Hoylake: reborn or restrained?

By Sean Dudley

Roberto de Vicenzo's win in the 1967 Open Championship was the first – and, to date only – major championship victory by a South American player. But, until this year, the 1967 Open represented another historic milestone – the last to be played on the old Cheshire links of Royal Liverpool, the second English course, after Royal St Georges, to host the championship.

Hoylake, as Royal Liverpool is generally known, is regarded as the home of English amateur golf. Harold Hilton, among the greatest of English amateurs, was a Hoylake man, and the first Amateur Championship was held there in 1885 at the suggestion of Thomas Potter, the club's secretary. The course hosted the Open regularly during the first half of the 20th century, crowning champions such as Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Peter Thomson. But it fell from favour after de Vicenzo's win. Partly, as with Carnoustie between 1975 and 1999, the absence of Hoylake from the Open rota can be put down to logistics and the growing scale of the championship. In particular, the practice facility was always regarded as inadequate, and it is only an agreement to use the municipal course across Meols Drive as the range during the Open that has brought the championship back.

But Royal Liverpool has long been an architectural oddity too. Relatively unmodified through much of its history,the course retained the feel of a 19th century links far longer than its championship siblings. The first hole, famously, was among the most terrifying tee shots in golf. A long dog-leg par four, the hole has out of bounds on both sides, and, to the interior of the dog-leg is to be found the club's practice ground, which is bounded by the 'cop' – a low turf wall.

Changes to Hoylake for The Open 2006 were made under the supervision of the design firm Donald Steel and Company. Architect Martin Ebert, formerly one of Steel's team, and now a partner in the successor firm Mackenzie and Ebert, oversaw the alterations.

"Donald was first asked to have a look at Hoylake in 1999," says Ebert. "We then undertook a full course survey, and started a five year development project, with the thought of bringing the Open back here." Because of routing changes driven by issues of crowd control and the desire to have a stronger finishing hole than the existing 18th, the first will play as the third hole during the Open.While this change is defensible, and was, perhaps, essential to make the championship feasible, it is undeniably sad to see the most fearsome opening tee shot on the Open rota being relegated to the third hole. Finnish professional Mikko Ilonen, a top ten finisher in the 2002 Open at Muirfield, won the 2000 Amateur Championship at Royal Liverpool. Ilonen is in the camp that regrets the loss of the famous opening tee shot. He is also very definite about the hole. "It's not a hole you can attack," he says. "In the Amateur, I played it as a three shot hole in every round, hoping for a chip and putt to make par." "It is a shame not to have the real first hole," says Martin Ebert. "At the time we made the changes to the course, we thought it would be played to the original routing, and so made changes to the seventeenth and tweaked the bunkering on the eighteenth to stiffen the finish. On the last hole, we wanted to encourage players to hit the driver, and so put in some new bunkers to threaten the tee shot played with an iron." At 7,258 yards, the course will play 263 yards longer than for de Vicenzo's Open, and 122 yards longer than in 2000 when Ilonen won the Amateur. "Every inch of extra distance they could find they've applied," says Peter Thomson. "They're hemmed in for extensive changes, but that's all right – the course can stand on its own two feet. Apart from the seventh I can't see any real change to the character of the place. Most of the site is dead flat, and that's the course's main difficulty. It's not easy to gauge distance on a flat site with the wind blowing. Fifty years ago, when I got to Hoylake, I was very lacking in confidence, because I found the course very difficult to get to grips with. But everyone else had the same feeling." Internal out of bounds featured strongly elsewhere on the golf course, and this remains an important element, though it has been toned down. The seventeenth green (which will play as the first under the Open routing) was a classic of its kind, perched above a road by the architect Harry Colt, who made changes to Hoylake early in the 20th century. So close to the green was the out of bounds that golfers were known to concede stroke and distance with the putter on occasion! Steel and Ebert relocated the green, 40 yards further back, taking it away from the road and the out of bounds.

Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten has recently gone on record with some strong criticism of Royal Liverpool, calling it 'Royal Out of Bounds' and accusing it of being a course out of its time. In many ways, this is a reasonable point – no course would be built like Hoylake now, and, even after alterations, it remains very different from other courses on the rota. But its defenders argue that to remove all the quirk would be to remove the identity of the golf course. "I love all that old out of bounds, and we'd have left it given the option," says Martin Ebert. "On the seventeenth, for example, it was unfortunate to take the green away from the out of bounds, but it was essential because of health and safety issues – the road was too dangerous – and because of spectator flow. In some ways it would be interesting to return the game to the old out of bounds rule, where the shot had to be retaken but there was no additional penalty stroke. It might encourage more attacking play." Ebert and Steel, though, did not alter the famous, or perhaps notorious, seventh hole, the par three Dowie. Once regarded as one of the greatest one-shot holes in golf – it featured, for example, in Henry Longhurst's film of Player, Palmer and Nicklaus playing the 'best 18 holes in the British Isles' – the Dowie is perhaps the best example of how Hoylake was a course out of time. The cop was hard against the left edge of the green, so even well struck shots often bounced out of bounds. "The out of bounds on the edge of the green gave us all horrors, when the wind was up," says 1956 Hoylake Open Champion Peter Thomson, who visited the course during 2005. "It was a bit absurd to have out of bounds on the edge of the putting green." Some years ago, architect Cameron Sinclair remodelled the hole, levelling off the front portion of the green and widening the back. And, critically, the out of bounds was removed, being replaced with bunkers and mounds to defend the green.

Conditioning improvements were also key to the return of the Open. Links manager Derek Green, who sadly died last year, was responsible for returning the course – which had become overwatered and too lush – into the kind of firm and fast test expected of a true links.

One industry figure recalls Green telling him: "If we don't get the course playing faster and drier we'll never get the Open back here." "We had to encourage more links-like conditions around the greens," says Martin Ebert. "Some of the greens were surrounded by rough, and there was quite a bit of rye in those surrounds. On the twelfth, for example, we replaced quite a bit of turf, with strong encouragement from the R&A. North Staffs Irrigation built the watering system for the new tees and greens, as well as for the practice area at Hoylake Municipal.

So what sort of golfer will win at Hoylake? Peter Thomson says the quirkiness of the course shouldn't affect the likely champion's play. "Drive straight, keep out of the rough, and putt well," he says, listing the ideal attributes for a Hoylake winner. "I don't think it's any different from any other course on the roster in that respect. The bunkers are tough, but they aren't as penal as somewhere like St Andrews. It's comparable to a course like Lytham in that regard."