Reflections from England
by John Beaumont
On Friday June 20th 1930 the great Robert Tyre Jones Jr. stood on the 8th fairway of the Royal Liverpool Links at Hoylake, just short of and to the left of the green. All seemed set fair for the completion of the second leg, the Open Championship, of what subsequently became known as the ‘Impregnable Quadrilateral,’ the winning in the same year of the Open and Amateur Championships of the then two most important countries in the world of golf. The Amateur had already been won, some two weeks earlier, at St. Andrews. In his beautifully written autobiography, Golf Is My Game, Jones described how he led the field going into the final day and came to the 8th hole of the final round in a strong position, needing two fours to be out in thirty-five strokes. This is how he took up the story of what happened subsequently:
‘The eighth hole at Hoylake was of some 480 yards, but I had been consistently either on, or just off, the green in two shots. This time was no exception. After a good drive my spoon second just missed the left edge of the green and rolled off some ten or fifteen yards down an innocent slope. It lay still in the fairway with absolutely nothing between it and the flag.
The events of the next few moments caused much wonderment among the spectators and golfing authorities present. Mr. Darwin [the golf correspondent of the Times newspaper] said later that a nice old lady with a croquet mallet could have saved me two strokes from this point. Yet I will swear that I took seven on that hole in the most reasonable manner possible.’
In truth Bernard Darwin referred not to an old lady but to ‘a twelve handicap player’ (see the Times for June 21st 1930, p.4). Be that as it may, Jones went on to describe both accurately and eloquently the manner in which this disaster struck and the effect of the blow upon him. Of course, the rest is history. Though not at the top of his game he fought through to the end, helped considerably by a remarkable bunker shot a few holes later, finally winning by two shots from his compatriots, Leo Diegel and Macdonald Smith. From there it was on to Interlachen and Merion and victory in the United States Open and Amateur. The legend of Bobby Jones was born. An achievement that will never be duplicated was set in being.
On June 8th this year, almost exactly seventy years on, I stood in the midst of proceedings at this year’s Amateur Championship, played again at Hoylake, on that same spot at that same hole. The fact of doing so brought to mind several features that illustrate both the continuing strengths of this great game of ours and exhibit a darker side relating to a sad discontinuity with its noble past.
Let us start with the upside of all of this. The first, and most remarkable feature, is that I could be there at all. I mean physically there at that spot. Here we are speaking of a great championship with a long and inspiring history, played at one of the most historic courses in the world. And I, a mere spectator, with no special pass or authority, was strolling along the fairways on a beautiful summer’s day, watching the best amateur golfers in the British Isles and Europe without any let or hindrance. How could that be? Surely, at the very least, I should have been stood off on the spectator walkway, wide of the rough fringing the fairway. That was not the case in Jones’s day, but isn’t it the norm today? Well, certainly that is so when the Open comes to town. However, when the major Amateur events are played the crowds are not great and so the courses are not roped or fenced off. One can therefore watch every shot of an individual match, able to listen to the consultation between caddy and player, to see at a glance the clubs used and the exact problems facing the golfer. That is a great, almost incalculable, bonus. Others may prefer the heady atmosphere at the Open Championship, the battle with the seething throngs, the struggle to find a vantage point. Of course, such circumstances may generate excitement, even a communal camaraderie. An individual shot, perhaps at a crucial moment, may be viewed with an immediacy denied to others and certainly unavailable through TV coverage. But, that is relatively rare and the advantage thereby afforded means the almost inevitable loss of a good view for the next shot. In addition, the wider context of the match is lost. For me the opportunity to watch in the conditions available at Hoylake is far preferable.
The amateur game has changed, of course. Gone are the majority of those gentlemen amateurs, who combined a career in business or the professions with amateur golf at the highest level. The Michael Bonallacks, Peter McEvoys and, on the American side of the pond, the Jay Sigels, are a dying breed. More is the pity. The money that lures so many into the professional ranks (some a little too soon â€œ witness the fate of Justin Rose) is a mixed blessing. But, amateur golf is still a vigorous phenomenon, as evidenced for example in the ladies game by the titanic struggle for the Curtis Cup a few days ago at another great old course, Ganton. The game is played in a fine spirit, something that is in danger of being lost in the professional ranks. Whatever the merits and demerits of what went on at Brookline, that day cannot be accounted a healthy one for the game of golf. In addition to its own intrinsic merits the amateur game’s role as a breeding ground for the future greats of the professional game has given it a new lease of life. How good it must be for those present at another Amateur Championship, that at Formby in 1984, to be able to say now that they were there when two stars of the future, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie, battled it out in the final.
