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British Open 2023: Why Royal Liverpool’s formidable design always identifies the game’s best player

July 11, 2023

Most golf clubs in the Open Championship rotation possess characteristics that define them: the Old Course’s history, gravitas and charming symbiosis with the town of St. Andrews; the elevated rocky coast of Turnberry; the shaggy, heaving dunes of Royal St. George’s and Portrush; Carnoustie’s twisted sadism and pernicious loops of Barry Burn; Troon’s gorse-studded out-and-back trod along the rail line.

At a casual pass, Royal Liverpool Golf Club in the seaside town of Hoylake, England, just west of Liverpool, appears rather bleak and absent the distinction. Except for a run of holes through modest dunes off the vast Dee estuary mud flats, the golf grounds are generally docile and project an agricultural origin, more hay field than great links. There’s little sense of nature or the escape one feels at, say, Muirfield where holes twist through expansive meadows of fescue, or Royal Birkdale, where one can feel lost playing below the peaks and ridges of the surrounding sand hills. At Royal Liverpool the holes butt up against roads and the backyards of modest homes.

Those who know golf, however, understand there’s appreciably more to Hoylake, as it’s commonly known. Beneath the less-than-glamorous façade is a design of fierce, mathematical demands. Hoylake’s hazards are not flamboyant, but they are persistent. The consequences of minor miscues are amplified if shots find the sod-wall bunkers. Cops—grassy knobs lurking along the perimeters—can maroon stray shots, as can the occasional pockets of thorny gorse. The greens are deep and usually set at an angle to the fairway with convex shaping around the edges. Those that are protected by bunkers have openings to receive running shots, but to align approaches to those gaps requires playing drives near bunkers staggered across the slender fairways. Hitting long drives is possible, but they must thread needles, and laying back to safer positions places extreme stress on ensuing accuracy. All this is carried out over a rippled terrain that advances like an endless infantry, the task complicated by shifting winds and firm, unpredictable turf. As the great British writer Bernard Darwin put it more than 100 years ago, “There is none of your smug smoothness and trimness about Hoylake; it is rather hard and bare and bumpy and needs a man to conquer it.”

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Hollows and depressions surround greens like the par-4 12th.

If this sounds like quintessential strategic golf—thinking in advance, plotting angle and distance—it is, to a compounding degree. The line between a well-played shot and a dire outcome at Hoylake is as fine as the Open Championship offers. The holes seem to lay in ambush, patient, passive, but certain to strike. John Low, the early 20th-century English architect, wrote admirably of the course’s “indestructibleness.” Pat Ward-Thomas later noted, more to the point, that playing Hoylake was “an exercise in fear.”

Holes seem to lay in ambush, patient, passive, but certain to strike.

The beauty of Hoylake is that the algorithms are entirely calculable. The integers of bunkers, turf, bounce and wind comprise an algebraic theorem, but one that only players at the top of their games have the acuity to solve as Tiger Woods demonstrated in 2006 when he dissected the links with his irons and deft putting (Woods famously used his driver only once during the week).

Hoylake is in the same league as Muirfield and St. Andrews in terms of elevating the most accomplished players. During the eight Open Championships contested there in the past 100 years, Royal Liverpool has consistently identified and rewarded the best player at the moment. Walter Hagen was undisputedly the game’s most dominant golfer throughout the summer of 1924. Coming off a tie for fourth at the U.S. Open, he conquered the links at Hoylake before capturing the third of his five PGA Championships two months later.

When the Open returned to Hoylake in 1930, the course again sorted the undisputed best player from the field. Bobby Jones’ two-shot victory followed his win at the British Amateur, and he would back it up in the following months with victories at the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. Alf Padgham won in 1936, and Fred Daly in 1947, and though each was an accomplished player, this was during an era when few top American professionals traveled to the Open. In 1956, not long after he tied for fourth in the U.S. Open, Australian Peter Thomson won his third consecutive Open championship, at Royal Liverpool, one of five claret jugs in all (the score was 286, two over par). Roberto De Vicenzo was victorious in 1967, one of his seven international wins that year. The next spring, he finished second in the Masters to Bob Goalby, missing out on a playoff only after he signed an incorrect scorecard.

Woods won eight times in 15 starts in 2006, including a win at the PGA Championship. The 2014 champion Rory McIlroy won four times that year, still his most wins in one season and backed up his victory at Hoylake with a PGA Championship title the next month.

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BARE AND BUMPY The fearsome Hoylake terrain requires extreme tactical aptitude.

The course the players see for the Open is sequenced differently than what the members play. The members’ 17th and 18th holes are played as the first and second. This shifts the regular first and 16th holes, which both bend right around corners of the driving range—an internal out of bounds—as the third and 18th. Architects Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie have made alterations for the 2023 Open, including adding new bunkers and championship tees, introducing sandy areas in the dunes on holes 13 and 14, and shifting several fairways and greens. Hoylake will play to 7,383 yards and a par of 71, with the conversion of the 10th from a par 5 to a 507-yard par 4.

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WESTERN FRONT The winds are typically intense coming off the vast Dee estuary.

The most significant change since 2014 is the creation of the new par-3 17th replacing another par 3 that was formerly the 15th. Ebert and Mackenzie reversed the hole, which, although placed in the same location, now runs a quaint 136 yards west toward a small, skyline green set against the Dee estuary. The lovely new par 3 shuffles the order of the closing holes and requires a walk back to the 18th tee but gives Hoylake the star turn it previously lacked. The consequences of these modifications, if any, remain to be seen, but they are unlikely to interfere with Royal Liverpool’s gift for bringing out the best play from the day’s best player. Looking for a favorite? Start with this year’s major championship winners and runners-ups—they’ll have what’s needed to solve Hoylake’s equations.

HEROS OF HOYLAKE

ROYAL LIVERPOOL’S MOST RECENT OPEN CHAMPIONS HAVE INCLUDED SOME OF THE GAME’S BEST.

1924 WALTER HAGEN

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Walter Hagen, winner of the 1924 Open at Royal Liverpool, being congratulated by his wife.

Topical Press Agency

1930 BOBBY JONES

1936 ALF PADGHAM

1947 FRED DALY

1956 PETER THOMSON

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Peter Thomson, winner of the 1956 Open at Royal Liverpool.

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1967 ROBERTO DE VICENZO

2006 TIGER WOODS

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Tiger Woods and caddie Steve Williams celebrate winning the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool.

Warren Little

2014 RORY MCILROY

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Rory McIlroy, with the claret jug, after winning the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool.

Thomas Lovelock

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.