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

July 06, 2014

The 454-yard 14th, which Tiger Woods eagled in 2006, hitting a 2-iron off the tee before holing a 4-iron from 212 yards.


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."


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.

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."


Liverpool's most famous export? The Beatles. But did they play—were the Fab Four ever a fab foursome?

The Beatles did spend a little time around the game. In 1963 they did a photo shoot at the Allerton municipal course in Liverpool, including the iconic "jump" shot. The following year, they were photographed goofing around with golf clubs at the then-Speedway Golf Course in Indianapolis. And in 1967 they shot a promotional video at Knole Park Golf Club, outside London, for their double release of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane." But they never did play. "They weren't interested in golf," says Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn. "In fact, they weren't interested in sports, period."

Golf did play a key role in the Beatles' early success, however. Inspired by the jazz clubs of Paris, Alan Sytner opened the legendary Cavern Club in Liverpool in 1957. Sytner was a member at Lee Park Golf Club, where the apprentice golf pro was Nigel Walley—a school friend of John Lennon and also the manager of Lennon's skiffle band, The Quarrymen. Walley arranged a gig for the band in the clubhouse, and Sytner attended. Suitably impressed, Sytner booked the Quarrymen for the Cavern Club, where they performed for the first time on Aug. 7, 1957, and, as the Beatles, on Feb. 9, 1961. And that was the start of the long and winding road.


The Royal and Ancient Golf Club at the game's holy land, St. Andrews, is the most high-profile, influential golf club in the world. (Technically the game's governing body outside the U.S. and Mexico is no longer the club but a corporation formed 10 years ago called "The R&A.") But it has long set a terrible example to the empire it lords over by being a boys-only club. (Hoylake has had women members since 1958.)

Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images

Golf has always been conservative, tradition-bound and elitist. (Up until 1961, the PGA in America was only for people "of the Caucasian race.") Augusta National finally admitted its first two female members in 2012. On the back of that, the 260-year-old R&A announced in March that it was urging its 2,500 members to allow women to join the club. A ballot will be held in September. (The Queen, both royal and ancient, leads the early betting to be the first female member, followed by Kate Middleton and Condoleezza Rice.) In response to the news, from Land's End to John o'Groats, a deafening chorus could be heard: "About bloody time!"


Fourteen courses have hosted the Open, all bar one in Scotland and England. Five of them have been overtaken by the demands of the modern game and are no longer used, including Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, which hosted the event once, in 1951. Now, with Irish political tensions relatively stable, there is increasing chatter about a return visit to the links, which has hosted three Senior British Opens and the wildly successful 2012 Irish Open. "We will continue to make every effort we can in order to bring the Open to Northern Ireland," said First Minister Peter Robinson in April.

The course might need some work—the closing holes are weak—and all the usual logistical infrastructure challenges would have to be addressed. But the Irish Question is a hot topic for R&A championship-committee types. "We are looking at Royal Portrush to see what the possibilities are, and that process is continuing," says a spokesman for the R&A. Is there any truth to the rumor that Portrush has already been penciled in for the 2019 Open? "No decision has been made yet regarding the host venue for 2019."

before Phil Mickelson rallied.

Photo: Darren Carroll


Hoylake favors favorites. The top-10 betting odds in early May were as follows:

Tiger Woods10-1

Rory McIlroy12-1

Adam Scott15-1

Phil Mickelson20-1

Henrik Stenson25-1

Justin Rose25-1

Lee Westwood25-1

Sergio Garcia32-1

Jason Day35-1

Dustin Johnson35-1

Tiger remains the betting favorite despite the fact that it's doubtful he'll even be there—he has been out of action since back surgery on March 31 (Editor's Note: Woods returned June 26 at the Quicken Loans National, where he missed the cut). It would be great to mark his return with another Open triumph—his first major title in six years—but, unlikely. When he won at Hoylake in 2006—yesterday—all his troubles seemed so far away; now it looks as though they're here to stay. Defending champ Mickelson, Scott and nowhere-man Garcia all had good showings at that Hoylake Open. But the Cinderella story would be a win for Westwood, the Englishman who grew up just a couple of hours from Hoylake, and who has amassed 17 top 10s in the majors without a victory. He has met that parade of disappointments honorably, with stoicism, as if channeling the spirit of old John Ball. Perhaps it's his time. Let it be.