And so the chance arose that recent day at Hoylake of seeing how this venerable old links stood up to the challenge of the young pretenders. After all, this is a course that has hosted no fewer than ten Open Championships. It is the course on which the first Amateur Championship was played (1885) and the first international match between Great Britain and the United States, which we now know as the Walker Cup (1921). To be savoured, for example, was the opportunity to watch at really close range a match between a previous winner, and Walker Cup player, Craig Watson, and the young Zane Scotland, a qualifier last year, at the age of sixteen, for the final stages of the Open at Carnoustie, and undoubtedly a star of the future. How well, then, did Hoylake respond to this challenge? In an excellent fashion can be the only possible response. The course was in magnificent shape. The many bunkers, the faces of which have always been constructed in the traditional manner with layers of turf, had all been given a face-lift and were in perfect condition. The wet spring meant that there was formidable rough outside the slender ribbon of fairway and first cut of semi-rough â€œ but never so thick and unrelenting as to destroy entirely all hope of recovery, as tragically was the case at Carnoustie during last year’s Open. The authorities over here genuinely seem to have learned the necessary lessons. The purpose of rough on a golf course is to reduce the ease of controlling the ball normally possessed by the golfer by way of reducing cleanness of contact and spin. In order to do this the rough does not need to be of such depth as would hide an elephant. Here, as in so many other things of course, the classic canons of construction are provided by the witness of the Old Course at St. Andrews.
What, however, of the question of the greater length of the modern ball and the effect of technology on the game? Despite the urgings of such as Peter Thompson, a five times Open Champion himself (including one at Hoylake), the authorities have not as yet introduced a tournament ball with restricted length. So, some will no doubt say, how can a course as old as Hoylake stand up to the battery of the modern game? This is a vital question and it is undoubtedly true that the defences of certain famous courses have been rendered less effective by modern scientific developments. Names such as Rye and Liphook in England come to mind. In the United States this factor is undoubtedly a significant one in the seeming banishing of Merion East from the Open roster. Here, Hoylake has certain built-in advantages. First of all, the course was never exactly lacking in length and even in pre-war days was seen as a formidable test from this point of view. Several holes had available the possibility of putting in new tees in order to extend them further and this continues to be so, for example in the case of two of the shorter par fives, the third and the eighth. You can call this fortuitous if you wish, or refer to it as remarkable foresight on the part of those who laid down the original plan. Whatever it is, Hoylake is better equipped than many other such links to continue to act as a fine test of the modern golfer. So, for example, many of the fairway bunkers remain as live hazards today from the tee (at the 2nd, 5th, 10th, 12th, 16th and 17th holes). In addition, Hoylake is a course with a number of holes running close to the external boundaries of the course and therefore having out of bounds close in at one side or the other. An example is the famous par four 17th hole with its green hard against a passing road, and for that reason alone reminiscent of the Road Hole at St. Andrews. There is also the 6th with its drive threatened by out of bounds on the left, part of which must be carried directly. Finally, Hoylake has a series of notorious hazards that cannot go out of date whatever the scientists get up to. These are the low, artificial two-foot-high banks, called ‘cops,’ that run along the edge of certain fairways, most notably the 1st and the 16th. Go over these (the one at the 1st is only five yards to the right of the edge of the green) and one is out of bounds. This is something that has always been controversial, since these cops do not mark the external boundary of the course and so are a form of ‘internal’ out of bounds. The artificial nature of such a hazard eventually led to what was originally out of bounds just a few yards to the left of the green at the tricky par three 7th being assigned as still in play. The hole in question is difficult enough without an extra challenge of this kind. The cop that runs down the whole of the right side of the 1st hole remains in its traditional role of marking the out of bounds and makes the hole perhaps the most difficult opening hole in golf, especially as it is a sharp right-hand dog-leg and played into the prevailing wind. As stated earlier the phenomenon of the cops is something completely unaffected by golf ball technology. It might be noted at this point that such is the subtlety of Hoylake, a course at which all the holes are given names as well as numbers, that the 4th hole, the name of which is in fact ‘Cop,’ has no cop at all visible from the tee. Make of that what you will.
An additional factor that one must take account of in the present context is what might be referred to as the ‘myth of no change.’ It is sometimes thought that the famous old courses have never been touched during their history, save of course for the necessary installation of new championship tees from time to time to take account of the technological advances just referred to. In reality, in most cases change has been much more common that often supposed. This is now coming to be realised in respect of the great American courses as well, due to the work of a number of researchers, notably Geoff Shackelford. In relation to the British scene it may be that the traditional assumption of a static history has been fostered by the position of the Old Course at St. Andrews. There indeed it can be said quite truthfully that new back tees have been virtually the only defence used in the continuing battle against the modern ball. Which is yet another reason why St. Andrews is supreme in so many ways in the concept of golf course design. The Old Course is and always has been a living example of the use of defences far more subtle than extra length.
