Nine things to know: Royal Liverpool Golf Club
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An aerial view of the par 14th hole in the 2023 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England. (David Cannon/Getty Images)
Written by Bradley Klein @PGATOUR
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy won the previous two Open Championships at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, where Bobby Jones, Peter Thomson and Roberto De Vicenzo also lifted the claret jug. Will another of the game’s stars be victorious at Royal Liverpool this week?
Before the 151st Open begins, here are nine things to know about Royal Liverpool, which is hosting its 13th Open this week.
1. WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Royal Liverpool Golf Club is also commonly referred to as Hoylake because that’s the name of the small town the course actually sits in. Liverpool is about a half-hour drive east from the seaside club, which was founded in 1869. Liverpool, famously home to The Beatles, is central to Merseyside, a region of northwest England just above Wales. Royal Liverpool Golf Club follows Westward Ho! in Devon as the second-oldest seaside course in England.
The golf course sits on the edge of the Wirral Peninsula, where the Dee River empties into the Irish Sea. The site marks the southernmost point of a fabulous 40-mile coastal stretch that includes such golf course gems as Wallasey, West Lancashire, Formby, Southport & Ainsdale, Hillside and Open venues Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham & St. Annes. You could easily spend a week or two playing golf in this region and feel totally fulfilled, even if cocktail conversation back home about the trip might not generate the same approving nods of admiration and envy as trips elsewhere in Great Britain and Ireland. Rest assured that travelers there will have achieved something impressive; after all, the three royal venues on that route have collectively held 33 Open Championships.
2. AMATEUR HOUR
Royal Liverpool exudes an antiquated, tweedy elegance. It is manifest in everything from its Victorian clubhouse to the inadequate club parking and the presence on the clubhouse walls of the game’s great amateur golfers. The club relishes its reputation as the home of British amateur golf and seems to take more pride in having held 17 British Amateur Championships (including the first in 1885) than all of those Open Championships. This is the club that wrote the rules governing amateur golf. Hoylake was the setting in 1902 for the inaugural international match between England and Scotland, later to be called the Home Internationals. The club also held the first international match between Great Britain and the U.S. in 1921 – a forerunner of the Walker Cup.
Two of the three amateurs who have won The Open were Hoylake members: John Ball and Harold Hilton. The other amateur winner, Bobby Jones, won his third Open at Hoylake.
Among the club’s museum-quality collection of golf memorabilia is a portrait of Ball (1861-1940), who totally dominated amateur golf in the decades before and after the turn of the century. Ball was a Hoylake native whose father owned the Royal Hotel, the club’s first clubhouse. As a Royal Liverpool member, Ball won eight British Amateurs (three of them on his home course) and the 1890 Open Championship. He was enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1977.
Also portrayed in the club’s hallway is Hilton (1869-1942), another amateur great and Hoylake member. He was every bit Ball’s rival, though more comfortable in the limelight. His victories include Open Championships in 1892 and 1897, four British Amateurs and the U.S. Amateur in 1911.
Equally notable when it comes to amateur achievements at Royal Liverpool was Jones’ win here in the 1930 Open Championship – the second leg of his Grand Slam that year. In a bet that presages by eight decades a wager involving McIlroy (see below), Jones that year placed a bet on himself to win those four majors – at odds of 50-1. He ended up collecting over $60,000 in the process – without endangering his amateur status.
3. LIVERPOOL’S EVOLUTION
Hoylake started in 1869 as a nine-hole course built around an old racetrack. The original layout formed a clockwise circuit that started and ended at the Royal Hotel on the north side of the property, astride what is today’s second hole. Even as the course expanded and evolved, the railings of the horse track were a factor in play on the opening and closing holes until well into the 1960s.
The holes back then looped around what would become the club’s 12-acre practice ground. For The Open Championship, that space between the third and 18th holes will serve as the tented village. Players use the grounds of the adjoining municipal Hoylake Golf Club for a practice field.
As with many British links, the holes never quite made their way out to sea. Rare is the championship links like Royal Dornoch or Nairn that sits on the coastline proper. For one thing, those coastal dunes tend to be too severe for golf and would require a bulldozer to make them playable. But those courses assumed their prevailing character by the 1920s, when earth moving of coastal land was unheard of, and in any case, technically unfeasible.
