A few miles west of Liverpool’s Cavern Club, where the Beatles played more than 250 shows in a two-year period just before they changed the world and where tribute bands now keep their music alive for tourists, Royal Liverpool Golf Club owns a small piece of golf’s history.
It is not the most famous course in the Open Championship rotation, nor is it the most dramatic. It doesn’t have the historical gravitas of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the dramatic lighthouse-framed scenery of Turnberry or the majestic reputation of Muirfield.
It is, however, a classic links, laid across a sandy stretch of turf not far from the docks of nearby Liverpool, a working-class city that has finally emerged from a dark economic time. It is flat, demanding and stern, a course that fits its surroundings.
With its ivy-covered, red brick clubhouse built more than a century ago, Royal Liverpool hosted the Open Championship 10 times from 1897 through 1967. Then it disappeared from the rota, cut adrift for more than a generation, despite the fact it’s where Bobby Jones won the second leg of his Grand Slam in 1930 and it’s where the under-appreciated Roberto DiVicenzo planted the Argentinian flag in 1967.
Hoylake, as its friends call it, returned to the rota in 2006 and gave us Tiger Woods falling into the arms of his former caddie, Steve Williams, after winning his first major championship since the passing of his father, Earl.
Woods did it then on a course toasted to the color of a nice cappuccino by a hot British summer, hitting his driver just once over 72 holes, bludgeoning the field and the course into submission with accuracy and efficiency.
Eight years later, Woods is playing his first major championship of the year after back surgery in late March, and he’s facing a different test at Royal Liverpool. The fairways are green, the wispy rough is shin-high and the greens are firm but not fiery.
Woods said what he always says – he came here with the singular goal of winning. But deep down, even he must suspect it’s a long shot given the fact he’s played two competitive rounds since before the Masters.
If the weather forecast holds – and that’s a great if in this piece of the Wirral peninsula wedged between the Irish Sea, the River Mersey and the River Dee – this may be a softer Open Championship than some.
There is talk of gentle conditions Thursday and possible thunderstorms Friday morning but no hint of the merciless wind or summertime chill that have given the Open Championship a rugged romanticism through the years. That would be mildly disappointing because an Open without weather is a burger without fries.
It feels strange that this Open Championship doesn’t begin with the focus entirely on Woods. That may change if he can start quickly or play his way into contention on the leader board, chasing that elusive 15th major championship victory.
Instead, it’s about Justin Rose, who has won his last two starts – at burly, broad-shouldered Congressional Country Club on the PGA Tour three weeks ago and last week at the Scottish Open on the rugged, wind-swept links of Royal Aberdeen, dramatically different tests that reinforced the versatility of his talent.
It’s also about world No. 1 Adam Scott, the game’s most elegant player, U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer, and it’s about Rory McIlroy, who has been brilliant on Thursdays and a bust on Fridays this season, the yin and yang of his early rounds perplexing everyone.
“I just got it into my head,” said McIlroy, who shot 40 or higher on nine holes five times in six Friday starts on the PGA Tour this season.
It’s also about Phil Mickelson, without a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour this season, chasing the spirit and the sense of serenity that carried him to his spellbinding victory at Muirfield last July.
“It obviously hasn’t been a good year,” Mickelson said. “Normally I would be discouraged or frustrated but I’m just not.”
And it’s about all the other things that come with the Open Championship – the iconic yellow scoreboard, the properly clipped tones of first tee announcer Ivor Robson, the enormous grandstands framing the 18th hole, the imposition of the weather and the pervasive sense of history that comes with the quest for the Claret jug.
In the betting shops throughout the United Kingdom, from the granite-faced streets of Aberdeen, Scotland, to the smaller towns with their pubs and narrow streets, there’s a question of whose turn it is this year. The past three Open champions – Darren Clarke, Ernie Els and Mickelson – have been 42, 42, and 43 years of age.
That hints at 41-year-old Lee Westwood.
But 25-year-old Rickie Fowler tied for fifth at the Masters, tied for second at the U.S. Open and talked last weekend along the edge of the North Sea of his love for links golf. Perhaps it’s his time.
And what of Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell and Dustin Johnson?
The lads have returned to Liverpool. Time for them to play.