MIXED messages were being relayed about the test for the 143rd Open Championship, which gets under way this morning at Royal Liverpool.
On the one hand, we had Peter Unsworth, chairman of the championship committee, telling us that appearances can often be deceptive.
“You’ll remember how brown the course was in 2006,” he said of a layout burnt to a crisp when Tiger Woods hit just one driver all week in claiming the last of his three Claret Jug successes.
“It certainly has a greener hue this time around, but don’t let that fool you. The course is firm and, if the weather stays fair, I expect it to become firmer still.”
On the other hand, we had a two-times Open champion, Padraig Harrington, saying that that contrast in the course from eight years ago was threatening to take the links element out of this week’s challenge. “Every non-links player is loving it, which is not what we want,” declared the Irishman.
For an hour or two after Unsworth made his remarks, rain, which was heavy at times, fell on the Merseyside course. There could be more to come today, with thunderstorms a possibility over the weekend.
It is, indeed, a different-looking golf course from 2006, though, just as Woods did on that occasion, the winner this week will more likely have plotted his way around rather than overpowering the Hoylake course. “I don’t walk on to this golf course and kind of sigh and say, ‘Here we go again, this is a 330-yard hitters paradise’,” said 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell, a self-confessed “short knocker” compared to the game’s legions of big-hitters.
“It’s not that type of course; it’s a placement course,” he added. “Look at the way Tiger won here in 2006. He can dominate with length, but he didn’t have to. This golf course doesn’t ask that question. It asks you to play a game of chess more than anything.”
Visually, it has little similarity to Royal Aberdeen, venue for last week’s Scottish Open. “This course is a lot flatter,” noted Marc Warren, who finished third behind Justin Rose in the Granite City. “Off the tee, the similarities are that you’ve got to stay out the bunkers. They are both so penal in that respect and the greenside bunkers here are a bit more penal than at Royal Aberdeen. The greens are a little bit trickier at Royal Aberdeen; they are a bit flatter here.
“The difficulty here is the length of the course [7,312 yards, an increase of 54 yards from 2006]. Because of the bunkering you’ve got to lay up. Royal Aberdeen was not quite as long, but it could be a bit tougher because of undulations and such. If both courses were the same length, Royal Aberdeen is tougher.”
If a certain line of questioning in the media centre over the past three days is anything to go by, a number of 2-irons could well be worn out come Sunday night. That is likely to be the weapon of choice on many tees.
“It’s no secret why Tiger never took the driver out last time,” said Stephen Gallacher. “It was a bit more fiery back then, but the bunkers are so penal you have to stay out of them. If you are going to take the bunkers on, you have to have a good reason. I don’t think you can hit the driver on the front nine and maybe only three in total. You are hitting plenty of rescue clubs and 2-irons.”
This is the 12th time that the game’s oldest major has been held at Royal Liverpool. A bit bland on the eye when laid bare, it’s a venue that comes to life when all the infrastructure that comes with a modern-day Open Championship is in place.
This year, it includes a new horse-shoe shaped grandstand at the 18th green, which will create an arena-type atmosphere as the winner nears it this weekend. Seven countries have produced champions here, including France in the shape 1907 winner Arnaud Massy, whose grave in Newington Cemetery was reconsecrated last year after being discovered by North Berwick golf historian Douglas Seaton.
On most lists, Rose is the bookmakers’ favourite. Last year’s US Open champion now knows what it takes to win a major. He’s also the form horse, having come here with back-to-back wins under his belt. In contrast, Woods tees off today with only two competitive rounds under his since undergoing back surgery at the end of March. He’s pulled off some remarkable feats in his time, notably when winning the 2008 US Open on one leg, but repeating that success from eight years ago is surely asking too much.
Having cherished getting his hands on it for the first time, Phil Mickelson won’t give up the Claret Jug without a fight, while an intriguing early aspect will be whether Rory McIlroy can avoid one of those ‘Freaky Fridays’ that have bedevilled his season.
Bidding to win the event for the first time, Rose and McIlroy will be encouraged by seeing the last three winners warm up in the Scottish Open, though Adam Scott, having prepared meticulously here since last Wednesday, and Martin Kaymer, winner of both the US Open and Players’ Championship this season, could well be the men to end that particular run.
To the delight of the R&A, no doubt, the build up to this year’s event has not been overshadowed by criticism of men-only golf clubs. That doesn’t mean to say it’s been plain sailing, though. Yesterday, as Unsworth was purring over a “groundbreaking wi-fi network”, a workman somewhere out on the course brought it crashing down by slicing through the fibre optic cable with his shovel.
Mikko Ilonen: Four crucial holes provide major test
I’VE obviously got great memories coming back here and one thing I’ve really liked is that the golf course has been playing different now to back in 2006, when it was burnt to a crisp.
When I won [The Amateur Championship in 2000] it was even greener. We had rain during that week, when it was a bit earlier in the year to now, and the rough was a different colour. This rough is fair. There are some spots where it isn’t that bad. But there are other spots where it is quite thick and it looks as though that is intentional.
Here are my key holes:
1st, 458 yards, Par 4
You are going to have to leave yourself a pretty long second shot in here. If the wind is helping, you can take the bunkers on with your driver. But on Tuesday I nailed my rescue then hit another good one with the same club. It’s also probably the narrowest of greens on the course so you have to be accurate. You are going to see a lot of bogeys on this hole.
3rd, 426 yards, Par 4
If the wind gets strong and it’s normally off the left here, you are leaving yourself a long second shot as no-one takes on the corner. It’s a stupid shot as this hole has an internal out of bounds. It’s a big, flat green but, at the same time, it’s not that big a target when you have a 4-iron in your hands. That “Out of Bounds” on the right is going to push players to the left, leaving themselves with a chip and putt.
12th, 447 yards, Par 4
The second of four holes that all run in the same direction alongside the water, this is a strong right-to-left dogleg and you are going to have to lay back here to leave yourself a mid-iron or long iron into the green. The green here is fairly big and fairly flat, but par here certainly isn’t a bad score.
14th, 454 yards, Par 4
This is a similar hole to the 12th, both in the sense it’s a right-to-left dogleg and also how it sits. But there’s a mound on the left that partly blocks the view to the green. In fact, it looks as though there is no green over it. There’s also a bank to the right and you’ll see a lot of guys missing the green down there.