The dumbing down of Dowie

The dumbing down of Dowie
By Adam Lawrence

The history of Royal Liverpool's famous Dowie hole reflects the changing perceptions of golfers and architect throughout the ages.

We’ve remarked before in this column that the holes regarded as iconic in days gone by would often be seen very differently nowadays.

Blindness is a principal cause of this change, but even Golden Age architects like Harry Colt were at best ambivalent about blind holes (see our profile of Colt’s partner Hugh Alison for an illustration of this). But one design tool that has fallen almost entirely out of favour in the past hundred years is the ‘strategic’ use of out of bounds.

Yet at one point, not only was out of bounds viewed as a perfectly reasonable and fair hazard to put in front of a golfer; in fact, many holes with out of bounds propositions that would today be regarded as unthinkable were seen with affection verging on awe. And of courses famous for their out of bounds, Royal Liverpool was the unquestioned leader.

There is still a lot of out of bounds at Hoylake. The first hole, with the grass ‘cop’ protecting the practice ground right next to the edge of the green remains among golf’s most intimidating openers. Cops threaten elsewhere on the course, to the extent that it was derided by Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten as ‘Royal Out of Bounds’ when he previewed the 2006 Open.

Throughout most of its history, Hoylake’s most famous hole was the seventh, known as the Dowie after the club’s first captain. Well into the twentieth century, the Dowie, which had an out of bounds cop hard against the left edge of the green, to the extent that even well struck shots often fell foul of it, was regarded as one of golf’s greatest one shot holes.

Bernard Darwin, in The Golf Courses of the British Isles (1910) lauded the hole. “Next comes one of the finest short holes in the world, the Dowie,” he wrote. “There is a narrow triangular green, guarded on the right by some straggling rushes and on the left by an out-of-bounds field and cop; there is likewise a pot-bunker in front. To hit quite straight at this hole is the feat of a hero, for let the ball be ever so slightly pulled, and we shall infallibly be left playing our second shot from the tee. Nearly everybody slices at the Dowie out of pure fright, and is left with a tricky little running shot on to the green. The perfect shot starts out of the right, just to show that it has no intention of going out of bounds, and then swings round with a delicious hook, struggles through the little rush hollow, and so home on the green; it is a shot to dream of, but alas! seldom to play.”

Darwin’s eulogy of the hole illustrates a number of points. An obvious one is his reference to playing the second shot from the tee; today, of course, it would be the third. The rule change of 1932 that saw a penalty stroke being charged for going out of bounds probably sounded the death knell for out of bounds as a strategic hazard: golfers who would flirt with the OB fence at the risk of losing a shot would be unlikely to do so when the effective penalty was two strokes at a minimum.

Secondly, though, is that word ‘strategic’; few par threes offer much in the way of strategy, in the sense of choosing one’s method of attack, mindful of the potential risks and rewards of each approach. But the Dowie, as Darwin says above, was truly strategic: only the brave would hit at the flag and risk the out of bounds in the hope of making a two, while the cautious would play away from the hazard and trust to their short game. And third is the way in which a simple fence or low turf wall could create, on pancake flat ground, a hole that challenged all and identified those who were both brave and skilful.

Had Hoylake been solely a members’ course, the Dowie might have survived unscathed – the course had, after all, been extensively redesigned early in the twentieth century by Harry Colt, who left it intact (Colt and those who followed him rarely created any truly quirky holes. They might have left quirk on a course, but hardly ever did they build it themselves).

But as one of the classic championship courses of England, host now to eleven Opens and eighteen Amateurs, its fate was sealed. “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. “It was a bit absurd to have out of bounds on the edge of the putting green.”

This view became dominant, and when the Open returned to the course in 1967, the area beyond the cop was played as in bounds. Later still, 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.

As Whitten’s criticisms suggest, Hoylake remains a course where out of bounds plays a significant role in a round. The famous seventeenth, or Royal hole, with its green right against the course’s boundary fence and within a few feet of the Stanley Road survived longer but is gone now too, a necessary victim of the desire to return the Open to the historic links. No-one would mistake Royal Liverpool for a modern golf course, but part of what made it unique was lost with the muzzling of the Dowie.

This article appeared in issue 23 of GCA, published January 2011.

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