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British Open 2023: The quirky feature behind Hoylake's greatest holes

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The thing with out of bounds, a topic almost as hot this week at Royal Liverpool as Rory McIlroy’s pre-tournament press conference boycott, is that it’s almost always absurdly unfair. In other words, it's golf.

More prescriptively pejorative than an Australian golf club's sock length requirements, and nearly as inscrutable, out-of-bounds rules may be as insulting as golf's guidelines get. One foot inside those infernal white stakes, and you are as perfect as the center of the fairway. One foot on the other side—nay, one millimeter—and despite the fact that you may be able to not only easily find your slightly misplayed shot but in many cases can take a decent hack at it, you are instead irrevocably damned to Hell. Because unlike a regular hazard, a ball out of bounds is penalized twice, forcing the player to replay the shot from the spot where he just struck it poorly. The so-called stroke-and-distance penalty refers to adding two shots to the score, but it also could just as well reference the physical reaction to a ball that trickles OB: apoplexia.

This is where we find ourselves this week at the Open Championship at Hoylake, a venue known perhaps as much for its legacy of world-class winners as it is for its historically insidious holes where OB plays a somewhat outsized role. What makes Hoylake’s out of bounds problem so boundless may be the fact that while the demarcation line between good and dead is a kind of gravediggers mound that stretches for hundreds of yards, what’s out of bounds is exactly well within the property of the golf club itself. In non-Open weeks, the area that’s surrounded by three different holes is normally the club’s practice area and is declared out of bounds. During the Open this week, that area around the third, 16th and 18th holes is reserved for the hospitality and merchandise tents and even means a shot into the grandstand right of the closing hole now forces a re-load.

Some call this situation “internal out of bounds,” but to be fair, it’s not something contrived by Royal Liverpool for a major championship. The area used to be a horse racing track that was part of the club at its founding more than a century-and-a-half ago, and it’s always been played as out of bounds. But just as cruelly, it’s also been defined only by that low mound, or so-called "cops," so a mis-hit ball might just as easily stop rolling before it gets to the white stakes as it might just barely bound over that line.The allure and the nausea of Hoylake’s OB, and really most OB, is that it stares at you like that police cruiser you just passed doing 80. As Golf Club Atlas once spoke of Hoylake’s out-of-bounds area, “The golfer is afforded absolutely perfect visuals. Like a car wreck, he seems unable to tear his eyes away from the trouble.”

Of course, that sentiment is also the fearsome strength of OB, particularly internal OB. One of Royal Liverpool’s biggest fans was the underappreciated mercurial architect Tom Simpson, who once suggested that no course could be considered great if it didn’t have out of bounds. Hoylake was his favorite design in England, and he also delightfully once said, “The vital thing about a hole is that it should either be more difficult than it looks or look more difficult than it is,” which perfectly encapsulates the concept of out-of-bounds. Hoylake not only has out of bounds, it’s been fortified for this year’s Open on the final hole by having the cops jut further out into the fairway, 20 yards further than the last time the Open was played here. Add in that the hole’s been lengthened by 50 yards, and you could have a player limping home with a double-bogey 7 more often than an eagle 3. Martin Ebert, the veteran architect with multiple Open Championship venue tweaks to his credit, is eager to see how the OB might influence both tee shots and second shots this week, given the particular circumstances of a closing hole.

“I think that the out-of-bounds at both the third and the 18th at Hoylake makes them great holes,” he said when I emailed him last week. “It will be interesting to see how the players take on the third and 18th. I asked one of the marshals at the third tee in 2014 how many golfers hit a driver over the corner [of the out-of-bounds], and was told only two, Darren Clarke and Tom Watson [both not coincidentally obviously former Open champions]. Are the golfers of today more aggressive? With the 18th, it will be so easy for a tee shot to end up out of bounds. Will a good proportion of the players not hit driver on a hole which is over 600 yards?”

