5 deciding holes at Royal Liverpool, home of the Open Championship
AS IT TURNS OUT, the road separating the Beatles and major championship golf isn’t long or winding. Most days, you can drive it in less than an hour. The birthplace of the Fab Four—the Cavern Club in central Liverpool—is only about a dozen miles from the first tee box at Royal Liverpool, host of the 151st Open Championship this summer. And, like the band, the course registers as classic and somewhat traditional— until it shows its devilish side.
“Ultimately, I would describe it as a very honest golf course,” says John Heggarty, the club’s longtime head pro. “Although, at first glance, a lot of the holes appear to be flat, you very seldom find flat land. It’s a relatively straightforward path, but there’s always ups and downs.”
Heggarty knows the golf—and the area—better than anyone. In his four decades at RL, he’s watched legions of golfers visit in pursuit of both fairways and Strawberry Fields. In that time, he’s seen only one constant: change. “The routing here means that if there is any wind at all, you play the holes in a variety of wind directions,” Heggarty says. “It is not a straight-out, straight-back golf course. Holes move in very different directions.”
This year, changes at RLGC—which has hosted the Open 12 times in a span of 12 decades—will take on their most menacing form yet. The routing has shifted from the last Open held here, in 2014, an effort to make the course’s strongest stretch of holes also its final stretch of holes. Nos. 14 (named Lake), 15 (Little Eye) and 16 (Dun) for the membership will play as Nos. 16, 17 and 18 for the championship, including the debut of the fully redesigned penultimate par 3.
It’s a lot of new for a course that’s been around since 1869, but, as the calendar flips to July, Royal Liverpool is once again ready for its moment in the sun.
During a recent phone call, Heggarty walked us through the back nine highlights, where the Claret Jug will be won—or lost.
HOLE NO. 11 – PUNCH BOWL
388 YARDS* (back member yardages used)
The 11th is the first of the back-nine par 4s to truly test a player’s mettle, and it starts with finding the fairway between rolling dunes. “There’s a mound that crosses the fairway at about 225 yards,” says Heggarty. “I expect that most players will go over the top of the mound, but when you go overtop the fairway is no more than 25 yards wide.” From there, a short but dastardly approach into a heavily guarded green awaits. “If you hit a good drive, it’s very much a birdie challenge,” says Heggarty. “But, if you decide to be conservative and lay back on the other side of the mound, you’ll be left with sort of a 7-iron into a very narrow green. So it’s a lovely risk and reward.”
HOLE NO. 13 – ALPS
The first of the back-nine par 3s, Alps is a gorgeous, strategic hole protected by an optical illusion. “The green is guarded at the front by some mounds, so a back-left pin is not semi-blind, but, when you stand on the tee, it doesn’t look as though the pin is on the green,” Heggarty says. “If there’s a short-right pin, there’s a bunker that any ball short of the green will fall into.” The big key, he says, is the wind, which could turn this hole from one of the easiest on the course to one of the hardest, depending upon the day. “If the prevailing wind is in during the week of the Open, it will play into and off the left-hand side, which will make it a very, very challenging hole. You know the summer winds we have here are a bit of a law unto themselves, so we don’t know what it’ll be. But, it’s a beautiful hole to stand on, even though I’m sure the players—when they’re standing on that tee under the pressure—won’t be looking at the views.”
HOLE NO. 16 – LAKE
A long, narrow par 4 littered with bunkering, the 16th is the beginning of what Heggarty calls Royal Liverpool’s ‘signature stretch.’ “This year, the course is playing 7,000 to 7,300 yards, and 3,800 yards on the back nine,” he says. “That’s going to be very difficult for players.” The key on No. 16 is a well-struck drive, which will allow players to avoid a trio of pot bunkers (two on the left, one on the right) dotting the fairway. Another challenge is the hole’s putting surface, where the grade is often less aggressive than it appears. “One of the key things about this place is that it doesn’t have an awful lot of breaks in the greens,” adds Heggarty. “In previous years, that actually proved to be quite a challenge for players who are used to having quite large breaks, especially in your country. It’s tough to get your head around: Here’s a straight putt. And here’s another straight putt. And another. And another.”
HOLE NO. 17 – LITTLE EYE
The most interesting hole in this year’s Open, the 17th, was completely reimagined for 2023, flipping the tee box from one side of the green to the other. At just 130-ish yards, it’ll be the shortest hole on the golf course most days, but it sure won’t be the easiest. “For the players managing ballflight, spin is going to be the key to it,” Heggarty says. “If we get any sort of breeze in any direction, players will have to manage the spin. If they have too much spin on the ball and there’s a front pin, the ball will roll back down the hill into the waste area.” The putting surface is heavily guarded by bunkers and runoff areas, meaning that pin positions and wind will dramatically influence scoring. “It’s just one of those holes,” adds Heggarty. “If you play a good shot and you play on the green, you could make a two. Anything that’s not quite managed properly, whether it be flight or spin, can lead to some challenges.”
HOLE NO. 18 – DUN
Used as the finishing hole at the last two Opens competed at Royal Liverpool, this mammoth par 5 isn’t compelling solely for strategic reasons. “We finish the tournament on what is customarily the members’ 16th hole and start it on the members’ 17th hole, which provides two challenging par 4s as [front-nine/back-nine] opening holes,” says Heggarty. “That also allows us to have a fantastic amphitheater for this 600-yard closing hole.” That amphitheater brings the energy, but the hole itself brings the juice. The fairway appears just yards wide from the tee box, with a 240-yard forced-carry to avoid a nasty set of cross-bunkers. “Bunkers off the tee are a no-no,” Heggarty says, “because you literally just have to get it out, then you’re left with a very long third shot.” Those who navigate 18 well for four days will have been both aggressive and smart. And when the Champion Golfer of the Year is crowned, a crowd will be there to witness it.