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  • Neil White

Royal Liverpool (Hoylake)

When I began my top 100 odyssey, it certainly wasn’t my plan to include an assessment of the health benefits of playing golf for a newly diagnosed cancer patient. However, Mrs W's world has recently been turned upside down and, as pre-chemo mental therapy, we nipped off for a few days to England’s golf coast. It helped enormously that our host was a member of Royal Liverpool, aka Hoylake, and a great guy as well as an avid golf historian.

With huge enthusiasm, he told us of Hoylake’s rich past over lunch in the spike bar, surrounded by mementoes of triumphs over more than 150 glorious years. We were introduced to the current captain and the club secretary who is busy preparing for the Open Championship to return to these famous links next year.

Mrs W and I always have a slight worry about playing at such illustrious clubs because we fear they may be stuffy. I am delighted to report that Royal Liverpool may have a grand title but its welcome was second to none. I hasten to add that this was not exaggerated because of Mrs W’s diagnosis. Nobody knew about it other than our host who beautifully left it to one side, meaning that we could forget a subject that had been dominating our waking and even sometimes sleeping hours.

Once out on the windy Wirral coast, it was clear headspace needed to be reserved for attempting to conquer one of the toughest tracks in Britain. Hoylake doesn’t have the dramatic dunes of near-neighbour Birkdale or the elevation of Hillside or Wallasey but, in my opinion, compares with Royal Lytham St. Anne’s in appearance and holes which initially seem conquerable but have surprising bite. And the back nine, overlooking the River Dee and on a clear day with views out to Snowdonia, is bound to conjure some classic moments in July 2023.

There is perpetual evolution here – exemplified by Little Eye - the 15th, created only two years ago. This is a fabulous short par-three over sandscape with a plateaued green and cavernous bunker to the left. I can testify that it looks like a cinch but is perilous against the wind. The professionals will be more adept out of the aforementioned sand trap but safe to say I did not score.

The introduction to Royal Liverpool was gentler than expected. I didn’t stray much off the tee and, while I was struggling to hold my approaches on its greens, I was lulled into thinking I was on the way to winning my battle with the course. I even managed a par-four on the fifth, the stroke index one which demands tee shot placement down the right and a second shot past a bunker on the left. The alarm bells began ringing on the par-five eighth which was even too much for Bobby Jones who recorded a seven on his way to his 1930s Grand Slam (the scorecard is displayed in the clubhouse).

From the tee, it seems that the best line is down the right. That is an optical illusion. Woe is heightened by attempting to play the ball straight over the small dunes which cross the fairway. Clearly, left and left again would have been the successful route. Oh, and this is stroke index 17. As we trooped off (Mrs W. had lost two balls on the 7th), our compadre ominously remarked: “That was the easy bit.”

Certainly, the holes from this point have more dramatic views with wide beach in the foreground and Welsh hills as the backdrop. The par-three 11th has an Irish links feel with bunkers and dunes awaiting those who don’t select the right club and account for the wind. The 12th is a super par-four with a green perched above a dogleg-left fairway. Typically of Hoylake, it will reward those who hit straight but the punishment for those who are even slightly offline is cloying rough.

I was a fan of the long 16th (the last hole of the Open because it begins with the 17th and 18th) where the driving range encroaches from the right almost begging balls to be hit out of bounds. With the hoolie behind us, I was through the green in three but came back to claim my par. Once again, I was lulled into complacency but my hopes of a stirring finale were thwarted on the 18th when my tee shot rolled and rolled… into the fairway bunker and I had to chip out sideways.

Hoylake was a joy. We had followed the steps of the giants of our beloved game but, for us, it was much more important that we had seen how golf might see us through difficult days ahead. It brings us camaraderie, history and sport with cut and thrust and highs and lows. A true tonic.

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