The land immediately along the coastline on the club’s west side would have been too unstable for golf anyway. And by the time the golf course assumed its full, nearly present incarnation, homesites had cropped up along an upland stretch to the north. Thus did Royal Liverpool assume its contemporary form, with homesites and rail lines on one side, similar to Carnoustie or Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and untamable dunes on the other, a la Royal Birkdale or Royal St. Georges.
4. CHARACTER STUDY
There’s only about 20 feet of elevation change across the entire 184-acre site, yet none of the ground is level. The rolling terrain offers just enough contour to make shotmaking interesting, even if it does not present the kind of visual drama that gets the heart racing.
Greens on links courses like Royal Liverpool do not normally carry the shaping and contour of an inland American parkland layout. The focus on strategy is getting to these greens; once there, the putting is a matter of adjusting to the wind and to the subtle, not readily perceptible, contours of the putting surfaces. The bent-fescue turfgrass greens tend to prop the ball up and make it susceptible to the wind. Green speeds are also kept moderate, in the range of 10.5-12 on the Stimpmeter. Anything faster would get out of control in the high winds that are common alongside the sea. The skill out here is shot-making, particularly the quality of impact on iron shots struck with precision. There’s very little room for error on links courses.
The greens generally present open fronts, with the exception at Royal Liverpool on the three par 5s and the very short 17th, which are the only holes where fronting bunkers need to be carried. That makes holding a long second shot on a par 5 a matter of particular difficulty.
This year, players will face a Royal Liverpool layout with additional bunkering, harsher run-off areas, new tees and an eye-catching new hole. These changes will present the players with fresh challenges on a historic course.
5. FINDING THE FAIRWAY
Back in the hot and dry summer of 2006, Woods famously negotiated Royal Liverpool’s firm and fast dust bowl with his trademark stingers off the tee. He hit just one driver all week, putting on a masterclass in ball control. In the first Open at Royal Liverpool in nearly four decades, Woods used irons off the tee to avoid the penal pot bunkers. He could handle the longer approach shots that his conservative play from the tee left him with. Woods’ week included a holed 4-iron at the 14th as part of a 65 that tied the mark for lowest Open round at Royal Liverpool.
That year, Woods became the only player in ShotLink history to gain more than two strokes per round with his approach play over an entire season.
The 2014 Open Championship offered a different kind of test after the regional rain totals returned to normal. McIlroy’s path to victory that year involved a generous use of drivers off the tee on a softer layout. The 2014 Open was the third of his four major victories; he won his fourth – and most recent – major weeks later at the PGA Championship.
The fairways at Royal Liverpool are modest in scale, all 22 acres of them, which by championship measures is on the small side. By comparison, the fairways at Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course were twice that size for the 2023 U.S. Open. The landing areas at Hoylake are only 25-30 yards wide; with the standard roll afforded by crisply-cut fescue turf they run a long way, which effectively narrows the landing zone even more, especially on the half a dozen holes out there that dogleg.
That also brings into play the deep, revetted bunkers; though small in size they effectively function like vacuums that suck up the ball as it runs along the ground. That accentuates the effect of links golf, where the skill is not in launching the ball to land it on a preferred spot, but instead to get the ball to stop in time. Peter Thompson, who won his third consecutive Open Championship here in 1956, observed of links golf that the trick in hitting greens in regulation is not landing on the putting surface but keeping it there.
6. ALL EYES ON RORY
It has been nine years since Rory McIlroy has won a major championship. “No one wants me to win another major more than I do,” he said at last month’s U.S. Open, where he finished second to Wyndham Clark. Since winning two majors in 2014, he’s finished in the top 10 in 19 of the 34 majors in which he’s played, including three second-place finishes – at the 2018 Open Championship, the 2022 Masters and this year’s U.S. Open. Over that time, he’s also won 14 PGA TOUR events and become the only man to win three FedExCups.
Hardly the stuff of someone in a slump, but McIlroy’s standard is higher than most. High expectations have followed him since he was a boy. When McIlroy was just 15 years old, his father Gerry wagered 200 pounds at 500-1 that Rory would win The Open withing a decade – which he just managed to do in 2014, leading to a 100,000 pound payout.