Ebert is legitimately wondering, of course, but a more malevolent architect might be cackling at the prospect of how out-of-bounds is the next great defense against distance at the elite level. We’ve already seen this year where a parallel fairway at Oak Hill at the PGA Championship was suddenly declared out of bounds, and similar, severely internal, parallel fairway out-of-bounds has been used at the Open Championships at Royal Birkdale and at Royal Portrush. Of course, at Portrush McIlroy also hit his opening tee shot out of bounds after a slight left miss landed in a perfectly fine patch of grass that was played as a stroke-and-distance penalty for the simple reason that the club had always done so because they originally did not own that particular piece of land. The fact that they now did and didn’t change the out-of-bounds penalty simply made the penalty more infernal.

There's even some suggestion that venerable Oakmont should employ internal out-of-bounds when it next is home to the U.S. Open in 2025. When it held the U.S. Amateur in 2021, players played adjacent fairways on as many as six holes to more efficiently approach the green.

But OB rules have long been a hallmark of links in the old country where land wasn’t as plentiful as in America, and nearby houses, walls, roads and railway lines cut close to club boundaries. Never mind that the penalties have changed several times over the last 250 years. At one time it was only a stroke, and while the stroke and distance penalty was officially codified by the USGA and R&A in 1952, just seven years later, the Southern California Golf Association broke ranks and adopted a local rule reducing the "unfair penalty stroke in connection with ball out of bounds."

Even today in order to speed up play, the ruling bodies now allow recreational golfers to take a drop with just a stroke penalty near the point where the ball left the property. But that’s not how the rules for tournament play read. The rule book even suggests internal out of bounds might be ideal for safety purposes, or mostly to avoid cutting a corner. “For example, on a dogleg hole, an internal out of bounds may be used to prevent a player from cutting the dogleg by playing a ball to the fairway of another hole,” reads model local rule A-4.

Of course, bizarre local rules are nothing new. Reservation Golf Club has been a nine-hole course by Eel Pond and Mattapoisett Harbor in Massachusetts since 1895 but when a road split the course in half, new local rules had to be adopted. Notable is the guidance for the ninth and 18th holes, which define out of bounds as the white line parallel to the hole on the right, then to the white diagonal line in the road, then to the white line on the left side of the road. Other holes use a low rock wall separating them as defining internal out of bounds for the parallel fairways.

While damaging passing cars might be the motivation at some clubs, damaging the golfer himself might be the primary motivation for unique local rules at other spots. As Cliff Schrock discovered in this Golf Digest article from 2016, some courses even invoke special rules to prevent animal attacks: “At Lake Powell National Golf Course in Page, Ariz., a ‘casual rattlesnake rule’ is used if your ball is within the vicinity of a rattler. You can gather your ball, drop without penalty—then presumably swing fast and run like hell.” Other local rules involve elephant stampedes, manure, volcanic rock and pretend water hazards.

Meanwhile, even though it’s specifically against the rules, a couple of other courses even ban players from flying their shots over a particular OB area, even if the ball doesn’t land or even stay in the area. The course’s rules cite safety, but forcing a particular ballflight seems the height of anxiety for all but the most sure golfers.

Similar OB anxiety will be on the menu at Hoylake this year, particularly at the closing hole, which might be the most claustrophobic 600-plus-yard hole this side of Golden Tee. Just ask Phil Mickelson, who went for the par-5 green in two in 2014 only to hit his approach into the right-side grandstands and discover the fans weren’t home to a free drop but a stroke-and-distance penalty. What seems particularly ironic for an Open Championship, of course, is that such “internal” out of bounds isn’t how the Open’s most famous venue plays its string of holes with parallel fairway and shared greens. That inconsistency isn’t lost on Hoylake’s consulting architect.

“It could be argued that playing to different fairways is fine at St. Andrews, so should be elsewhere,” Ebert said. “But it once again illustrates that the Old Course is one of a kind.”

Then again, so, too, can it be said of Royal Liverpool.

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 utilizes both names in its coverage.