A hacker’s guide to Royal Liverpool

A high handicapper attempts to get to grips with Hoylake, venue for next week’s British Open

“The Hoylake Golf Links can be beautiful, uplifting, awe-inspiring and, on occasion, soul-destroying.”

It isn't until a few days after playing Royal Liverpool, or Hoylake as it is known locally, the venue for next week's British Open, that I stumble upon the above line in a hitherto-ignored Strokesaver.

Strokesavers have never really been my thing – I've always been more of a 'hit it, lose it, lose it again' kind of guy – the detailed course guides always seeming more appropriate for proper golfers. But it would have seemed crass to turn down the offer of one from my playing partner, even though its promise of helping me "Play the Course like a Pro" was about as likely as a Garth Brooks five-in-a-row.

The line struck a chord, though, and I could identify with almost all of the sentiments expressed. Hoylake, with its fearsome bunkering and brutal rough, is genuinely awe-inspiring, particularly from the 10th when a stunning stretch of holes wind their way through the dunes hugging the coast. To add to the sense of occasion when we played some six weeks ago, the giant grandstands that will house the 230,000 or so fans were already in place and the small army of workers leave you in no doubt that something special is just around the corner.


Irish winner

But it’s the history that truly gets you. This is a course where you tread in the footsteps of giants.

Walter Hagen


Bobby Jones


Tiger Woods

all won British Opens at Hoylake. As, of course, did

Fred Daly

who became the first Irish winner of a Claret Jug in 1947, a feat not matched until Pádraig Harrington bridged a 60-year gap just up the Lancashire coast at Royal Birkdale in 2007.

So yes, Hoylake was unquestionably beautiful and at times inspiring. But briefly, I’m sad to report, soul-destroying.

At times during my round, it wasn’t so much that my soul had been destroyed, as there is always at least one good swing to paper over a multitude of cracks, but all too often it developed a tactic of cool detachment and could often be found keeping its distance lest it suffer some permanent, irreparable damage.

In the interests of full disclosure it should be pointed out that when it comes to golf I do not possess what our American friends like to describe as 'game'. Never have, and slowly coming to terms with the fact that I never will. Self-taught by a poor teacher, I have a swing that David Feherty might describe as looking like an "an octopus falling out of a tree".

Standing over my first tee shot, in the shadow of the enormous stand that horseshoes around the 18th green, I am able to compartmentalise these inadequacies in order to focus on my swing thoughts. Don’t fresh air, and please God don’t hit the stand. To a certain degree this works insofar as the ball got airborne and scampered into the first cut of rough a couple of hundred yards away in the right direction.

My second shot doesn’t quite make the green, which has been remodelled since 2006 and is now 40 yards long, but a half decent chip and two putts later I’m walking towards the second tee with my dignity intact.

Prudent tactic

In fact, I managed to negotiate the first few holes without any great stains on my character. There are no pars, but more importantly there are no disgraces. The out-of-bounds running down the right of the third is successfully avoided by the employing the prudent tactic of hooking my drive miles left, and after coming through the fourth unscathed I have a reasonable score going.

Crucially, I haven’t paid a visit to any of the bunkers. Yet.

The fifth hole at Hoylake is a par five named ‘Long’. To me it will always be ‘Groundhog Day’, where I somehow managed to turn a potential birdie (a comfortable par at the very least) into a god-knows-how many by putting my ball into a greenside bunker. Twice.

Despite its impressive moniker, the hole doesn’t really live up to its name and should see plenty of eagle chances next week – there were 26 in 2006.

While my playing partner, an ex-pro with an effortless swing, easy manner and the patience of Job, had expertly found the putting surface in two, I preferred to lay up, leaving myself with no more that 60 yards for my third shot. It was the smart play, leaving myself a simple pitch, a shot I have played a thousand times or more.

Unfortunately the shot I executed is also one I’ve played a thousand times or more. I think the experts call it the ‘hit the ground first and curse as it trickles into a bunker’.

It takes two panicky swings to extricate my ball, sending it hurtling across the green into a nasty clump of rough. From where I promptly blade a chip straight back into the same bunker. Two more wild slashes ensue before I admit defeat, put my ball in my pocket, sheepishly watch my partner tap in for birdie, and I slope off in search of redemption.

It arrives, hallelujah, at the 9th, a par three that has been described by the members as trying to find a snooker table from 190 yards. As my tee shot arcs perfectly towards the baize, I remember what it is about this infuriating sport that keeps me coming back for more.

Even the look on my playing partner’s face can’t break my reverie. It’s not an easy expression to describe, but it’s mostly surprise. And when I hole my putt from 12 feet for an all-too-rare birdie I positively skip to the next tee exchanging platitudes about what a simple game it is really. If only.

The next few holes are a blur of hooks, slices, huffs, puffs and duffs. Of wading through waist high rough and muttering enough expletives to make Tarantino blush.

The nadir

My mood improves briefly on the 13th, arguably the best par three on the course and certainly the most picturesque. Until, that is, I hoike my tee shot short, left and into a gorse bush.

The nadir comes on the 15th, another par three, where a local man out walking his dog makes his excuses and leaves as my shanked tee shot ricochets around the empty seats of a greenside stand. He can’t even bring himself to muster some hollow words of encouragement before escorting his pooch safely out of harm’s way.

Things could only get better, and to a certain extent they did as I make a reasonable fist of the last three holes. Making my way up the 18th hole, surrounded on three sides by the biggest grandstand in Open history and those familiar giant scoreboards, it’s impossible not to get a little carried away. As I tap in for my first and only par of the day – okay, it may have been a seven but there is some confusion about the out-of-bounds with the ruling generously going in my favour – I allow myself to soak up the imaginary applause. Beaten. But unbowed.