Golf Course Review of Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) Golf Club

Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) Golf Club

Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) Golf Course

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Quick Summary: An introvert course with an intriguing personality

Our 5 Star Rating: 4.6

It could be argued that no golf club has had a greater influence on the amateur game of golf than Royal Liverpool, the second oldest links in England behind only Royal North Devon.

Open Champions and prolific amateur golfers, Harold Hilton and John Ball, learnt their trade on this important links that dates back to 1869 whilst the most famous non-professional of all, Bobby Jones, was crowned champion here during his momentous Grand Slam year.

The inaugural Amateur Championship was staged at Hoylake as was the first Home International contest and a match between Great Britain and the United States of America, the forerunner for The Walker Cup, took place at this historic venue. It was also at Hoylake that the rules of amateur status were laid down. In fact, it is Royal Liverpool Golf Club's contribution to the amateur game that has set it apart from all other clubs in England.

Likewise, The Club is synonymous with the Professional side of the sport too. After almost four decades in the wilderness The Open returned here in the scorching summer of 2006 when Tiger Woods decimated the field with his long iron play to triumph whilst Rory McIlroy secured victory eight years later on a much greener looking playing field. When The Open will return to Hoylake for a 13th time is anybody’s guess but if it’s not sooner then hopefully it will be later and perhaps in the year 2030 to mark the centenary of Bobby Jones’s Grand Slam. His victory at Royal Liverpool in that memorable year, on his way to writing his name in the golfing record books, is held in extremely high regard amongst club officials.

With such an influence on the amateur side of the sport it was perhaps fitting that my most recent visit here was for the 20th playing of the Harold Hilton Medal, an open competition set up to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the Hoylake legend’s Open Championship home victory. As well as his two Open victories (his first came five years earlier in 1892 at Muirfield) Hilton also won the Amateur Championship four times, was runner-up on three occasions and won the US Amateur Championship in 1911, the year in which he also held the British title. In the same year he still found time to become the first editor of the new Golf Monthly magazine.

There’s no hiding away from the fact that Hoylake isn’t easy on the eye, certainly for the opening and closing holes where the exterior views are predominantly residential. The first seven and last five are also played on what can almost be described as dead flat terrain blockaded in by the housing on both sides and to the rear. Remember though that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder and there are some subtle low level ground undulations and, should one strain their eyes to the west, more turbulent land can be spied in the distance out towards the Dee Estuary. Hope springs eternal.

If first impressions are not great it is full credit to the layout that huge interest and high levels of strategy are retained over what is the bulk of the course on this uninspiring terrain, formerly a racecourse. It’s a wonderful example of what can be achieved on flat land where decisions have to be made on every shot.

The first and 16th holes undoubtedly hold your attention, as well as a significant amount of fear, with the quite brilliant use of internal out of bounds. I dare say there isn’t a more terrifying opening drive than here where the corner of the practice ground, defined by raised cops, juts out at the ideal driving distance as the fairway narrows and angles around it. With a tail wind you may choose to try and cut a bit off, with the risk of stroke and distance, but most will sensibly shy to the left. The only problem with this approach is that the OOB runs all the way up alongside the hole and is always only a matter of feet away from the fairway and green! Take your bogey five and get out of there I say.

Meanwhile, the 16th is not quite as intimidating and because it is a par five there is less pressure to flirt with the out of bounds which is again down the right. However, those needing to chase a birdie must hit their drive as close as possible to it for the best angle into the green which also requires carrying a significant portion of the no-go area. In a similar manner to the excellent 14th at Royal St. George’s there is a safe route down the left but each subsequent shot becomes increasingly harder.

The second is a straightaway hole which will not linger long in the memory but requires a straight thwack followed by a precise approach. The third is a superb hole though, one of the best on the links. At this par-five the use of bunkers down the right and gorse on the inner elbow to the left of this gently doglegging par-five is truly excellent, as is the approach bunkering and green complex. Everything is simply in the right place (that can be said about most holes at Hoylake) and you not only have to plot your way through the hole cleverly but also execute the shots correctly.