7. RICKIE’S RETURN
McIlroy wasn’t the only player who had a career year in the majors in 2014. Rickie Fowler finished in the top 5 in all four majors, a feat that had previously only been accomplished by Jack Nicklaus (1971, ’73) and Woods (2000, ’05). Fowler was 32 under par in the majors that year, beating McIlroy by five.
At Royal Liverpool in 2014, Fowler went into the final round six back of McIlroy, but shot 67 to put pressure on McIlroy and finish two back. Fowler is in the midst of a career resurgence this year after ending a four-year winless drought at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Fowler also shot a 62 in the first round of last month’s U.S. Open and shared the 54-hole lead before finishing fifth. Could he and McIlroy reprise their roles from 2014? They are both playing well enough to contend again at Royal Liverpool.
8. LITTLE EYE
It’s not all that rare that an Open Championship venue gets an entirely new golf hole. Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland featured two new holes in 2019 – done by the same design team, Mackenzie & Ebert, that did work at Royal Liverpool. Their renovation assignments worldwide look like a who’s who of world golf, including eight of 10 recent Open Championship venues. Beyond Hoylake and Portrush, that list includes Carnoustie, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Royal St. George’s, Royal Birkdale, Royal Troon and Turnberry.
Royal Liverpool’s new par-3 17th hole, which is only 136 yards long, will be the talk of tournament due to its sequence in the routing and the sharp drama it might provide.
“Little Eye” is named after one of the Hilbre Islands, which sits just offshore in the Dee Estuary, to which the new hole is oriented. At only 136 yards, it already invites comparison to the 123-yard, par-3 eighth hole – aptly named the “Postage Stamp” – at Royal Troon as among the most demanding little holes in British championship golf. It will certainly be controversial given the nature of the tiny, raised putting green that falls off quickly all around into deep revetted bunkers – or onto firm, short-grass rollout.
The target is all of 3,800 square feet – easily the tiniest green on a course where the putting surfaces average 6,460 square feet. The hole is also the most exposed to the coastline of any hole at Royal Liverpool and plays directly into a prevailing breeze off the Irish Sea. The wind could play havoc with an elevated approach shot.
Martin Ebert, who led the firm’s work on the project, created the new 17th on the ground of the old par-3 15th, an undistinguished hole of 161 yards to a green framed by six bunkers where the chief obstacle was holding the green on an approach shot that played downwind. The new hole has flipped the orientation of the tee shot to face the wind. The hole’s location on the lower, seaward side of property and the immediacy of its access to a number of converging holes, allowed for a rerouting so that it now plays in the midst of a long finishing sequence of holes that measure 620, 461, 136 and 609 yards.
9. NO LEAD IS SAFE
The course’s last two holes are a short par 3 played into a prevailing headwind and a long but very reachable downwind par 5. That means anything is possible and nothing is settled until the end. Short par 3s like 17 have tilted the balance before in The Open. Woods took himself out of contention in 1997 at Troon with a triple-bogey six at the Postage Stamp in the final round. In the fourth round of the 2003 Open at Royal St. George’s, Danish golfer Thomas Bjorn lost his lead for good when he took three shots to get out of a greenside bunker at the 161-yard, par-3 16th hole.
The difference at Royal Liverpool is that the intense little par 3 is followed by a final hole where long hitters can easily reach the par 5 in two. The hole is arrayed eastward, with the prevailing wind helping over the right shoulder. Good thing, because with the move of the old 15th green to make way for “Little Eye,” the 18th tee has been pushed back 50 yards and to the right. This not only makes the hole 48 yards longer, but also it brings the out-of-bounds along the right side closer into play.
Ebert summed up the resulting sensibility very well when he he told PGATour.com, “I think with even a four- or five-shot lead, there will no certainty of the outcome. A two or a five or a six is possible at the short 17th, and eagle or double bogey at the 18th green are also in play given the fact that the hole is longer and the out-of-bounds closer to the playing line.”
Royal Liverpool Golf Club – Hoylake
Card of the Course
Bradley S. Klein is a veteran golf writer and author of 10 books on course design. A former PGA TOUR caddie, he was architecture editor of Golfweek for over two decades and is now a freelance journalist and course design consultant. Follow Bradley Klein on Twitter.