Standing outside Hoylake’s clubhouse, looking across the unprepossessing expanse of flat land that contains the club’s practice ground, the view is not one of golf’s most awe-inspiring. Much like at Royal Lytham & St Annes, with which it has much in common, the course is lined by old houses – while views of the ocean are rare and fleeting. Play the course, though, and plain old Hoylake is transformed into Royal Liverpool, host to the Open Championship on no less than 12 occasions and recently announced as the 2021 host.
It was designed to be played, not photographed, and while countless links courses across the British Isles are more attractive to behold, few are as unremittingly tough; when the wind gets up Hoylake can be brutally difficult.
After Roberto de Vicenzo held off the challenge of one Jack Nicklaus to win his only Claret Jug in 1967, Hoylake was looked over for 39 years on account of it lacking the infrastructure required to host an event that seems to get bigger every year.
The 2006 Open however proved those concerns completely wrong, as the second largest Open attendance ever at the time gathered to watch Tiger Woods claim the most emotional major victory of his career, at least until this past year.
Hoylake’s pedigree is immaculate. As well as holding a further Open since in 2014, won by Rory McIlroy, Royal Liverpool hosted the inaugural Amateur Championship, in 1885, and was the venue for the 1983 Walker Cup and 1992 Curtis Cup matches.
Hoylake is located in a cranny of England that many people may barely know exists. For the uninitiated, the course is laid out on relatively flat linksland at the end of a peninsula, separated from Liverpool by the River Mersey and north Wales by the River Dee.
Getting there is much easier these days, with the M53 running from Chester to within a couple of miles of the first tee. This improved access, together with the club’s initiative in purchasing an additional 10 acres of land nearby and their promise to build a new practice ground on the neighbouring municipal course, have been the key factors in Hoylake’s return to the Open rota.
There have never been any question marks over the quality of the course. The holes are a classic links mixture of idiosyncratic par threes, short but potentially treacherous par fours and unstintingly difficult long holes. If you are the kind of golfer who takes a couple of holes to warm up and likes the chance to settle into a round, then simply do not bother coming to Hoylake.
The holes are a classic links mixture of idiosyncratic par threes, short but potentially treacherous par fours and unstintingly difficult long holes.
In a category with some pretty stern competition, its opening hole is widely acknowledged as the toughest in Open championship golf. Measuring well over 400 yards, it is framed on one side by the enormous square patch of land that currently serves as the practice area.
A 90-degree dog-leg to the right, anything missing the fairway to that side is out of bounds while a more conservative tee-shot, played to the left, leaves a second shot of well over 200 yards, with the practice ground still very much in play down the right. Add to this the fact that the prevailing wind is against either the drive or the second shot and the absence of any bunkers around the green is the hole’s only beneficent feature.
It can only get easier from that start and the 2nd is much more straightforward, although a couple of penal bunkers do protect the inside of the dog-leg at this mid-length par four. Risk and reward is very much the theme at the par-five 3rd, where an aggressive drive tight down the left-hand side, flirting with the bunker and a thick patch of gorse, will leave the green within range in two. From further back, the lay-up is complicated by the bunkers around 100 yards from the green.
The 4th is another stern test. Measuring close to 200 yards, the green is perched atop a hillock and rejects everything apart from the straightest approaches. The long par-four 5th is made slightly easier by usually playing downwind but the approach, partially blind, is much longer than it appears and requires a long second.
From the championship tee at the 6th, there does not even appear to be a fairway. The tee shot must be played along the boundary of the course and over a hedgerow some 200 yards from the tee, over which the short grass can finally be found.
Suffice it to say that the conservatory built on the back of one of the houses that overlooks the 6th tee would not still be standing if the hole was played from here throughout the year. Having found the fairway, the approach is relatively straightforward to a large, flat green.
If the 8th is a short par five by modern standards, it can still present problems and is generally played into the wind. Out of bounds, more of a feature here than at most Open venues, lurks constantly down the right and the fairway narrows into virtually nothing at driving distance, making the tee shot a difficult one.
Before taking on the second shot, notice the small bunker some 25 yards short of the green and slightly to the right. Any approach slightly underhit and to the right will be magnetically attracted to this maliciously deep hazard.
From the elevated 9th tee at the very far end of the course, much of the back nine is unfurled ahead. This is a place for contemplation, a quiet corner of the course to pause a moment before taking on the second nine.
In many ways, this hole is the most ‘linksy’ on the course. Royal Liverpool is predominantly flat but the 9th features giant humps and hollows, with the green obscured behind a large hill from all but the extreme left-hand side of the fairway.
The back nine begins with a long dog-leg that sweeps its way around and uphill to the left. From there the course’s outstanding par three, the 11th, is played to a green set at the foot of a large dune.
The 12th is similar in character to the 10th, before the final short hole, Hoylake’s equivalent of Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp, which is played to a small target surrounded by deep bunkers.
The 14th represents the beginning of the stretch of long closing holes. A genuine three-shotter from the back tees for all but the very longest hitters, a wide fairway gets progressively narrower near to the green. The 15th can be an extremely punishing par four, depending on the conditions, and will always require a long second.
The 16th, another par five, is more subtle than the previous two and runs around the other two sides of the practice ground to the 1st. The green is within reach after a good drive, but the decision must be made as to whether the long carry across the out of bounds is worth the risk. The green is set up to receive shots coming in from this perilous angle while deep bunkers await anything on a safer line slightly left of target.
Starting from close to the clubhouse, the 17th is another long par four, this time turning to the left, and featuring a cluster of bunkers at the front of what is a very long green. It means the approach is extremely deceptive, because the pin can be almost 60 yards beyond the bunkers that appear to front the green.
The last hole, though well over 400 yards in length, is not the most fearsome of Open finishing holes, and a drive played just short of the bunkers will leave a mid to short iron to the green. Royal Liverpool is a very fair course, and the bounce of the ball is generally predictable and true.
With four par fives, an increasing rarity in championship golf these days, there are opportunities to pick up shots at Royal Liverpool. At over 7,200 yards and at the mercy of the British weather, however, some players might be in for a ‘character-building’ experience.