I fell in love with Royal Liverpool Golf Club the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
I can still recall the first time I drove through the gates and caught sight of the majestic clubhouse which stands guard over the links land here. On that day, I walked around to the front of the building and looked out across the golf course towards the distant Dee Estuary which wraps around the Wirral peninsula.
Now I chuckle at the memory: my first impression was that it was, well, very flat – devoid of drama, benign. There were no towering dunes or dramatic changes in elevation. No eye-catching features or instantly recognisable holes.
I may even have thought to myself – is this it? Is this the place which prompted Bernard Darwin, the doyen of golf writers, to say, “Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions.” The greatest golfers of their respective generations have won The Open here. Bobby Jones, Peter Thomson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to name a few.
But what I didn’t know then, and do now, is that Royal Liverpool’s undoubted drama and allure, lies within.
WELCOME TO HISTORIC HOYLAKE
It’s a fresh March morning in Hoylake and the stiff breeze that so often buffets this part of England’s golf coast has taken the day off. It’s my third visit to this historic and celebrated golf club in the past six months and Martin, the starter, is as welcoming as he has been on both previous occasions. This may be one of England’s great clubs, but the warmth of the hospitality and lack of pomposity is at odds with the dusty stereotype associated with some others.
History is wonderfully unavoidable as you walk through the clubhouse. In one corner, Harold Hilton is honoured. In another, Bobby Jones. Photographs of the American’s 1930 Open victory here are displayed alongside a letter inviting him to the club’s centenary dinner in 1969 and his reply. He explains he is unable to attend due to his declining heath but notes in his letter ‘it was at Hoylake where I played my first competitive round in Britain and also my last.’ The great man died just two years later. And yet despite all that history on the walls, when you sit in the Hilbre Room, your eye is drawn to that flattish piece of land beyond the windows, which waits to reveal itself to those with a card in their hand.
ROYAL LIVERPOOL GOLF CLUB: THE VERDICT
Royal Liverpool Golf Club is special not because of one thing but because of all the little details which make it so. But you need to pay attention. I walk out to the practice putting green to attempt to get the pace of the greens and notice the pineapples which sit on posts nearby. It turns out they are a remnant of the days when a horse racing track occupied the land here during the 1800s. The putting green was once the winner’s enclosure, so the legend goes.
History may be all around us at Hoylake, but it is club that has never been afraid to blaze its own trail, to innovate and improve. In recent years, Martin Ebert has overseen several changes to ensure the course still challenges the world’s best, with greens raised, moved and new tees and run-offs introduced. We’ll come to the most significant addition a little later. Today we’re playing The Open routing which differs from the layout the members play by two holes. The members’ 1st hole becomes the 3rd during the championship, with play starting on the members’ 17th and finishing on what is normally the 16th green, which is closer to the clubhouse and makes for a more dramatic finish.
The par-5 18th, which now measures 607 yards from the tips but 487 yards from the yellow tees, offers good players the chance to make eagle or birdie, as well as double and triple bogey. Out of bounds, which runs all the way down the right, has been brought in 20 yards while bunkers wait on the left. It’s tee-shot for the nerveless, not the nervous.
That’s a theme on every driving hole at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. If you’re not putting the ball in play from the tee, you will not score well here. For you and I, that means driving the ball well, distance and accuracy. For the best players in the world, depending on the conditions, it often means leaving the driver in the bag as Tiger Woods famously did on all but one occasion during his dominant 2006 Open victory. The opening stretch is strategic and demands precision to avoid devious fairway bunkering which narrow landing areas on every hole, bar the 3rd, where out of bounds waits.
The other thing that will strike you on the opening run of holes is that despite the sense from the clubhouse that it’s relatively flat, the ground is peppered with humps and hollows which constantly challenge you, particularly around the greens but also on the fairways. The 10th is a great example of that. You will get uphill, downhill and sidehill lies.
A HEAVENLY HOME STRETCH
Hoylake is never anything short of wonderful, but it begins to really move through the gears from the 11th tee (9th for the members) as you turn for home. We take a moment to drink in the view from the tee as the sun breaks through lighting up The Dee estuary all the Welsh hills beyond. Hilbre Island, Middle Eye and Little Eye islands, after which the new 17th is named, are lit up in all their diminutive beauty. It really is a wondrous sight next to the beauty of the links.
Punch Bowl, as the 11th is known, is the first of four holes which run along the shoreline, and they just get better and better and better. Along the way we stop at the half-way house for a drink and a sausage roll. Away to our right, Matthew Jordan, Hoylake’s best known tour pro, tees his ball up at the 7th and fires away another fairway finder.
The par-3 13th is a real highlight, not only because of its beauty but because of the challenge it presents. The mounds and sand scrapes which lie short and left of the green make the target look smaller than it is. A pot bunker gathers anything short and right. Today, though, in the midst of what might be the round of my life, none of those hazards come into play. I fizz a 6-iron high into the blue afternoon sky and, for a moment, we’re all frozen as the ball lands softly, checks and trickles towards the hole. It couldn’t, could it? The ball stops six inches short for a kick-in birdie. I’ll take it.
The 14th, Hilbre, is another stunning, strategic par-4 that dog-legs left. Par is a brilliant score. I give back the shot I made up on the last and now we turn to face the famously demanding final stretch at Hoylake as the breeze picks up.
The highlight, unquestionably, is the first new hole at Royal Liverpool Golf Club for more than half a century. The par-3 17th, which measures just 139 yards from the tips, features an elevated green and trouble absolutely everywhere. Vast bunkers and sand scrapes guard the putting surface, anything even slightly short will disappear, anything right is horrid, and anything long is the stuff of nightmares. This is Hoylake’s version of the 12th at Augusta or The Postage Stamp at Royal Troon – no more than a wedge but with the potential to wreck a card. “It’s going to wreak havoc, absolute havoc,” says Dame Laura Davies. “If you don’t hit a precise shot, you’re going to get all sorts of trouble from it – I loved the hole.” We wholeheartedly agree. I somehow cling on to the front of the green and escape with a par. Two of our number go at the flag and miss right. Both end up with big numbers. Precision and strategy – it’s a hole in keeping with the ethos.
ROYAL LIVERPOOL GOLF CLUB – MAGIC MEMORIES
We finish a magnificent, memorable round on the 18th green. My putt for a 71 rolls just wide but it’s a day I will remember for the rest of my life and not because of my score. I’ll remember it because it felt like the moment when I began to really understand what makes Royal Liverpool Golf Club so special. It’s unquestionably a daunting challenge when the wind blows and the rough is deep, as it will be at The Open. It will test every aspect of your game and demand every shot you have and plenty you don’t. But its magic and beauty isn’t laid out before you in an overt or obvious way. It asks you to work a little harder than that to really understand it. Hoylake is a golf course which gets better with each passing round – how many golf courses anywhere in the world can you say that about? I can’t think of very many.
It may not have been love at first sight, but when it comes to Royal Liverpool Golf Club, love it most certainly is.
ROYAL LIVERPOOL GOLF CLUB – THE DETAILS
Address: Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Meols Drive, Hoylake, Wirral, CH47 4AL
Directions: Royal Liverpool is 10 minutes from junction 2 of the M53 and less than an hour from both Liverpool and Manchester Airports.
Phone number: Reservations Coordinator – 0151 632 7772
ROYAL LIVERPOOL GOLF CLUB GREEN FEES
For details on green fees at Royal Liverpool Golf Club and to book a tee time, click here