It is not just Tiger Woods who will have changed in the eight years since the Open Championship last visited Hoylake, the Royal Liverpool course he tamed in 2006 will be presenting quite a different challenge this time around.
Woods won his third and most recent Open here in ’06 during a season which had seen him come up short at the Masters — watched for the last time in a Major by his dying father Earl — then miss the cut at the US Open in the wake of his mentor’s death.
When he got to the seaside village of Hoylake, on England’s Wirral peninsula, a sense of peace had taken over his mind and he found a dusty, sun-parched links at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in the midst of a heat wave that helped him set about dominating the field by leaving his driver in the bag for all but one of the 72 holes.
The 14-time Major winner and former world No 1, making his first Major appearance of the season following lower back surgery for a pinched nerve, will face conditions much changed from that year when he tees off in today’s first round.
“This is a different golf course than what we played in ’06. It was hot, ball was flying. It was very dusty. Now, we’re making ball marks on the greens, which we weren’t doing then,” Woods said.
“When I played on Saturday it was running, it was fast. But on Sunday, with the rain it just didn’t move. And then [Tuesday] the greens were faster.”
The greens may be getting faster but the fairways are still green and the ball is not running anywhere near the distances it rolled eight years ago.
“Hoylake demonstrated traditional links golf in its raw form, the fairways were almost white,” Royal Liverpool GC captain Alistair Beggs said of the course’s state eight years ago.
“I think it is in better shape than it was in 2006. We’ve made a few subtle changes to it since 2006, a little bit of extra length has been added but not a great deal. It’s subtlety really. Edges of greens have been reshaped, run-offs have been developed so slightly trickier pin positions can be enforced.”
Royal Liverpool, England’s second oldest seaside links after Royal North Devon, has produced an array of winners since amateur member Harold Hilton won the first Open staged here in 1897, from the game’s greats such as Woods and Bobby Jones in 1930 to first-time Major winners from France (Arnaud Massy in 1907), Ireland (Fred Daly in 1947) and Argentina (Roberto de Vicenzo in 1967).
The pattern presents hope for golf’s less heralded players teeing it up this week but even though course conditions may change from year to year, Royal Liverpool links manager Craig Gilholm insists the test remains pretty reliant on the wind offering its main protection.
“Through our history it’s always been a long test, it’s always been a long golf course. It’s really about the wind blowing being the major difficulty. Many a comment’s been made about the mighty winds of Hoylake and that is what Hoylake’s all about,” Gilholm said.
With benign conditions forecast for each day except tomorrow’s second round, when temperatures may rise, rain could fall and lightning is possible, it may be the changing wind directions that give Royal Liverpool its teeth for the rest of the week, but this will definitely not be a re-run of 2006, at least according to defending champion Phil Mickelson.
“I think that last time in ’06 we were almost forced to hit the ball longer off the tee and take on more risk because the course was so firm, you couldn’t stop the ball with a mid iron,” Muirfield winner Mickelson said. “And we needed to come into some of these greens with an eight, nine, wedge downwind, because it was so firm.”
“I think it’s going to allow us to be a little bit more conservative off the tee and a little bit more aggressive into the greens. That’s my take. And the winning score, I think, will ultimately be fairly low, provided conditions, of course.
“If we get a strong wind, that all changes. If we get a strong wind and rain, that changes even more. But under light wind or soft wind conditions and the golf course being as green as it is, I think the scores will be fairly low.”
Royal Liverpool’s three key holes
12th – Dee – Par 4 – 447 yards
Part of a fine stretch of holes along the River Dee estuary, the 12th proved the most difficult hole on the course during the 2006 Open, producing 138 bogeys and 15 double bogeys. Errant tee shots can find one of a trio of bunkers on the right of the landing area, but straying too far left invites treacherous rough. The elevated green slopes from back to front and is protected by a large swale down the left.
14th – Hillbre – Par 4 – 454 yards
The second hardest hole on the course in 2006 and made tougher with a new fairway bunker added on the right. A tough driving hole with the approach over the side of a hill to a narrow green sitting at an angle to the fairway.
18th – Dun – Par 5 – 551 yards
Presenting a tough and exciting closing challenge, the par-five 18th could produce a two-shot swing at the death. It is a left to right dog-leg with the temptation for the big hitters to reach the green in two tempered by out of bounds down the right-hand side of the fairway and thick rough down the left. Three greenside bunkers built on the left side of the putting surface present further problems.
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