But, change there has been, sometimes of a fairly radical nature. Happily, at Hoylake such change has been evolutionary, rather than of the revolutionary kind that has scarred the face of certain much loved courses both in Great Britain and the United States. First of all, over the years a number of holes have had the shape of the fairway bunkering modified in order to toughen up the course. Bunkers that were simply not in play for the better golfer and posed a hazard only to the lesser player have been removed and replaced with something that is more appropriate to the modern game, but which retains the harmony and overall design of the original hole. Examples are provided by the 10th, 14th and 18th (the 15th is alone in having fairway bunkers that are of no real account to the top class player, but that is a long par four anyway and involves a demanding second to a two-tier green). One hole has been more significantly changed and that is the 3rd. Originally this was a straightaway hole, just under 500 yards, rated a par five but of a length that put it within range of two shots, though the prevailing wind, which was basically against the player, might have a say in that. In the build up to what thus far has turned out to be the last Open Championship played at Hoylake, that of 1967, the existing green was scrapped and the green of the then 4th hole became the 3rd green. This turned the hole into a dog-leg to the left and as a result of subtle greenside bunkering made the precise line of the tee shot of more importance than hitherto. Finally, the previous change created the necessity of making a completely new 4th hole. This was done by making use of a piece of duneland to the left of the original 4th and moving the 5th tee somewhat to the right. The result is a fine par three hole to a two tier green surrounded by all the traditional humps and hollows of a links course. When one reads material in the ‘no-change’ tradition, one would think that although tinkering with the great courses has perhaps been done on occasion, nothing so radical as a new hole has been built. This is not so as can be witnessed at other courses in addition to Hoylake. At Royal Birkdale a new 12th was created and the existing 17th eliminated before the 1965 Open Championship. In 1975, at Royal St. George’s, Sandwich, what were in essence completely new holes were created at the 8th and 11th. In addition, the present 3rd was radically altered, such was the fundamental sweeping away of part of a sandhill in order to remove the previously blind tee shot. Readers in the United States will be familiar with the pretty thoroughgoing alterations to certain of the closing holes at Medinah in the 1980s. As hinted earlier the key to the quality of all of this relates to the question of balancing change and tradition. The nature of golf is such that the great names from the past can be with us on the links, sometimes almost palpably as on that recent day at Hoylake. This continuity with the past, whilst allowing for inevitable and necessary change, is something of inestimable value. The great architects of the past were men of genius and one should alter their work, if at all, with a necessary reserve and hesitation. Whether the altered 3rd at Sandwich is a better hole than its predecessor is a moot question. The hostility towards blind shots, which used to prevail, is now abating. They have their role in the game, as the great designers knew. Variety is an important virtue in golf course architecture. But, improvements from original designs, though rare, are not impossible. The present par three 12th at Royal Birkdale, which is hard against the sea shore and involves a long iron to a green set exquisitely into the dunes, is a great improvement on the old 17th. Similarly, the present 4th at Hoylake is a finer hole than what went before.
So, what, if anything is the downside of these reflections stimulated by Hoylake and the ghost of Bobby Jones. One such is obvious surely. In most sports the great competitions are played at the great arenas. And this is how it should be. The traditions fostered by the process of continuity, whereby previous champions stand, almost literally, in the footsteps of their predecessors, is one to be treasured. Graphic examples are provided by tennis at Wimbledon, the Derby at Epsom and its American cousin, the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Golf stands in grave danger of losing all of this. The various aspects of this take on a slightly different light depending on whether one examines the scene in the United States or that in Britain. In America there is the inestimable value of the Masters always being played at Augusta National, the creation of the great Dr. Alistair Mackenzie. But, that last fact leads onto the central point at issue. It has become clearer in recent years, owing to the indefatigable work of researchers into the history of golf architecture, that poor Dr. Mackenzie would have some difficulty in recognising much of his work at Augusta. This ranges from the subtle use of slopes around greens, for example behind the 13th green, which has been the subject of some crude revisions, to the altogether unsubtle ‘tiger-proofing’ that has gone on at such holes as the 15th and 17th.
