the hole to find the fairway. The only real trouble here on the second shot is the unevenness of lies; not enough to deter players of this caliber from expecting to birdie this hole.
No. 11, 391 yards, par 4
The tee occupies the southernmost point of the golf course and kicks off a very demanding four-hole stretch. From the tee here, most golfers will hit a long iron or fairway metal/rescue to one of the narrowest landing zones at Hoylake. From there, it’s a short iron lofted into a crosswind from the left to a low-lying, receptive "punch bowl” green nestled in among towering sand dunes.
No. 12, 447 yards, par 4
This played as the hardest hole on the course in 2006. The hole bends left, with the wind pushing tee shots right, into the path of three steep fairway bunkers flanking the outside of the drive zone. Hit it in these steep, re-vetted bunkers and the only escape is a wedge out – there’s no chance of reaching the green from them. From the fairway, the approach is a short or middle iron to a perched green that has a steep mound on the left and a sharp drop off to the right. With the prevailing wind working against the line of approach, players have to use the wind as kind of backboard. It’s the kind of shot that requires exact ball-striking precision; otherwise, the ball will drift way off line.
No. 13, 194 yards, par 3
This elegant hole plays slightly uphill to a green set diagonally in the mounds and is protected by a sole (but busy) little pot bunker at the front right. There’s just enough of a divide across the middle of the green that getting the ball onto back hole location requires a carefully struck middle iron that holds up to the crosswind from the left.
No. 14, 454 yards, par 4
Tiger Woods hit 2-iron off the tee and a 4-iron into the hole for an eagle during his second round here in 2006 on what proved to be the second-hardest hole on the course for the week. Good luck, as the drive has gotten even tougher thanks to an additional bunker in the landing area such that both sides are now pinched. From there it’s a very awkward approach into the crosswind over an intervening dune that partially obscures the entry path.
No. 15, 161 yards, par 3
It’s not unusual for the shortest hole on a links course to play down the prevailing wind. That’s the case here, only 161 yards from an elevated tee to a green protected by five bunkers. It’s one of those little holes that yield a lot of birdies and also a lot of bogeys, thanks to the ease with which those nasty bunkers catch anything hit slightly short or wayward.
No. 16, 577 yards, par 5
Hoylake’s easiest hole yielded 27 eagles during the 2006 Open Championship. Leads of two or three shots will not be safe down the stretch, especially here at what is the first of two reachable (in two), downwind par-5s to close off the round.
No. 17, 458 yards, par 4
The last par 4 on the course plays straight into the prevailing wind and is well protected off the tee with more of Hoylake’s circular, revetted bunkers. The green — the longest on the golf course — is well defended up front, which narrows considerably the opportunity for a run up and forces players into flying a bolder approach in than they might otherwise prefer.
No. 18, 551 yards, par 5
Two-shot leads are not safe here on a hole that plays downwind and is within reach in two by the entire field. The trick is to avoid driving it right, into the out-of-bounds area. The odd thing when viewed from an aerial camera is watching how much of the ball flight of an average long second shot actually carries over the OB air space. This year the green has been bolstered in its defenses with an additional bunker that limits ground access so that only perfectly targeted run-ups will hold the putting surface. Otherwise, there will be many recovery shots played from behind, where a newly installed swale complicates the shot back to the green. There aren’t many finishing holes in Open Championship golf – or any championship golf for that matter – so filled with possibilities, both exhilarating and tragic.