Why Royal Liverpool’s formidable design always identifies the game’s best player.
Photography by David Cannon/Getty Images
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.”
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”.
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 mid-1924. Coming off a tie for fourth at the US 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 US Open and US 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 travelled to The Open. In 1956, not long after he tied for fourth in the US Open, Australia’s 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 April, 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.
The course the players see for The Open is sequenced differently than how the members play it. 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 (6,751 metres) and a par of 71, with the conversion of the 10th from a par 5 to a 507-yard par 4.
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 towards 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 favourite? Start with this year’s major championship winners and runners-up – they’ll have what’s needed to solve Hoylake’s equations.
AUSSIE HITS AND MISSES
Peter Thomson completed his Open Championship hat-trick in 1956 with a three-shot victory at Royal Liverpool for the middle of his five Open titles. However, he was nearly beaten to that prized moment from an Australian point of view. An exceptional chance for Open glory by an Aussie occurred nine years earlier at Hoylake and featured the mercurial Bill Shankland.
William J. Shankland owns a special and impressive place in Australian sport. A gifted boxer, cricketer, swimmer and diver, it was in two more vastly different sports where he would excel. Shankland shone first as a rugby league player then later as a golfer. The former saw him represent New South Wales and Australia as a versatile winger and centre, also playing for the Glebe and Eastern Suburbs clubs in the Sydney rugby league competition. His football career would eventually take him to the Warrington club in England, where he played 231 games to earn induction into that club’s hall of fame.
After retiring from rugby league, Shankland remained in England, turning focus to his other passion: golf. Yet Shankland’s golf journey began in his homeland. He was already working as an assistant professional at Royal Sydney Golf Club when he was selected for the 1929-’30 Kangaroo tour of England, during which he scored 104 points, including 24 tries.
Always listed as an Australian in the Open Championships he played, Shankland undoubtedly endeared himself to the mother country. He played in 13 Opens, including every one held from 1937 to 1956 except for 1948 when he didn’t make it through qualifying. It is not a stretch to say that Shankland could very easily have been Australia’s first Open champion. He recorded three top-six finishes, in three different decades.
In 1947 at Hoylake, Shankland sat seven strokes behind and tied for 10th place at the midpoint of The Open. He was still four back with 18 holes to play but grasped the chance of being among the early starters in the last round to turn in 34 then record four 3s to begin the inward journey. Alas, Shankland carded three 5s and a bunker-riddled 6 in the last five holes to post a 70 that looked so much more promising. Still, his was the lowest final round in the field and his 295 tally was the lowest posted at the time he finished. Ultimately, however, it left him two shots light of winner Fred Daly.
Thomson and Bruce Devlin were part of a five-way tie for eighth place at Royal Liverpool in 1967 before a 39-year wait for the club to host another Open.
Along with Adam Scott and John Senden, Brett Rumford is one of three Australians to play in both the 2006 and 2014 Opens at Hoylake. The best result from Rumford’s six Opens came there in ’06 with a tie for 16th behind Tiger Woods when the course was incredibly firm, dry and bouncy.
“That week, its firmness was its real protector,” recalls Rumford, who was part of a mammoth contingent of 23 Australians in 2006. “That was my first taste of what a true Open Championship is all about, when it gets like a runway, and it’s just crazy hard and you’re hitting drives more than 400 metres. And when you take a divot, it’s just dust that comes out. It’s not a divot, it’s dust.
“It was one of those courses that really suited me as well because the rough wasn’t super-crazy, the winds didn’t get super-crazy, but it was a really, really good test. The thing with that golf course was the greens were really generous. If it had have rained, it would have been a different story.
“Tiger, with his trajectories and the winds not being so strong that week, I remember it being a huge advantage for those that could really control their irons and their start lines. Tiger hit a driver only once that week. The rest were irons and 3-woods – that’s how firm it was. You’d look at the grass and, walking on it, you’d think, How are these blades of grass not snapping off? The type of grass it is, it looked like it’s frozen. The fairways were running at about eight, nine on the Stimpmeter. Even though I’d try to pick grass out to throw to pick the wind direction, you couldn’t get any grass.”
Robert Allenby finished tied with Rumford in 2006 and recalls the same firmness. “I remember it being so dry and bouncy, but it was fun,” he says. “You didn’t have to hit driver if you didn’t want to. As we saw, Tiger hardly hit driver. But you had to be so precise on your iron play into the greens because you had to know where to land it and where to finish it on the green.”
Conversely, Marc Leishman encountered a lusher, less wild version of Hoylake in 2014 when he finished equal fifth. “I like the strategic nature of Royal Liverpool,” he recalls.
Scott matched Leishman’s result, although neither were seriously in contention as Rory McIlroy, who’d started the final day with a six-shot advantage, edged Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia by two strokes.
The previous two Opens at Royal Liverpool have yielded contrasting ground conditions. Which version shows up this year is in the lap of the English weather, yet with new holes, redesigned holes and nine more years of equipment technology to call upon, experience is more likely to be garnered by the Australian entrants in the days leading up to the championship than from memories of 2006 and 2014.
– Additional reporting by Steve Keipert