The fourth and seventh are both fine one-shotters; each has a green which is difficult to hit and hold as well as being excellently bunkered with no end of swales and drop-offs awaiting those who fail the task at hand. These two holes form half of what is, if not an outstanding set of short holes, a collection that is extremely impressive. Holes five and six are the weakest in this opening run but they are by no means easy or featureless.

Apart from the aforementioned 16th there is less to write home about regarding the last five holes. The par-five 14th is arguably the best birdie chance on the course but the angled bunkers short of the green must be respected and avoided. As easy as the 14th might be the par-four 15th is just as difficult as you turn back on yourself, probably now into the wind. The 16th is a fine hole but by the time you get to the 17th and 18th you may just have the feeling of wanting the round to be done as you trudge away from the nearby clubhouse to play two more holes on the flat.

The 17th becomes the first hole for Open Championship with the round ending on the 16th although I suspect this is more to do with space around the 16th green for a grandstand than for the benefit of the flow of the course, although unfortunately this way you do lose what is one of the great opening drives in golf. The Club are currently considering the possibility of creating two new holes out in the dunes towards the estuary and if this ever becomes a reality I strongly suspect it will see the death of the current 17th and 18th holes which are by no means poor but do lack the verve and vigour of the others and frankly just come at the wrong time. Fingers crossed for this development and I just hope the environmentalists will forgive me for not reporting to The Club that I spotted a rare natterjack toad hopping around in the sandhills out there.

The heart of the course at Hoylake is the stuff of dreams though. From the eighth to the 13th the course is at its scintillating best (in all fairness you could tag the seventh on too). The terrain comes alive with movement and the natural changes in elevation which add soul and strategy to the game is in glorious abundance. These six holes are just about as good as anything you will find on any British links.

The wild fairways of the eighth and ninth can create all sorts of unusual bounces and lies but the exposed nature of the green at the former, coupled with a deep and deadly bunker to the front-right, and the secluded front to back surface at the next is what makes each hole so great.

There are similarities in the 10th and 12th as they both wrap around the dune line legging uphill to the left with bunkers in the driving zone before you play to raised greens with fall-offs on all four sides. Each one tries to drag you to the left as bravado, and the hope of a shorter approach, outweighs sensible play down the middle but at the expense of a longer approach. They are both excellent holes, however, the short 11th - named Alps- that hides secluded in the dunes is perhaps the best hole of the lot as you are asked to hit a draw ball against the wind into a green that is crouched within the sandhills.

The breathtaking run is concluded as we play away from the dunes, away from the sea, away from the real golfing terrain in the form of a dropping par-three. The green, as it does on all the short holes, sits at an angle and this time is protected with six deadly coffins. The putting surface is narrow and the temptation to fire at a tucked pin can often be too much. Discipline is required at this deft little one-shotter.

The greens at Hoylake are quite flat and mostly just have tiny micro-borrows; it is rare that you need to aim outside the hole on putts within 12 feet but it is easy to think there is more movement than there actually is. The third and 18th are the two main exceptions to this and come as welcome challenges with the putter.

As for the numbers, par is 72 and the yardage from the competition tees is 6,907 (SSS 75). The Open tees play over the 7,300 mark. Length can be immaterial though in the wind on the exposed Wirral Peninsula…. and Hoylake needs wind. It usually gets it too.

The benefit of playing the course four times over three days like I did is that I got to see the links with different wind strengths and directions. I saw it at its worst on Friday evening when the course played soft, no wind, with slow putting surfaces and to flags in the middle of the greens. I also saw it when it was at its best over the weekend after the course had dried out; it was altogether firmer and the breeze varied from mild to at least 25mph. Varied pin positions also enabled the strategy of Hoylake to shine through.

To sum up Hoylake I felt a little bit like an interviewer trying to get some interesting answers out of an introvert. Initially they weren’t forthcoming and despite probing away it was very hard at first but under the right circumstances, and if you are willing to listen carefully, you can get some extremely enthralling responses.

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