British Open

What You Need To Know About Royal Liverpool (Hint: Hoylake)

9 questions for this year's Open

July 2014

Royal Liverpool—usually called Hoylake after the town that envelops it—doesn't offer the special ambience of St. Andrews, the visual drama of Turnberry, or the grueling, muscular challenge of Carnoustie. Except for a lovely sweep of holes in the dunes along the shoreline, the terrain is uninspiring. Hoylake, wrote the poet Patric Dickinson in 1951, "is utterly flat and dreary to look at, and for all the infinite subtleties to be discovered it remains rather formidably unattractive."

But it is an honest, solid, worthy Open venue. In July it will play at 7,312 yards—54 yards longer than it was for the most recent Open here, in 2006—and once again the last two holes of the course that the members play will be the first two holes for the championship, making the members' 16th a dramatic, reachable, 551-yard closer. It was here in 1967 that Roberto De Vicenzo hit a spoon over the out-of-bounds practice ground to the heart of the green for a birdie to keep Jack Nicklaus at bay.

"It's a true golfers' course," says club historian and former captain Joe Pinnington. "It's exceptionally hard to score, and the name of the game is course management." This is especially true when the fairways are brown and bouncy as they were in 2006, and when the wind blows. Writes Dickinson: "Hoylake shares with bicycling the strange fact that whichever way you turn, the wind is plumb against, or at any rate unhelpful." It's a place where people suffer, he says—where "all golfing dentists should be forced to take their holidays."

14th hole
The tee of the 14th hole and the green at the 194-yard 13th.

The Open returned to Hoylake in 2006 after a 39-year absence. It was a gamble—many believed the event had long outgrown the ancient, pocket-size links. But the 2006 Open was a huge success. In front of record crowds, Tiger Woods skillfully tacked his way around the bone-hard fairways, using his driver only once all week and avoiding every one of the merciless fairway bunkers. As the last putt fell, he wept in memory of his recently departed father. Prior to 2006, there were 10 Opens at Hoylake, with some quality champions, including five-time winners J.H. Taylor (1913) and Peter Thomson (1956) and four-time winner Walter Hagen (1924). Bobby Jones completed the second leg of his "impregnable quadrilateral" 1930 Grand Slam here. And the great De Vicenzo's 1967 victory was especially poignant: At the age of 44, too late to win his first major, he won his first major.

"Hoylake brings out the best," Pinnington says. "We've had jolly good winners over the years."

Although the word "links" is often used to describe any golf course, strictly speaking there are fewer than 300 of them worldwide, mostly the hallowed, old-country playing fields like Royal Dornoch, Royal County Down and Ballybunion. Links golf is the original form of the game, played among the confounding slopes and stirring sandhills of a particular kind of seaside terrain. Links courses are generally treeless, exposed to the elements, and born of a sand-based soil that gives rise to dry, fine-blade grasses, tight lies and firm, fast-running fairways. Links golf is played along the ground as well as in the air, demanding the vital British Open qualities of imagination, creativity and shotmaking. And patience.

The stereotypical British spectator at the Open sports a tweed cap, a cheap anorak over a terrible sweater, and off-white, cracked golf shoes from the 1980s. He carries a shooting stick, a huge pair of binoculars 'round his neck, and an ancient canvas backpack that contains a thermos flask of weak tea, a hip flask filled with some sort of gin concoction, and a small portable radio to keep up with the cricket. In one pocket is a thin, white-bread cheese sandwich, in the other the folded-up sports pages of a conservative newspaper bearing the day's tee times.

John Ball

Can you ID John Ball? Check.
Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Courteous Americans playing in the Open often remark how "knowledgeable" the British golf fans are. It has become the gracious thing to say in press conferences. But maybe it's just that British fans tend to be quieter, more reserved, less likely to yell "get in the hole" as someone tees off on a par 5. As King Solomon or Mark Twain or Abe Lincoln said: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

"John Ball was the patron saint, emperor, mayor, the lord and master of Hoylake," Pinnington says. "He was the hero of all the town." Ball, born and raised in the family's Royal Hotel, right behind what is now the second tee of the Open course, was the quintessential Englishman: stoical, modest, a man of few words. He lied about his age to fight in the Boer War. He was a natural, brilliant golfer—in 1890, he became the first amateur (and the first non-Scot) to win the British Open. A lionhearted competitive spirit brought him an unparalleled eight British Amateur titles. He was loved. (Another Hoylake great, Harold Hilton, was by contrast respected; Nicklaus to Ball's Palmer.) Coming home from that eighth British Amateur victory, Ball dodged the brass-band welcome and adulation from the Hoylake crowds by hopping off the train one stop early and walking home along the beach. He gave away all his medals. "No-one has ever inspired greater hero worship," wrote former Hoylake club secretary and historian Guy Farrar in 1933. "And no-one ever courted it less."

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