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Everyone is learning Royal Liverpool from scratch this year, says Retief Goosen. (Photo: Getty Images)
Everyone is learning Royal Liverpool from scratch this year, says Retief Goosen. (Photo: Getty Images)

Seldom-seen Hoylake is a mystery to modern players

Only a handful of the players had ever seen Royal Liverpool before this week, and even those who had are dealing with some surprises. Among the biggest is that the course has been reconfigured to provide a more dynamic finish.

HOYLAKE, England (AP) -- The Beatles had just released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Jack Nicklaus was making his first title defense in the Open Championship. Nine of the top 10 players now in the world rankings had not even been born.

It has been so long since the Open was held at Royal Liverpool that some players didn't even know it existed, a startling fact driven home to Royal & Ancient Chief Executive Peter Dawson during a conversation this spring with a top player he declined to identify.

"He inquired whether Royal Liverpool was a new course in the rotation," Dawson said with a chuckle.

New?

Not quite.

The Open first came to this links course in Hoylake in 1897, making it the second English course to host golf's oldest championship. Bobby Jones won the Open at Royal Liverpool in 1930 on his way to the Grand Slam.

So why all the mystery?

Royal Liverpool has not hosted the Open since 1967, when Roberto De Vicenzo of Argentina came over to see old friends and "I won ze bloody thing," holding off Nicklaus with a bold 3-wood over a portion of the practice range that set up a clinching birdie on the 16th hole.

The Open returns to Royal Liverpool for the 11th time, ending a 39-year absence that is the longest among any course still in the rotation.

"I haven't been there, haven't seen any photos of it," Tiger Woods said. "All I know is it's in Liverpool."

Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen not only hadn't been to Royal Liverpool before this week, he doesn't know anyone who has.

"Nobody has really seen it," Goosen said. "All of the guys playing these days are very young or were not even born yet when we last played there, so it will be nice to go to a course that everybody sort of starts from scratch."

Phil Mickelson got his first look at Hoylake a week after his collapse at the U.S. Open. Mickelson has been cramming for majors over the last few years, taking eight hours for each practice round to study every nuance, figuring out whether he needs two drivers or four wedges.

"I think it was really important that I went over," Mickelson said. "I thought I knew what types of shots were going to be expected at Hoylake. They're totally different. I thought I was going to be hitting certain shots, and I'm not going to go into detail because I'm going to let everybody else figure it out."

For a course hardly anyone knows, its reputation already is taking a beating.

The R&A has stretched the course by 263 yards, refurbished the sod walls in the bunkers, built new tee boxes and reshaped the greens. Even so, it will play as a par 72 at 7,258 yards, six yards shorter than Winged Foot, which was a par 70 at the U.S. Open.

There are a few oddities for an Open.

The course has been reconfigured to accommodate better routing and a more dynamic finish, so the par-5 16th hole for members will be the closing hole for this Open, making it the only par 5 for the 18th hole on the rotation.

And while it doesn't have as many gorse bushes as Royal Troon, waist-high grass like Carnoustie, moon-like mounding similar to Royal St. George's or the double greens found at St. Andrews, Hoylake has one of the worst penalties in golf -- out-of-bounds on 10 of the holes.

That led Ron Whitten, the architecture editor at Golf Digest, to refer to the course as "Royal O.B."

Conditions were soft and mildly breezy 39 years ago, and it showed in the scores. De Vicenzo won at 10-under 278, and a dozen players finished the tournament under par. Barring any wind, Nicklaus is among those who fear record scoring.

Nicklaus was at Hoylake two months ago, and what struck him was the bunkers that were positioned about 270 yards away from the tee, which can be easily carried in today's power game. He also noticed ample fairways that were being prepared.

"At the same time, the greens are very generous in size and should be receptive to shots," Nicklaus said. "So once you combine all these facts, unless the wind kicks up and the weather helps defend the golf course, the recipe exists for low scoring."

Dawson, however, is not the least bit worried.

The reason it took nearly 40 years to return to Royal Liverpool was a matter of logistics. The Open, like other majors, has become big business. Along with a course, there has to be room for corporate tents, ample grandstands, a sizable driving range and decent roads to get some 35,000 fans to the tournament.

The tented village will be partly on the practice range, while the players will be shuttled across the street to a municipal golf course that will be turned into a range. A new road has been built.

As for the golf, the biggest change will be numbering of the holes. Dawson felt the 18th hole was too weak, and there was not enough room for a large grandstand. The first two holes will be Nos. 17 and 18, and the Open will end with a par 5 (No. 16).

That could lead to a dynamic conclusion. No other course on the Open rotation ends with a par 5, and this one features out-of-bounds down the right side of the hole.

But will Royal Liverpool be a stern test?

"It's just as strong as all the other venues," Dawson said. "If we've got trepidation about Hoylake, we would have trepidation about all of them."

The list of champions at Hoylake is not as impressive as other venues, with the except of Jones and Walter Hagen. Hoylake delivered the first European winner of the Open (Arnaud Massy of France in 1907), the only Irishman (Fred Daly in 1947) and De Vicenzo, the only player from South America to have won a major.

One of the few players acquainted with Hoylake is Padraig Harrington, who played the British Amateur in 1995. For those who have criticized it as being too weak to host the Open, his only advice is to wait until the claret jug is on the line.

"A links golf course only really shows its true character when it's played in tournaments," Harrington said. "You'll only be able to tell after we've played the Open there what sort of course it is, and how much of a test."

And only then will anyone know whether it has to wait another 39 years to return.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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