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Royal Liverpool

Yardage
6933 (green)
Par
72
SSS
75
Built
1869
Architect(s)
Chambers and George Morris,Old Tom Morris, Colt, Hawtree, Steel
Nature:
Tough, flat, historic Open Championship links. Finest golf challenge in England
Location/Address:
In Cheshire at the top of The Wirral. ( post code: CH47 4AL)
http://www.royal-liverpool-golf.com
Secretary
Simon Newland
Telephone
0151 632 3101
Professional
John Heggerty
Green Keeper
Craig Gilholm
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Access Policy:
By arrangement with the Secretary
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
Harold Hilton-June. Scratch mixed F'somes-Aug
Fees in 1960s
50p
Fees today
£175

Review

One always comes to Royal Liverpool at Hoylake with the warmest of feelings in the knowledge that the Club with such an illustrious history continues to be at the top of its game.

The friendly welcome, the quality of facilities, the professionalism and helpfulness of the staff maintained over time to give the backdrop to historic events and the finest golfing challenge in England, in which I am happy to concur with the revered golf architect, Tom Simpson.

There was a period when its great neighbour, Royal Birkdale, rose higher in the imagination and Hoylake moved out of the limelight but, as was exemplified with The Open returning in 2006 to a parched, fast running course, Royal Liverpool, whose motto is ‘Far and Sure’, can reclaim the finest spot again.

John Ball

John Ball

This is a members’ club aware of their duty to represent the finest in the amateur game, and in John Ball, their favourite son, they boast such a hero, with eight Amateurs and an Open to his name, won in his typically shy, unobtrusive way.

Visitors and members share a common locker room and there are no reserved car spaces. No club is more proud of its traditions and, though this is not specifically a two-ball course and no dogs are allowed, a relaxed, genial comfort abounds.

Founded in 1869 with a course designed by Old Tom Morris’s brother George, the Club’s amateur triumvirate of Harold Hilton, Jack Graham and John Ball, the latter a son of the hotelier who initially housed the clubhouse, were hugely influential in the Edwardian golfing scene and

Harold Hilton by JJ Inglis

Harold Hilton by JJ Inglis

oversaw constant alteration to the links.

In the 1920s Harry Colt made dramatic and controversial changes that the greatest of golf writers, Bernard Darwin, described as “…in part open to criticism, not on the ground of any lack of ingenuity on the architect’s part but because, fine holes though they are, they are comparatively like many other fine holes to be found elsewhere, whereas those they have superseded were unique; they were essentially Hoylake”. Darwin continued “..with eyes unblurred by sentiment, I sincerely declare that Mr Colt made a great job of it…Hoylake seems to me as fine a test of the best modern golfers as is to be seen anywhere in the world“.

We have all endured similar heartaches with the loss of OOB at the seventh (Dowie) and the new greens at 3, 17 and 18, one of which did not quite seem to be Hoylake-esque and has been subsequently adapted, but, if it had to be done, along with gaining ground for the tented village, to secure the return of The Open, so be it.

Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones

Too many great events have happened at Hoylake for all of them to be mentioned but the 7 that Bobby Jones took at the eighth (Far) when lying 10 yards off to the left of the green in two should give us all hope, for he then went on to win the 1930 Open as part of his epic grand slam of both US and UK Amateurs and Opens in the one year. The greatest amateur golfer of all time was trying to get his birdie four at the time. His first chip died on the upslope and his second chip was 10 feet short. The putt for par slipped past by a foot. How many times have we all been unsettled by such an event? He hurriedly tapped it in but it did not drop! He wrote afterwards: “I walked to the next tee in a daze. I was confused mentally. At this point I was completely incapable of making any calculation. I simply resolved to keep hitting the ball as best I could.” (not bad advice at anytime!) Having come through, he very soon after retired at the top of his sport, at the age of 28.

It is worth noting that Bobby initially had a puzzled hatred of the links, being used to target golf in America but, like all great players, Tom Watson being perhaps the finest example, he learnt to play in the wind, on bouncy fairways and glassy greens and to keep out of the ‘Hamlet’ bunkers, ensuring his emotions for fine ‘running’ golf turned to fascination and later adoration.

