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Brown Beauty
GARY VAN SICKLE
July 31, 2006
The critics had carped that Hoylake was too homely to hold a successful Open Championship. They learned that looks can be deceiving
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July 31, 2006

Brown Beauty

The critics had carped that Hoylake was too homely to hold a successful Open Championship. They learned that looks can be deceiving

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Tom Watson swung, and the crowd groaned. Revered in Great Britain for winning the Open Championship five times, the 56-year-old Watson had made the cut once again, but now, as he played out of a greenside bunker on the 15th hole of the third round, it looked as if he had flubbed his sand shot. "They didn't think I got it out of the bunker," Watson said. But Watson's ball had, barely, cleared the steep, sod-faced wall of the bunker--Royal Liverpool's trademark feature--and momentarily teetered on the top edge as if deciding whether or not to obey the laws of gravity. Slowly the ball trickled forward onto the green and toward the hole, stopping three feet from the cup. All the while the gallery's groans had turned into sounds of surprise, then delight and, finally, appreciation for a delicate shot brilliantly played. "You don't get those shots in America," said Watson, who would draw another loud tribute when he made the par putt. � The shot typified links golf at its best, as did Royal Liverpool, which was making its return to the British Open rota after a 39-year absence. Before the championship, critics had said the admittedly homely course in Hoylake, England, was too short, too narrow and too easy to host a modern Open. Afterward, they were proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong.

The club was called names: Royal O.B., because of its funky out-of-bounds; Royal Dust Bowl, because a heat wave and a drought had left it looking like burnt toast; and Royal So What, because of the lack of memorable features or a signature hole. But here's an inconvenient truth: Royal Liverpool proved to be a tremendous links. Said Scott Verplank, who finished 31st, "This is closer to what golf is supposed to be and, at least for this one tournament, still is."

Royal Liverpool is the very definition of a plain brown wrapper, links golf without the romance. There are no hills, dunes or historic ruins. "It looks awful on TV," says Todd Hamilton, the 2004 British champ. "You see guys putting through patches of green and brown, and you can't even tell where the fairways are because everything is brown."

What Royal Liverpool wouldn't give for a Road Hole, a Swilken Burn or a Spectacles (Old Course) or even a Postage Stamp ( Royal Troon). Imagine if Liverpool had at least one overly dramatic green, like the 18th and its Valley of Sin at St. Andrews. If only Liverpool's fairways had dramatic rolls and ridges, like Royal St. George's, instead of flat plains that make it seem as if someone ruined a perfectly good landing strip. And all Liverpool has in the way of scenery are the hills of Wales in the distance, the tiny town of Hoylake and the tidal mudflats of the Dee estuary. No wonder the course got no respect.

Except from the players. "I thought it wasn't much at first," said Luke Donald of England, who was born 10 years after Royal Liverpool's last Open, which took place in 1967. "Now it's one of my favorites. The bunkers here seem to suck up golf balls, I swear." ( Donald finished 35th at two under.) Said Fred Couples, who shot 70-76 and missed the cut, "I can't imagine why [Royal Liverpool] wasn't in the rotation for the last 40 years."

Royal Liverpool was golf as chess, and Tiger Woods, one of the game's most cerebral players, made all the right moves. He cunningly worked his ball around the course as if it were a rogue bishop. Perhaps it was boring to watch Woods lay up with a two-iron off many tees and hit his driver--by mistake, he later admitted--only once, but his approaches were thrilling exhibitions of shotmaking.

During the second round he hit a low four-iron approach at the par-4 12th hole, a devilish dogleg left whose fairway is guarded by pot bunkers. The shot rose like a parabola into the breeze and landed with cat's paws 12 feet from the pin. Then at the 14th, another difficult dogleg-left par-4, featuring a sleeve of diagonal bunkers on the left, Woods hit another four-iron, only this one bored through the wind toward the raised green, bounced on the fringe and hopscotched into the cup for an easy-as-you-please eagle.

"I hit a four-iron to about 16 feet left of the hole and thought it was my best shot of the day," said Ernie Els, who came in third. "Then I saw that Tiger holed his second shot there. That must have been an unbelievable shot."

You didn't have to be a purist to recognize the genius of the stroke that Jim Furyk played on Friday from a greenside bunker at the 4th hole. Using his putter, he whacked the ball from the sand, driving it up the sod face of the bunker, along a narrow strip of grass between two more bunkers and onto the green, 15 feet from the hole. BBC analyst Peter Alliss called it the greatest shot he had ever seen. Furyk, who admitted it was a "one-out-of-a-hundred shot," made the putt for par. The genius of the play? Imagining it.

Yes, Royal Liverpool had issues: The traffic was terrible, with the worst backups at any major since the 1993 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, and daily crowds of 40,000-plus made spectating difficult. But the course itself was a winner. It was resistant to scoring, especially considering the weather and the lack of wind, the main defense of a links. Colin Montgomerie said the course was so fast that it must've been playing at "about 5,500 yards in real terms" rather than the 7,258 yards on the scorecard. Plus, with four par-5s reachable for everybody--even short-hitting Fred Funk eagled the 18th--par was really 70, if not 69. Knock two strokes off par and Woods's winning score of 270 is only 10 under. Not bad for a course that held its first Open in 1897 and was part of Bobby Jones's Grand Slam in 1930.

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