HOYLAKE, England -- Welcome to the 2014 British Open, where green is the new brown.
Royal Liverpool -- commonly known as Hoylake -- may lack celebrated signature holes, but as the site of this week’s 143rd Open Championship it compensates with a signature look: green grass in the fairways.
It’s a departure from the traditional graham cracker crust-look common at the Open, most notably the 2006 edition, played right here on scorched-earth fairways. But don’t worry, golf purists: this links is still firm and fast. You’ll see plenty of running drives, punched irons and bump-and-run chips. The course is also spackled with 82 bunkers, most of them deep and unfriendly.
The 2014 Open may look a little lush, but it will never be confused for a Tour stop in Florida.
“Yes, it's soft by Open Championship terms, but it's far from easy to get balls close to the hole,” says Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ who’s seeking his second major title this week. “It's typical links. If it blows, it's going to be a real test. If it doesn't blow, guys can make a score.”
The verdant landscape is striking, and so are the gleaming pale figures standing sentinel along many of the fairways. No, not the throngs of fair-skinned British golf fans but the rows of out-of-bounds markers. Seven holes here have O.B., much of it internally within the course. Coupled with narrow fairways, that frequent threat of O.B. puts a premium on precision.
“This golf course kind of forces you into little areas,” McDowell says. “It's well bunkered. There's bunkers at the 260 and 290 [yards] where you have to be disciplined off the tee and find fairways and rely on good iron play.”
“You need to really play a game. It's not about 155, 8-iron -- it’s never like this,” says reigning U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer. “You have to think so much. You have to be creative. You have to play with the slopes, with the weather, with the wind, everything.”
Royal Liverpool doesn’t have much in the way of hills or dunes -- the site served dual purposes as a golf course and horse-racing track from 1869 to 1876 -- but there are plenty of humps and bumps to redirect even good shots, and the greens have slick runoffs that will challenge the short game. The course been has been lengthened by just 54 yards since 2006 (to 7,312 yards) but the routing remains the same for the pros. It’s just not the same course that members play. The opening hole for the tournament is actually the regular 17th hole, and the Open will conclude on what members know as the 16th.
Spotting quirks at Royal Liverpool is easy. Finding a favorite to win the tournament is much harder.
Tiger Woods, who as the 2006 winner is the defending champion at this venue, is playing his first major of the season after sitting out the Masters and U.S. Open following back surgery. A few weeks ago in his first post-op event, the Quicken Loans National at Congressional, Woods played an erratic 36 holes while missing just the 10th cut of his PGA Tour career. Can he really pull it together and end his drought in the majors, which has now lasted more than six years? Will he even contend? Woods, who has missed just three cuts in majors as a pro, said Tuesday that his short week at Congressional was actually a confidence-booster.
“The fact that I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain -- it wasn't like that the previous time I played. Playing at both the Honda and Doral I did not feel well,” Woods said. “But to come back and be able to hit the ball as hard as I was able to hit it, I've gotten stronger since then. I've gotten more explosive.”
Defending Open champion Phil Mickelson also comes to Hoylake at something less than peak form. On Monday he confessed to some fun times with the Claret Jug (like sipping $40,000 wine from it!) but his season has been flat, featuring not a single top 10 finish on the PGA Tour. The problem lies with his putter. Mickelson ranks 109th in putting stats; last year he was sixth. Despite that, Mickelson claims he’s made progress with putting guru Dave Stockton, and has found some fresh confidence.
“This has not been a good putting year, but I had a good breakthrough these last couple of weeks since the U.S. Open,” Mickelson said. “With Stockton I have the direction that I want, and I feel much better with the putter. And I feel from here on out I should have more consistent week-in and week-out good putting weeks, but we'll see.”
So while Tiger and Phil could win, neither carries the look of a favorite. Ditto for Rory McIlroy, who rang up nine top-10s in his first 10 worldwide starts this season but has been plagued by inconsistency. At last week’s Scottish Open he opened with a course-record 64 but followed up with a gruesome 78 on his way to a T-14 finish.
“It just seems like I've just been caught out this year by a bad stretch of holes every tournament,” McIlroy says. “So if I can just eliminate that -- and I think it's easier to eliminate some of the bad stuff than it is to try and find some of the good stuff, because the good stuff is in there, obviously, with some of the low scores I'm shooting.”
With the stars in disarray and a course that favors ball-striking over big driving, this Open is prime to produce some under-the-radar contenders. Billy Horschel, Sergio Garcia and Harris English are currently among the PGA Tour’s top 10 in greens in regulation. McDowell leads the Tour in putting. Jimmy Walker, Luke Donald, Webb Simpson and rising Brendon Todd also crack the top 10 in putting stats. Any of them could lift the Claret Jug on Sunday.
But to find a favorite, perhaps we should look to the top of the world rankings.
Adam Scott ascended to world No. 1 on May 18 and celebrated by promptly winning the Crowne Plaza Invitational in Texas. Scott has his demons in the Open: he collapsed with four closing bogeys to gift the 2012 Open to Ernie Els and last year he led with six holes to play before another run of bogeys dropped him to third. No Australian has won this event since Greg Norman in ’93, but in betting parlors around town Scott is a co-favorite.
The man who sits second in the world rankings, Henrik Stenson, finished second to Mickelson last year at Muirfield and went on to win two PGA Tour playoff events and claim the $10 million FedEx Cup. The Swede could win his first career major this week. Justin Rose, 2013 U.S. Open champ and now world No. 3, remains one of the game’s best iron players and is fresh off winning the Scottish Open at the weekend. He’s the bookie’s co-favorite with Scott.
Any of those stars could win. So could at least a couple dozen others.
And don’t limit your picks to the youth brigade. Two of the past three Open champions—Darren Clarke and Els)—were 42 years old when they triumphed. (Mickelson just missed the 42 mark by a month.) This week, there are four 42-year-olds in the field, who happen to have six majors between them: David Duval, Justin Leonard, Padraig Harrington and Y.E. Yang. Could 42 be the magic number?
On a quirky course that’s a new shade of green, it’s as good a guess as any.