It is interesting that the first American professional to win money (£7!) outside America was Johnny McDermott for coming fifth in the 1913 ‘bad weather’ Open at Hoylake.

No other club has had a more significant role in early amateur golf. Hoylake organised the tournament in 1885 that was to become the format for The Amateur Championship and it staged the match between the USA and Great Britain that started the Walker Cup (the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup) in 1921.

By the time that Alf Padgham won The Open in 1936 the links was already 7,078 yards in length! The adjective ‘tough’ is the most used of Hoylake.

Tiger in 2006

Tiger in 2006

When Tiger Woods plotted his way to the claret jug in 2006, he used his long irons repeatedly to keep out of trouble off the tee and with remarkable skill, ran his ball into the greens. A maximum wind speed of only 6 mph did not help him against those journeymen in the field who too often with a hot putter and four wedges in their bag, can win professional ‘target’ tournaments but Hoylake gave a test of fine ‘running’ golf that ensured the best in the world came through and won.

Hilton, Herd, Massy, JH Taylor, Hagen, Fred Daly and Peter Thomson have all won Opens at Hoylake but perhaps the most popular was that of Argentinian Roberto de Vicenzo in 1967.

A ten year old golfing son of a friend, followed him in his final round and obtained a position beside the last tee. Roberto spotted him and, as he was waiting to drive, said “Why do you no speak to me today, David?”.

Some old friends were rounded up for a drink in the clubroom after the prizegiving and in his hour of triumph he spent much time mingling with ordinary Club members. As he left he remarked “How about that, amigo? I just come back to see my friends and I win ze bloody championship!”

Writing in the 1950s Frank Pennink considered Hoylake’s greens to be the best he had ever seen and used them as a yard-stick by which he measured all else.

One would be right to expect that Hoylake pursues natural greenkeeping – and Jim Arthur was their consultant agronomist in the 1970s -but like so many clubs under pressure from the invasion of ‘target’ golf from America in the 1980s, annual meadow grass (Poa annua) was encouraged through overwatering and too much fertiliser and it takes immense skill to keep it out. A compromise has to be reached to achieve a true roll on the ball for near on 40,000 rounds of golf here in a year.

This visitor traffic and a green fee of £175 must put considerable pressure on the greenkeepers in presenting the course immaculately at all times; we know that it is difficult to ensure the necessary aeration, top dressing and overseeding are all done at the most beneficial times.

Craig Gilholm, course manager

Craig Gilholm, course manager

The Club’s able course manager, who came from Muirfield in 2005, is now overseeding with fescues while the greens have much browntop bent grasses and are cut at normally 4mm. When I played in 2013 I found much improved, firmer greens, now with some 10 to 20% fescues and a truer roll.

He appreciates the many hours of work the artisan club members give to the Club, a benefit that many similar southern English clubs are losing.

The wonderful tight turf fairways are higher in fescue grass and most of the rough, when it isn’t comprised of tough wild miniature rose, has that beautiful characteristic of looking deep but, being dry at the bottom, the ball can still be located (even if difficult to extricate!).

Bunkering is revetted, small, deep and gathering-in and, if one image of Hoylake stays, it is of a flat fairway with the eyelids of bunkers menacing the horizon.

The 1st green and OOB

The 1st green and OOB

This championship course is by and large flat and often illicites disapointment on first view. It begins with the famous and adored(sic) first hole (Course), a right hand dogleg round the internal OOB that has been described as “My god, it’s like playing up a spout”. The new sculpturing of the front left of the green is quite brilliant and brings home to the player the need for the delicate ‘bump and run’ early in the round. Thereafter the holes can be grouped into three phases.

Holes two to eight are all individually fine holes on level ground. The fifth (Telegraph) is a strategic nightmare requiring one to drive close to the right hand fairway bunkers if the left side greenside bunker is to be avoided.

