Short hole, big trouble
British Open 2023: This controversial hole at Royal Liverpool is already claiming victims
HOYLAKE, England — Lucas Herbert walked on the 17th with a share of the lead only to walk away in need of a hug. He did a lot right in his first dalliance with Royal Liverpool, making three birdies and an eagle Thursday, so it’s a bit unfair his round will be known for what went wrong. Or rather how he was wronged, because in Herbert’s words he didn’t make a mistake, and many this week will be unable to escape the same fate.
Because if the 151st Open is “Forged By Nature”—a slogan plastered on every board and awning and tent in Hoylake—then the 17th hole is born out of the fires of hell.
“Well, I could have told you there would be carnage,” Herbert said on his triple-bogey 6 at the 17th. “I could have predicted it for you.”
Royal Liverpool may not be the Mona Lisa of the Open rota, yet it’s still a masterpiece, a good layout with great history against a grand backdrop. And yet, this artwork has a “Keep on Truckin” bumper-sticker glued to the canvas in the redesigned 17th, the little hole making big waves in England. Don’t take our word for it. Coach Pete Cowen said the 17th “Could ruin somebody’s career,” which is something usually reserved for bad backs or bad marriages. Matt Fitzpatrick said it was “interesting” with a laugh, then when asked if he wanted to elaborate only offered “I'll leave it at that.” (Fitzpatrick’s caddie left little doubt where he stood, calling it a “monstrosity.”) Jon Rahm said the 17th is fair because it “is unfair to everyone,” both a zen-like approach and a diplomatic way of stating things that cannot be said. Even the R&A’s Martin Slumbers, when asked about the 17th at his Wednesday press conference, was surprised it took 30 minutes for his first question about … well, what in the name of all that is holy is going on?
The stink of it is, the R&A came to the club, wondering if Royal Liverpool could do anything to insert more juice into its layout, a sentiment Slumbers says was feedback from Liverpool’s 2006 and 2014 Opens. The club obliged, reversing the original par-3 15th so that the green rather than the tee is next to the Dee Estuary. The green was raised for an aesthetic backdrop of the water and dunes, and the green size itself is about half the size as Liverpool’s other greens. Miss the green and slopes lead into a number of bunkers and heather and spots you don't want to be. It’s also just 136 yards.
“I am a believer that the best par 3s in the world are short,” Slumbers said. “The 12th at Augusta, 17th at TPC [Sawgrass], 8th at Royal Troon. This gave us an opportunity to change that hole to create drama," Slumbers said.
On that front, mission accomplished, because it’s been some time since one hole stirred so much commotion before a shot that counts was hit. The turtleback contours of the green are like the Marines, rejecting anything less than perfect … and even that might not be good enough. Because the green is elevated and next to the water the hole is exposed to the elements, the wind making its presence known more so than any part of the links to turn an already-small landing area smaller. And because the landing spot is so small, the players are essentially hitting the same shot, which goes against the ethos of links golf that calls upon an array of shots for the task at hand.
“I’m all for short par-3s, but this one is overdone,” Henrik Stenson told Golf Digest’s John Huggan earlier this week. “The penalty for missing is almost a guaranteed bogey. And often even worse, whether you are short or long. Given how windy it can get—which you can’t feel on the tee—it could get really tough.
“The green’s is so elevated. So you have to get the ball up there first. But if it’s windy and you hit a low one, going long is a strong possibility.”
There’s also the look of the hole. In itself it is fine, even picturesque, the elevated and contoured green surrounded by massive fall-offs and sandscapes and the sea. However, it doesn’t look like the rest of the course, instead like a hole found at Whistling Straits or a South Carolina resort, and breaks up the rhythm and cadence of the links.
And yet, the 17th had one of the biggest crowds of the 17th on Thursday morning, the line nearly 300 people deep waiting to grab a seat in the greenside bleachers to the right with the left side of the hole five deep. They are very aware of the field’s thoughts on the hole, which is why they are here, wanting to watch the world’s best look like the rest of us.
For most of Thursday morning, they did not get their wish. The wind was calm as it’s expected to be all week. But fans and competitors got a taste of what could await in Herbert’s trials. The Aussie went left of the green off his approach, then watched his second go through the green and into the greenside bunker on the right. His third didn’t make it out. The fourth safely on but 20 feet away, and the fifth could not drop. When the ball finally disappeared Herbert shook his head, aghast that a good round just went bad.
To Herbert’s credit, he did not rip the club or the R&A afterwards, and insisted his big number will not be the only one. He wasn’t particularly happy with the reaction, however, of those around the hole. “Felt like there was about 5,000 professional golfers sitting around us in the stands watching it,” Herbert said about his perceived judgment. “But it's just not easy. I could have hit a poor different shot and made a bogey there and got away with one, but as I was, I made a triple.”
Thing is, that’s exactly what makes the 17th a must-see spectacle, in the same way we can be glued to reality TV shows. Sometimes things are so bad we can’t look away.
Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.
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