Turning to the United States Open it seems clear that Merion East, a jewel of a course, will never again feature, something that is an incalculable loss. Some course committees, anxious to gain the Open for their course, are not averse to changes of a kind that would put at jeopardy some of the best features of courses of great quality. That this is so could be seen earlier this year at the Riviera Club. In addition, the power of the corporation and big business would seem to be moving in, as witnessed by the choice of at least one of the courses for upcoming Opens. As for the PGA Championship, well the writing has been on the wall for a long time now. It is illustrated graphically in a year like the present one when the other three majors are being played at Augusta, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. The PGA is set for Valhalla. Enough said!
In Great Britain we have been perhaps more fortunate. The Open roster is a strong one. Turnberry is possibly the weakest member, though some might mention Royal Troon here, but both are fine courses for all that. The problem here is of a rather different kind. It relates to both the professional team competitions and the professional circuit. Of the former there can be no quibble with St. Andrews in its annual role of hosting the Dunhill Cup, though the competition’s format leaves much to be desired. The main problem there is a rather different one, the time of the year, early October, when the competition is played. At that time of the year the Old Course is often at its most benign and not infrequently shrouded in mist. However, it is the Ryder Cup that is the real problem. One can leave aside the issue that arose when Ganton, a great inland course (the only one thus far to have hosted the Amateur Championship), reputedly refused the invitation to hold the contest there (where it had been in 1949). The replacement was a combination of Herbert Fowler’s Old and New Courses at Walton Heath, which could not be criticised. No, it was the move to The Belfry that started the rot. The course is even now of no great merit, though as the trees and bushes have grown it has improved (it could hardly fail to) and the 18th is a fine finale in match play. The main criticism is rather that from this point on the criterion became predominantly financial (or was perceived to be) rather than continuity of tradition. This has now climaxed in the decision to take the Ryder Cup to the K Club in Ireland. Not that the choice of Ireland is wrong. On the contrary, it is the home of some sublime courses and one might argue that the Open should have been held there more than just the once (Royal Portrush in 1951). But, this is just the point. Where golf and its traditions (surely the real criteria in this instance) were concerned, there were several other candidates of far greater quality. Of course, some would be excluded on grounds of practicality. For example, although the Irish Open goes to that wonderful links of Ballybunion this year, the remoteness of that locality would rule out a Ryder Cup. The same would not apply, however, to any of Royal Portrush, Royal County Down and Portmarnock.
The problem with the professional circuit in Britain is the fact that many of the tournaments these days are held at the same course each year. The Belfry comes into the frame again here and the West Course at Wentworth is the home of both the PGA Championship and the World Matchplay. One can have a little too much of a good thing. When one looks back beyond the last few years and returns to the seventies and eighties, one finds a different world, a world that found room for Saunton, Hillside, Little Aston, Moortown and even (allowance being made for the fact that sheep have a common law grazing right) Westward Ho! The contrast today between the venues for the Amateur and Professional competitions could scarcely be more striking. The main Amateur Championships of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Amateur itself go round almost all of the major historic courses in these islands. To give some flavour of the quality of things here one might consider that prior to this year the recent venues for the Amateur Championship have been as follows: Royal County Down, Muirfield, Royal St. George’s, Turnberry, Hoylake (again), Nairn, Royal Portrush and Carnoustie. And the venues arranged thus far for future years are Prestwick (2001) and Royal Porthcawl (2002).
One cannot foresee what will happen, both at the business level and at the technological level, but one is entitled to be concerned. However, golf has come through threats of a similar nature before and so a healthy optimism ought to be the order of the day. Let us conclude on a positive note. Firstly, then, it is reported in the press that the authorities that count in the Royal and Ancient were mightily impressed with Hoylake on the occasion of the Amateur Championship and serious consideration is being given to returning the course to the Open Championship roster. This can only be applauded. It would not be before time. Traditionally, Hoylake was often referred to as the St. Andrews of England, though the English tended to see St. Andrews as the Hoylake of Scotland! The Royal Liverpool Club would be an appropriate setting again for the championship that was world’s first Open, one for which the word ‘British’ has always been an unnecessary prefix.
Secondly, on a more personal note, it just so happens that in four weeks time the English Amateur Championship takes place. And where do you think that is? Why at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, another of the venerable links scattered along the Lancashire coastline, home of nine Open Championships with another to come next year. Perhaps this time I shall head for that bunker on the left of the 17th fairway to seek out again the shade of Jones. As some may know, there is even a plaque inserted into the ground at that spot. This would be inappropriate for the disaster at the 8th at Hoylake, but it is a worthy tribute to the famous mashie shot from sand to green that won Jones the Open of 1926 at Royal Lytham. And one thing I haven’t yet mentioned. All of this pleasure is free, gratis and for nothing. No charge is made for attendance. There was none at Hoylake either. Who would be a professional when one can watch and play continuously in golfing cathedrals such as these?