The blind drive at six (Briars) over OOB again can be terrifying into the prevailing wind, while two new drive bunkers on the right have tightened it up even further.

The Punchbowl 9th

The Punchbowl 9th green

Holes nine to twelve are among the dunes giving views to Hilbre Island and the North Wales hills; all are wonderful testing holes. The old-fashioned ninth (Punchbowl) with a rolling fairway has a blind second to a green flanked by sand hills. To stay on the green at either of the 193 yard eleventh (Alps) or the dog-legged twelfth (Hilbre) in regulation requires a top class long iron.

John Hopkins, The Times golf correspondent, believes that Turner gained his inspiration for the sumptuous colour of his skies from watching the flaming sunsets off the top of the Wirral and certainly they fit the open and dramatic expanse of Hoylake.

The 12th green,Hilbre

The 12th green,Hilbre

Hole thirteen (Rushes), a short par three downwind with a small bowl shaped green ringed by bunkers, starts the famous long flat finish that goes par 5,4,5,4,4. It was the only green on which my putt bobbled off-line slightly, perhaps through being naturally damper and higher in Poa annua.

All the very finest courses have a stretchy finish and Hoylake’s is the epitome of excellence.

The drive at fifteen (Lake) I would like to re-name ‘Johnny’s Alley‘ in recognition of the advantage the new bunkers would have given to John Ball with his straight driving! Nevertheless the way Rory McIlroy knocked his drive over the top of all the hazards when it was downwind on this hole before going on to win the Open in 2014, surely suggests the power of the ball needs reining in.

The left hand greenside bunker at sixteen (Dun) has witnessed so many great shots, while those who saw de Vicenzo’s soaring spoon (3 wood) across the OOB to the heart of the sixteenth green to win the 1967 Open from Jack Nicklaus will never forget it.

Newly named Johnny's Alley!

Newly named Johnny’s Alley!

Some say internal ‘Out of Bounds’ should not be allowed. Hoylake disturbs that argument.

There continues a debate as to the merits of the form of the new seventeenth (Royal) green and Martin Hawtree has flattened it a little. My instinct from only a quick observation says that in a flat part of the course it still has too many movements, though the front apron humps are delightful and require cunning.

Hoylake may not give as showey a thrill as County Down, Ballybunion, Dornoch or Birkdale, to pick just four of the many finest but there are not many finer unmerciless challenges to the brain and technique than when a 25mph wind wafts across this links and the  ‘joy to be alive’ feeling is a many facetted one.

This review is perhaps already too long, so many attractive anecdotes have had to be excluded. Lovely books have been written about RLGC: three are listed below and, before moving on, mention must be made of the famous Hittites Society that, with the advent of fourball golf, was founded in 1926 to encourage the earlier foursome format and has its spiritual home at Hoylake.

Finally, let us indulge in one more quote from Bernard Darwin:

“Hoylake golf is never slack or casual; it is the golf of men rigorously brought up, who will always do their

Upstairs Bar & Dining Room

Upstairs Bar & Dining Room

best and die if need be in the last of their own sacred ditches. To play on such a course must make a man humble so that he wants to learn and be proud so that he determines to be worthy of his school.”

There is a golfing aristocratic feel to Royal Liverpool and an empathy with the working man. It has a fine Victorian clubhouse and red-jacketted captains (like all the great North Western clubs) while lacking the affectation of bourgeois trappings of status. Perhaps Guy Farrar’s epitaph on John Ball: “No man has ever aspired to greater hero worship – and no-one has ever courted it less” is one that might serve the Club itself.

See:

o Golf at Hoylake by John Behrend & John Graham (1990). A wonderful book by two significant Hoylake members, Behrend being elected R&A Captain in 1986.

o The Royal Liverpool Golf Club by Guy Farrar (1933). Perhaps Hoylake’s most famous Secretary.

o Mighty Winds…Mighty Champions (2006), the official history of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club by Joe Pinnington and some artistic photography by Guy Woodland.

Review by Lorne Smith 2009 and updated in 2016.

Reader Comments

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