IT took 39 years for the R&A, in its finite wisdom, to return the Open Championship to Royal Liverpool following Argentine Roberto de Vicenzo’s emotional victory in 1967.
This time around, however, the wait has been considerably shorter. When golf’s oldest and most prestigious event makes its 12th visit to Hoylake this July, a mere eight summers will have passed since Tiger Woods claimed his third, and still his most recent, Claret Jug.
No surprise there. Through a combination of the stunning performance produced by the game’s best player and a dry, fast-running course, that 2006 championship has already achieved something akin to iconic status. Blessed with almost perfect meteorological conditions leading up to the event, it represented links golf in its most interesting, stimulating and strategic glory.
It remains a little early to tell, of course, but only exceptional weather between now and the third week in July will produce a similar scenario this time around. Which is not to say that some things won’t be the same almost four months from now. For one thing, Woods, statistically and at least for the moment, remains golf’s highest-ranked practitioner. And for another, the man who oversees the historic links on the north west corner of the Wirral peninsula, head greenkeeper (or “links manager” in official parlance) Craig Gilholm, is still in charge.
The 41-year-old Scot, who hails from the village of Aberlady in East Lothian, has held his current post since June 2005, when he moved south from last year’s Open venue, Muirfield, where he was second-in-command on the greens staff.
“Hoylake is not quite the same as Muirfield and it was a big step for me to move down here,” says Gilholm, who plays to a six handicap. “The Open was only 13 months away, but I never panicked. I saw it as a huge opportunity. And I’ve learned so much in my time here. I was at Muirfield just long enough. In this job it is dangerous to stay too long in the one place. You can get set in your ways and stop improving.
“So I wasn’t worried in the build-up to our last Open. Because it had been so long since 1967, there was really no precedent for how the course should be presented. So I had a free hand in that respect. In 2005, I decided not to water the course and see how far I could push the greens. It was a bit of a gamble in retrospect, but I couldn’t see the club sacking me that quickly!”
Still, it was a brave move, but one that Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive was – to his credit – fully supportive of.
“A few members expressed some concern, but I needed to see what could and couldn’t be done,” continues Gilholm, whose first job in green keeping came as a callow YTS trainee at the Harburn club in West Lothian. “The R&A were a little worried, too. I remember Peter asking me about what I was doing at the back end of 2005. I told him I wanted to produce traditional links golf on a brown golf course. He was happy with that response. That was exactly what they wanted, too.
“Having said that, I never expected the course to be as brown as it was by the Open. It was yellow, actually. The week before the Open I actually thought the course was perfect. It was exactly where we wanted it. The greens were bouncy, firm, super-smooth and running at about 10.5 yards on the stimpmeter.”
Happily, those conditions, despite temperatures that baked the ancient links even further, produced a scenario where the best player in the field won the championship. Not only that, he did so with an intelligent and thought-provoking brand of golf that was, in so many ways, an object lesson in how to play the old Scottish game.
“By the end, I was delighted by how it had all gone,” says Gilholm, whose son, Josh, has followed his father in obtaining a summer job on the green staff at Muirfield. “The leaderboard said it all. And we did get some great compliments.
“I remember Peter Alliss was especially enthusiastic on television. But there were some players who didn’t get it. It apparently wasn’t the type of golf they enjoy or were used to. In general though, I can’t recall much negative reaction. But one letter to the club did make me laugh. It came from an American lady. She wondered if the course manager had realised the championship was coming and why had he killed the grass? She missed the point a bit.”
As for this time around, Gilholm is realistic enough to know a summer like 2006 might be a little too much to hope for. But he will be doing his best to produce another championship for the ages on a course that has seen a few tweaks in the last eight years.
“The length of the course won’t be much different from 2006,” he reports. “Only three or four holes will be a few yards longer. But it depends on the weather. I’m sure the R&A will move the tees to suit the conditions.
“One green – the first – has changed almost completely. It is now much more in tune with the rest of the course. And it has made the hole tougher. The old green was hard to miss, but this one has slopes on all sides. We’ll see a few bogeys there.
“A few of the bunkers have been changed, either moved or made smaller. Hoylake is not like Muirfield or Lytham in that the bunkers are not ‘in your face’ on almost every hole. In fact, we have only 88 bunkers, but every one of them is in play for a top professional golfer.
“We’ve also reduced the physical size of a few bunkers. But we’ve increased their effective size by expanding the ‘gathering’ area of each. Given decent weather conditions, you’ll see balls running into bunkers from as much as 50 yards away. So in reality they will play a lot bigger than their actual size.
“The width of the fairways has actually been reduced by a few yards. Which is not to say I’m a fan of ‘hack-out’ rough. I prefer rough that puts doubt in the players’ heads. I want them looking at balls and wondering how they are going to come out. I want them tempted to go for shots they are not sure of pulling off. I want them wondering what will happen to the ball after it lands.
“They might hit a great shot and make a birdie, but the risky shot also brings double or triple bogey into play.
“That is more interesting than watching players forced to pitch out to, say, 90 yards from the green, from where they will inevitably make a four or a five almost every time.”
Let’s hope all of the above comes to pass in an area of golf – course set-up – that is far from an exact science. “As ever, nature is in charge,” points out Gilholm.
But there is one thing we can be sure of – Hoylake is in a safe pair of Scottish hands.