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A Longer Time Coming

The Royal Liverpool course has changed a lot since the last time the British Open was played there. Not that many will notice, since it has been 39 years.

July 17, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

The last time the British Open was played at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Doug Sanders was 29 when he showed up at Hoylake, England, for the 1967 championship. What Sanders remembers most are the steaks.

"Black-eyed peas, corn bread, turnip greens and big ol' steaks," he said. "We cooked every night in a house we rented at Hoylake. Think it was the first time I ever rented a house for the Open. I had those steaks flown in on Pan American. My wife, Scotty, worked for them in the lost-and-found department. I had the steaks sent over, then my friend picked them up at the London airport and we got them through customs."

Nearly four decades have passed since those grilling moments for Sanders, who turns 69 in a week, and says he can almost hear the sizzle, even now.

But his memories of the golf course aren't so hot.

"I do remember Hoylake was just a little different, I just don't recall much."

He shouldn't feel alone. If there is a recurring theme to the 135th Open Championship that starts Thursday, it's the Unknown Factor and it's snugly wrapped around the Royal Liverpool Golf Club course, which hasn't been part of the British Open rotation of courses since 1967, when Roberto De Vicenzo beat Jack Nicklaus by two shots.

After that, the course found itself at the start of what would become a 39-year separation from the British Open, losing its place simply because it wasn't large enough to accommodate all the trappings of a major golf event, such as areas for corporate entertainment, parking and merchandise tents. But after the club members picked up some adjacent land and architect Donald Steel reworked the course, it's back, even if no one is quite sure how Hoylake is going to play after so long an absence.

The names Hoylake and Royal Liverpool are interchangeable, as you may have guessed, yet one thing is certain: No matter what you call it, you must call it longer. But not by much. Measuring 7,258 yards, the course is 263 yards longer than during De Vicenzo's day, and plays to a par of 72.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which runs the Open, made a significant alteration to the routing, renumbering the holes so that the old 17th hole is now the 454-yard No. 1 and the par-five 16th is now the 560-yard closing hole, a left-to-right dogleg and out of bounds on the right.

"It will be a hole for potential disaster," said Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A.

Comforting as that may be, there are also new tees, new greens and steeper bunkers. Otherwise, it's the same old place, as if anybody who's playing this year knows much about what it used to be anyway.

Although Phil Mickelson arrived last week for his second look at the place, Tiger Woods stuck to his regular schedule of arriving on-site on the weekend, saying that the lack-of-familiarity issue is exaggerated and nothing that a couple of practice rounds can't fix.

Sanders couldn't agree more, probably because he can't remember much about the place anyway.

"From what little I recall, it's certainly a championship golf course," he said. "It's like any British Open course. You have to be a good shot maker. You better bring your best game with you, because you don't go over there and try to find it."

Sanders won 20 times in his career, but in the 1967 Open at Hoylake, he tied for 18th with Barry Coxon and Hedley Muscroft, 12 shots behind De Vicenzo. One year before, Sanders lost to Nicklaus by one shot at Muirfield and he was still three years away from his greatest disappointment. That came at St. Andrews in the 1970 British Open, when he led after 71 holes but missed a 2 1/2 -foot par putt at the 18th, fell into a tie with Nicklaus, and lost to him again, this time in a playoff.

"Those are the types of things that happen in life," Sanders said. "I was thinking about bowing to the gallery and what I'd say to the crowd instead of winning the golf tournament."

Bobby Jones won the Open at Hoylake in 1930, as part of his unmatched Grand Slam year. Hoylake is about 10 miles from Liverpool, but it is 39 years removed from the British Open, so it's fair to compare it to Carnoustie, another course that the R&A revived after an absence of 24 years. The 1999 Open was one of the flukiest in history, with Jean Van de Velde triple-bogeying the 72nd hole, then losing (along with Justin Leonard) to Paul Lawrie in a playoff, with Lawrie making up a seemingly impossible 10 shots on the last day.

If another pure fluky finish is in the cards, Hoylake may be the place, especially considering the state of the world's top players coming into the week.

Woods, ranked No. 1, famously missed the cut last month at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot -- his first missed cut in a major as a professional. But he's the defending champion this week, after a five-shot victory over Colin Montgomerie last year at St. Andrews.

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