Hoylake is one of the toughest tests on the Open Rota, but as Tiger proved in ‘06 you can go low around the links. Golf Monthly editor and Royal Liverpool member, Michael Harris, selects six holes that will help decide who lifts the Claret Jug in July...
Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions” is how the great Bernard Darwin described the course. And there is much truth here, because over the quarter of a century I’ve been fortunate enough to play golf on this Wirral links, I’ve rarely been greeted by anything less than a stiff breeze when walking out of the locker room and towards the first tee.
The 2006 Open Championship was, of course, different with barely a zephyr, let alone a mighty wind, over the four days (we did get the mighty Champion though in Tiger) and most RLGC members will be hoping more typical Hoylake conditions will prevail this July, so that the world’s best will have to battle both the layout and winds that change from day to day.
Critics often label the course as flat and boring, but to dismiss one of the most historic links shows a superficial appreciation of golf courses. Granted, it may lack the imposing dunes of Birkdale, the crumpled fairways of St George’s, Turnberry’s epic scenery or the many quirks of the Old Course – but what it lacks in those elements it more than makes up for in the quality of the test it sets.
Hoylake is a tough, uncompromising course that rewards clear thinking and bold golf, but punishes indecisive play and anything less than confident ball-striking. For me, it’s the English version of Carnoustie. Few frills, just 7,000 plus yards of pure golfing examination and the club motto ‘Far and Sure’ neatly sums up the qualities required for success.
Here, I review six holes that I feel will play a critical role in this year’s championship.
Most members will feel more than a pang of regret that this is not the first hole in the Championship, as it is for us. With the wind blowing over your left shoulder and the out-of-bounds of the practice ground to the right, this is knee-knocking stuff. However, with two holes under your belt it’s a less fearsome proposition.
That said, the danger remains on both the tee shot and approach, especially if the flag is positioned far right, hard up against the OOB. The proximity of this danger means many will play up the left, although a shallow run-off area was introduced before the 2006 Open to act as a deterrent and judging the pace of your putt or chip from this area is a challenge.
Members making par here are considered to have used up a significant amount of their quota of luck for the round.
The first of Hoylake’s four short holes features a slightly raised, two-tiered green that plays at a slight angle to the tee. The hole usually plays into a crosswind, and there is trouble aplenty that requires a precise strike to avoid a number of defences. The bunkers to the left of the green are deeper, but easier to escape than the one front-right. This trio of hazards is the most obvious danger, but if they overclub, players will see their balls running down a sharp slope towards thick rough, and from here, an up-and-down will be even harder won than from the sand.
The difficulty of the hole is underlined by the fact it is stroke-index-seven and from memory I’ve only made a handful of twos here. Scary stuff!
On the card, the 8th looks like a regulation par 4 – but in my view it’s one of the most interesting holes on the course. The tee shot is played over a tall marker post located in ‘the orchard’ – a triangular area of out-of-bounds that protrudes from the boundary fence on the left.
Into the wind this a petrifying tee shot for ‘everyday’ golfers and in club competitions very few groups will pass by without at least one of their number having to reload. Indeed, I had an 11, and one of my partners a 12, in the second day of the club’s 2013 Spring Meeting, and while I can’t see that fate befalling the top players in the world, this tee shot certainly focuses the mind.
Bunkers on the right-hand side of the fairway don’t seem like they should be in play, but with the OOB left, and beyond that bushes, there is a natural tendency to play towards them. The subtle shaping of the fairway means they collect more than their fair share of shots and once in there, you may find yourself up against the face and struggling to get out. Find the fairway
and you can attack almost any flag position on this relatively flat green.
Stood on the 11th tee you get the first proper view of the stunning Dee Estuary and across to the hills of North Wales. If the wind is behind, then this green is very drivable but the closer you get to the putting surface, the more trouble there is.
On at least one day I am sure a front-left flag position will be used and when it is players will be wise to play to the right and past the hole to allow a putt back up the slope. Leave it short and you face one of the fastest putts on the links. Anything approaching left and long will end up in a very clever run-off area that architect Martin Hawtree introduced with a small bank between you and the putting surface.
The rise can be no more than 12 inches, but the fact it is both near vertical and not shaved will leave players needing to execute a very delicate shot off a tight lie to a flag just a few feet away.
If a 145-year-old course can have such a thing as a ‘signature hole’ then the ‘Alps’ is it. Played from an exposed tee across a dip to an equally exposed putting surface (that lies at an angle to the direction of play) this hole demands the most accurate of iron shots. There is normally a crosswind to content with, which makes clubbing difficult. Turn it over and you will be in deep bund. Without ball spotters and TV cameras, this is lost-ball territory for members.
Balls running through the green will gather in a narrow channel that leaves you with a fiddly shot back towards the flag. The hole’s solitary bunker is positioned to the right of the green; it is very deep and the natural shaping of the surround kicks balls towards it with monotonous regularity.
It’s rare that I don’t take a quick snap of this green and its backdrop when I’m having a friendly knock, and while those contending for the Claret Jug are unlikely to be whipping out their iPhones to take a picture, not even the most focused of players will be able to resist a glance across the golden sands towards Hilbre Island.
Two par 5s in the final three holes mean that Hoylake should offer plenty of late drama, but while the 16th is arguably the most straightforward hole on the links, the final hole has the potential to make or break a round regardless of whether you are playing for the Claret Jug or midweek stableford.
Unless it’s downwind, few members will get it on in two. But for the pros, this – like pretty much every par 5 these days – represents a scoring chance. However, care and attention is needed from tee to green, with a ring of sand guarding the entrance to the putting surface.
Out-of-bounds shouldn’t really come into play, but with a Major on the line anything can happen. Remember Dustin Johnson’s squirt over the fence with a mid-iron on the 14th hole at Sandwich in 2011?
The 18th green is another that sits at an angle to the line of play and flag position makes a huge difference to strategy. Anywhere front and right of centre invites you to attack, while a back-left flag position is difficult to get close to even for the best players. The horseshoe of grandstands that will surround this green for the Open will make for a suitably gladiatorial stage on which to play out the climax of the 143rd Championship.