The Royal Liverpool Golf Club course, a short drive from Penny Lane and in the vicinity of the Irish Sea, isn’t exactly exciting. There are no great dunes or bluffs or views of the sea. The course, known for generations as Hoylake, for the village in which it is located, is flat and often dry. Last time the world dropped in for a visit, for the 2006 Open, it was ridiculously dusty. If you are one of those raised-on-mush American golfers who weighed in on how awful Pinehurst No. 2 looked for the U.S. Open, you will most likely be repulsed by Hoylake. At Hoylake, brown is not the new green. Brown is the color of golf.
Oh, we almost forgot. Hoylake is one of the best courses in the world. It only looks boring.
Ask Tiger Woods, who won there eight years ago, as he overwhelmed the course not so much with his considerable brawn but with his considerable golfing intelligence. He ironed the place to death. He hit chasing 2-irons that spent 200 yards in the air and 60 more on terra firma. He walked right by Hoylake’s many fire-pit ovals, bunkers walled with sod, and he must have put his crossed-fingers, keep-out hex on them, as he never visited one. He will not be so lucky this time, the law of averages being what they are.
Hoylake looks dull and plays like a fascination. It’s a 150-acre chessboard. Did I mention it’s one of the best courses in the world? All the Open venues are in that club-within-a-club. They are all within sight and sound of the sea, to use the phrase Peter Alliss, the voice of linksland golf, loves so much. Except for Turnberry, none is especially beautiful, to our American eyes. When Sam Snead first arrived at St. Andrews by train in 1946, he turned to the gent sitting next to him and said, “Hey, what’s that? Looks like an old abandoned golf course!”
“Laddie, that ‘tis the Auld Course, and that’s where we’re playing the championship.”
There are surely other versions of that exchange, but that’s the one Snead gave me, in his home in Virginia in 1994. Snead won that ’46 Open, didn’t defend because he spent more money than he made, but had an appreciation for links golf the rest of his life. He understood Augusta National and Pinehurst No. 2 for what they were, American examples of links golf hours by car from the sea. (Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie took inspiration from the Old Course in their design of Augusta.) Snead probably would have liked Sand Hills in Nebraska and Sankaty Head on Nantucket, sand being such a good undergarment for fairway grass. Sankaty Head might be the closest thing there is to links golf in the United States. If you want to see it, maybe you can get a job there as a caddie. It’s super private.
Which bring us to one of the great, wonderful things about links golf in the British Isles. (England, Scotland, the whole of Ireland, and let’s not forget about Wales, where the British Senior Open will be played this month at the sublime Royal Porthcawl.) All the traditional seaside courses are accessible to the public, at least on certain days and at certain times. That goes for even the most private of clubs, like the Royal Company of Edinburgh Golfers, aka Muirfield, where Phil Mickelson won the Open last year. All you have to do is approach the club the correct way (email is fine), have your billfold or credit card handy (it can get expensive, but nothing like Pebble) and play at their pace (if your fourball is sniffing the four-hour mark you’re doing something wrong).
It’s no secret why Mickelson has been in such a good mood lately, despite the FBI insider-trading investigation and his lousy scoring and poor putting and missed cuts: He taught himself, in the late innings of his excellent career, how to play links golf! He grew up on those mushy SoCal greens, hitting it high and digging deep to repair ball marks. It’s a legitimate form of golf, even if the courses that demand such golf are environmental disasters. (Where are the Joni Mitchell protest songs when we need them?!)
But Phil, in his mid-40s, figured out what Old Tom always knew, what Snead figured out quickly, what young Tom (Watson) took some years to figure out: The original game, played on hard bouncy turf, through heavy sea winds from every direction, is an altogether better form of golf. Why? Because it requires flush irons, puts less demand on putting (the greens are slow and flat) and asks for more luck. Luck is an elemental part of life. Humor is too. Those dour Scots, inventors of our game, figured that out centuries ago. Phil figured it our more recently. If you haven’t gone, go. Bandon Dunes is good and requires no passport. But Elie — 16 par-4s and a pair of par-3s, wind coming from here and there along the Fife coast — is better.