By Tim Liotta
Royal Liverpool altered, but the same at its core
Expect the changes to the Royal Liverpool golf course - a tougher finish that includes a brand-new par-3 - to top the talking points leading into the 151st Open Championship, but understand that the personality of the challenge the course presents remains the same as ever.
Brace for the wind and the weather. And avoid those pot bunkers.
"The weather is the defense of this golf course, as the greens are pretty flat out there, and the wind will play a huge part," said Jason Day prior to the 2014 Open, the last time the Open Championship was contested over Royal Liverpool.
Since 2014, Royal Liverpool has added some challenges with a re-designed finish, with a new par-3 17th hole placed where the old 15th tee used to be. The new hole has allowed for the addition of new back tees at the two closing par-5s, No. 15 and No. 18. The seventh green has also been moved to allow for a new tee complex for the 8th hole, a par-4.
The brand-new, par-3 17th hole has been shortened to 139 yards, points in the opposite direction of its predecessor, and will be center stage the entire championship.
"I’ve hit a 5-iron on that hole, I've hit a gap wedge on that hole, it could be anything," said Jeff Heggerty in the Course Guide offered by the Open Championship's official website. Heggerty has been the head professional at Royal Liverpool for the last 40 years.
The par-5 finishing hole has a new tee that can extend the hole beyond 600 yards and will present the 2023 field with a different challenge than nine years ago.
"The tee shot is now parallel to the out-of-bounds so that gives you a better perspective," said Heggerty, "but the fact it has come in 20 yards does mean that the fairway’s narrower."
Royal Liverpool will once again be the shortest of the four major championship courses, as it was in 2006 and 2014, but will play as a par-71 for the first time, as the 10th hole will be a beast of a par 4 rather than the easy par 5 was in 2006 and 2014.
"Before (the change) you went on the tee and you can relax, thinking about a birdie, but now it's one of the toughest par-4s on the course," said Heggerty.
When Tiger Woods won over Royal Liverpool in 2006, posting -18 and beating Chris DiMarco by two shots, the weather remained mild throughout the week, but the course was extremely hard and fast. Woods prevailed over Royal Liverpool by two strokes with a gameplan to avoid pot bunkers at all costs, playing short of them each and every time.
"There was one thing for certain, that these bunkers on this golf course are penal bunkers, so if you're going to hit it in these bunkers there was no way you were taking the ball from any of those fairway bunkers onto the green. You were coming out sideways, backwards, maybe a little down the fairway, so you were bringing in bogey, double-bogey very quickly," said Stevie Williams, Tiger's caddy in 2014, in Episode 10 of the "Chasing Majors" podcast.
Woods' choice to tee off with an 2-iron, sacrificing distance in order to reduce risk, also had to do with an inability to control how far his drives would roll out also was a factor.
"As I was playing the golf course, I would hit a couple of drives, and the driver would go 350, 370 yards" said Woods after winning. "How can you control that out here? You can't control that.
"The fairways become they're hard enough to hit as it is, and you add driver and they go that far, now how hard is it to hit? So I just felt in the end if you stayed out of the bunkers this entire week and had just a decent week on the greens, I felt that I would be in contention on the back nine."
Woods did not hit a single tee shot into a single pot bunker en route to his victory.
For the 2014 renewal, Royal Liverpool was a little greener and not quite as hard, but when Adam Scott was asked prior to the 2014 Open whether he'd be bringing out the driver, he said: "Yeah, I think it's a tricky one.
"I think the couple of holes where you could, I'm probably not going to. I think the penalty is too severe. Obviously the par-5s, and there are a few other holes. It's so wind-dependent as to what you hit. But I think I'm not going with crazy aggressive, if that's what you meant. On some downwind holes there's a chance to hit it over some bunkers and into some pretty wide areas. And I'll try and do that and take advantage of driving the ball well, if I am. But if not, I'll be trying to stay out of the bunkers, because they're instant penalty.
The softer conditions in 2014 challenged golfers in a different way than what the course conditions offered in 2006.
"I think that last time in '06 we were almost forced to hit the ball longer off the tee and take on more risk because the course was so firm, you couldn't stop the ball with a mid iron," said Mickelson in his pre-tournament press conference. "And we needed to come into some of these greens with an 8, 9-wedge downwind, because it was so firm.
"I think it's going to allow us to be a little bit more conservative off the tee and a little bit more aggressive into the greens. That's my take.
"And the winning score, I think, will ultimately be fairly low, provided conditions, of course. If we get a strong wind, that all changes. If we get a strong wind and rain, that changes even more. But under light wind or soft wind conditions and the golf course being as green as it is, I think the scores will be fairly low.
Dominating the par-5s, including a pair of eagles in Saturday's third round, McIlroy won in 2014 with a score of 17-under 271, two shots better than Ricky Fowler, with Sergio Garcia third another shot back.
Royal Liverpool's response has been to reduce the number of par 5s from four to three, with the third and last being lengthened significantly.
"The reason I really like Royal Liverpool is the same reason that I really like Muirfield, and that is when you have to land a ball 20, 30 yards short of the green, if you hit it at the green, the ball will kick on," he said. "There is not these repellant hillsides in the landing area that kick balls off into the trouble. If you hit it off line, it will continue to go off line. It's not going to hit a mound and kick back to the green. What I'm ultimately saying is well-struck shots are rewarded and poorly struck shots are penalized."
There's also one aspect to Royal Liverpool that the television audience will not be able to experience.
"The golf course is, all you want as a links golf course," said five-time Open champ Tom Watson prior to the 2014 Open. "It has everything that I feel in links golf.
"There are the blind shots where you kind of have to figure out -- you see the edge of a fairway, but you can't see the other edge. You can't see that bunker over here.
"It's that unexpected part of the game that is so links golf. We're so in tune with you've got to see every shot. You've got to see every shot, you can't have blind shots and all that. Links golf is not that way."
And, if Royal Livermore is allowed to dry out, as was the case in 2006, the look of the course will also be deceiving.
"It looks awful on TV. You see guys putting through patches of green and brown, and you can't even tell where the fairways are because everything is brown," said 2004 Open champ Todd Hamilton in a 2006 Sports Illustrated recap of Woods' triumph that year.
What we see is also not what the golfers get.
"At home we get a little spoiled with the condition of golf courses," said Vaughn Taylor prior to the 2006 Open.
"And (Royal Liverpool) definitely it's in great shape, but it doesn't look like it is, but actually when you start getting some lies in the fairways, they're perfect lies, they're really good.
"It's just in appearance, it doesn't look like it's in good shape, but it is. It's good."
And, no matter how it looks, Royal Livermore is a golf course that can grow on a player, as it did in 2006 for Luke Donald, who said, ""I thought it wasn't much at first. Now, it's one of my favorites.
"The bunkers seem to suck up golf balls, I swear."