Brown Beauty

The critics had carped that Hoylake was too homely to hold a successful Open Championship. They learned that looks can be deceiving
July 30, 2006

Tom Watson swung,and the crowd groaned. Revered in Great Britain for winning the OpenChampionship five times, the 56-year-old Watson had made the cut once again,but now, as he played out of a greenside bunker on the 15th hole of the thirdround, it looked as if he had flubbed his sand shot. "They didn't think Igot it out of the bunker," Watson said. But Watson's ball had, barely,cleared the steep, sod-faced wall of the bunker--Royal Liverpool's trademarkfeature--and momentarily teetered on the top edge as if deciding whether or notto obey the laws of gravity. Slowly the ball trickled forward onto the greenand toward the hole, stopping three feet from the cup. All the while thegallery's groans had turned into sounds of surprise, then delight and, finally,appreciation for a delicate shot brilliantly played. "You don't get thoseshots in America," said Watson, who would draw another loud tribute when hemade the par putt. ¶ The shot typified links golf at its best, as did RoyalLiverpool, which was making its return to the British Open rota after a 39-yearabsence. Before the championship, critics had said the admittedly homely coursein Hoylake, England, was too short, too narrow and too easy to host a modernOpen. Afterward, they were proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong.

The club wascalled names: Royal O.B., because of its funky out-of-bounds; Royal Dust Bowl,because a heat wave and a drought had left it looking like burnt toast; andRoyal So What, because of the lack of memorable features or a signature hole.But here's an inconvenient truth: Royal Liverpool proved to be a tremendouslinks. Said Scott Verplank, who finished 31st, "This is closer to what golfis supposed to be and, at least for this one tournament, still is."

Royal Liverpool isthe very definition of a plain brown wrapper, links golf without the romance.There are no hills, dunes or historic ruins. "It looks awful on TV,"says Todd Hamilton, the 2004 British champ. "You see guys putting throughpatches of green and brown, and you can't even tell where the fairways arebecause everything is brown."

What RoyalLiverpool wouldn't give for a Road Hole, a Swilken Burn or a Spectacles (OldCourse) or even a Postage Stamp (Royal Troon). Imagine if Liverpool had atleast one overly dramatic green, like the 18th and its Valley of Sin at St.Andrews. If only Liverpool's fairways had dramatic rolls and ridges, like RoyalSt. George's, instead of flat plains that make it seem as if someone ruined aperfectly good landing strip. And all Liverpool has in the way of scenery arethe hills of Wales in the distance, the tiny town of Hoylake and the tidalmudflats of the Dee estuary. No wonder the course got no respect.

Except from theplayers. "I thought it wasn't much at first," said Luke Donald ofEngland, who was born 10 years after Royal Liverpool's last Open, which tookplace in 1967. "Now it's one of my favorites. The bunkers here seem to suckup golf balls, I swear." (Donald finished 35th at two under.) Said FredCouples, who shot 70-76 and missed the cut, "I can't imagine why [RoyalLiverpool] wasn't in the rotation for the last 40 years."

Royal Liverpoolwas golf as chess, and Tiger Woods, one of the game's most cerebral players,made all the right moves. He cunningly worked his ball around the course as ifit were a rogue bishop. Perhaps it was boring to watch Woods lay up with atwo-iron off many tees and hit his driver--by mistake, he later admitted--onlyonce, but his approaches were thrilling exhibitions of shotmaking.

During the secondround he hit a low four-iron approach at the par-4 12th hole, a devilish doglegleft whose fairway is guarded by pot bunkers. The shot rose like a parabolainto the breeze and landed with cat's paws 12 feet from the pin. Then at the14th, another difficult dogleg-left par-4, featuring a sleeve of diagonalbunkers on the left, Woods hit another four-iron, only this one bored throughthe wind toward the raised green, bounced on the fringe and hopscotched intothe cup for an easy-as-you-please eagle.

"I hit afour-iron to about 16 feet left of the hole and thought it was my best shot ofthe day," said Ernie Els, who came in third. "Then I saw that Tigerholed his second shot there. That must have been an unbelievable shot."

You didn't have tobe a purist to recognize the genius of the stroke that Jim Furyk played onFriday from a greenside bunker at the 4th hole. Using his putter, he whackedthe ball from the sand, driving it up the sod face of the bunker, along anarrow strip of grass between two more bunkers and onto the green, 15 feet fromthe hole. BBC analyst Peter Alliss called it the greatest shot he had everseen. Furyk, who admitted it was a "one-out-of-a-hundred shot," madethe putt for par. The genius of the play? Imagining it.

Yes, RoyalLiverpool had issues: The traffic was terrible, with the worst backups at anymajor since the 1993 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, and daily crowds of 40,000-plusmade spectating difficult. But the course itself was a winner. It was resistantto scoring, especially considering the weather and the lack of wind, the maindefense of a links. Colin Montgomerie said the course was so fast that itmust've been playing at "about 5,500 yards in real terms" rather thanthe 7,258 yards on the scorecard. Plus, with four par-5s reachable foreverybody--even short-hitting Fred Funk eagled the 18th--par was really 70, ifnot 69. Knock two strokes off par and Woods's winning score of 270 is only 10under. Not bad for a course that held its first Open in 1897 and was part ofBobby Jones's Grand Slam in 1930.

The bunkers arethe thing at Royal Liverpool. There are 92 of them, and they're deep, havesteep faces and are placed exactly where they can cause the most damage. Thefairway bunkers especially are in essence one-stroke penalties. To avoid themWoods put the two-iron in his bag for the first time in eight months. "It'sthe best-bunkered course I've ever played," said Jerry Kelly, who finished26th. "I'm one of the straightest players out here, and even I was hittingthree-irons off the tee to stay short of them. They're no picnic."

During the thirdround Kelly did wind up in one. Short-sided at the par-4 7th, he blasted hisball as high as he could, then watched as it ran downhill and into the cup foran unlikely birdie. He raised his arms as if to say, Can you believe that?

You don't seeshots like that in the U.S. With luck, we'll see them again at RoyalLiverpool.

"I thought it wasn't much at first," saidDonald. "NOW IT'S ONE OF MY FAVORITES. The bunkers seem to suck up golfballs, I swear."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Martin DRYJOY
Baked by unusually high temperatures, fiery Royal Liverpool turned into athinking man's track.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)