Why this controversial course feature could help decide Open Championship
HOYLAKE, England — If there is a bugaboo out there in the wind and rain at this 151st Open Championship, at least it’s obvious, sprayed onto the green and yellow turf with unmissable white paint. It’s out of bounds, of course — not just on the perimeter of the property, but also internally, along the right side of the 3rd and 18th holes. Unnervingly close enough to the action. Just enough to freak you out.
Internal O.B. has long been a thorn in the side of some competitors, as well as a subset of golf-course architecture fiends. (Want to get a pro riled up? Ask them about their worst internal out-of-bounds experience, Rory McIlroy included.) If it’s in the bounds of the golf course, why would it be out of bounds? Fair question, and one for which Brooks Koepka has a simple solution.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Just don’t hit it over there you won’t have a problem, right?”
Right. But the reason it exists at this course is more about historical quirk than it is a purposeful detriment for players.
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Royal Liverpool Golf Club was known as the Liverpool Hunt Club, not a course for the burgeoning game with stick and ball but a racecourse for horses. Back in the 1870s, ponies ripped around the northern section of the property, making a right turn where the 3rd hole banks to the right, then looping back toward town near what is now the start of the 18th fairway. What remains is the mound system in which the rails of the track once stood. Over the next few decades, golf took over the grounds and fascination of the locals, so much so that it began to take precedence over horse racing. The Liverpool Hunt Club took a step back, and Royal Liverpool Golf Club took a permanent step forward.
This week, this piece of club history will be in the back of every player’s mind as they select clubs on the 3rd and 18th holes.
First, let’s look at the par-4 3rd, where the common play will be a lay-up, out to the corner, that leaves about 180 to 200 yards into the green.
Jon Rahm was considering it plenty during his first spin around the course Monday.
“The only good thing about this is that if it goes right, it shouldn’t get [to the O.B],” Rahm said to his caddie as he stuck a tee into the ground. He’s right about that. A 215-yard shot into the wind leaves more room for error before the corner of the race-track barriers. A little haven of fairway sits there for the player who lays up. But then it’s another 200 yard approach. Four-iron, 4-iron could do the trick for many. There’s nothing really comfortable about that.
Just up the fairway we were treated to a little bit more of the strategy in mind for the world’s best. After Rahm played his approach into the green, caddie Adam Hayes stepped in with intel.
“If it ever gets to be a north wind, which is almost straight down off the tee…” Hayes began, drawing up a hypothetical, pointing out an array of visual markers for Rahm. The cover to cut Hayes’ imagined corner is 254 yards — that’s easy — and “you can hit is as far left as you want.” The rough will be wispy, and if you hit it past the long stuff, everything is matted down. Suddenly this quirky, tricky lil’ thing becomes a birdie hole.
That thought process is already on full display. Players have been slapping at least two, if not three shots off the first. A long iron, maybe a hybrid, and then a driver. See where it ends up. Imagine how it’ll look when the strokes actually count and the wind is different.
The 18th features just as much O.B. if not more. The boundary runs directly up the right side of the par-5 and, nearer the green, is just a step or two off the fairway. It has ruined rounds before and it will ruin rounds again. But local favorite Matthew Jordan, who is a member at Royal Liverpool, is the only ombudsman we really need on the topic. He’s played the course countless times since the hole has been lengthened, and he has hardened into a sound opinion on it all.
“I think it’s a lot better,” Jordan said. “I think it makes it a proper risk-and-reward hole. If you hit a good drive, you can go for it. Then even bailing out on the left, it makes the lay-up a lot tougher because it’s a bit longer now. I think, certainly from my opinion, 18 especially has been a brilliant change.”
We’ve got the local convinced. Now there are 155 other pros to get through. Or maybe just 154.
Koepka delivered his “don’t hit it there” quote early in his press conference Tuesday morning. He was blunt and short. On to the next question. But a few minutes later, on a completely different topic, he brought it up again.
When playing his approach into the 3rd, pending a left-to-right wind, he said matter of factly, “I am going to miss that left.” Why, because the only thing on his mind is that white paint up the right. That kind of tells the story of the O.B. itself. It’s always there in the back of your mind.