Royal Liverpool is hosting the British Open, which starts on Thursday, for the third time in 20 years. And the biggest deciding factor in how the course plays and who wins could be the one thing that the R&A, golf’s governing body in Britain, has no control over: the weather.
When Tiger Woods won here in 2006, the course was firm and baked out, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Woods kept his booming driver in the bag on almost every tee box, choosing to hit irons on most holes to control the flight of his ball and to play the roll on the hard fairways.
Eight years later, Rory McIlroy played the same course, which dates from 1869, in vastly different conditions. It was wet and lush. The temperatures were in the 70s, and a severe rainstorm blew through after the third round.
While both players had low scores — 18 under for Woods and 17 under for McIlroy — and beat their nearest competitor by two shots, that variability is how the R&A likes it these days.
“It wasn’t easy,” McIlroy said in a post-round interview at the time. “There were a few guys who were making a run at me, so I had to stay focused and get the job done.”
Going into this week, the R&A said it had a series of plans that would match the weather forecast to test the golfers. Where the tees and pins will be placed will be determined less by the length of a hole on the scorecard or slope of the green and more by conditions the governing body can’t plan for in advance: the wind, the rain, the heat and the cold.
“It’s fair to say we’re very much in the hands of the weather,” said Grant Moir, the R&A’s executive director of governance, who leads on-course setup at the Open. “A couple of months ago, there was a drought, and the course was very dry and burned out. We thought we were headed for a hard and fast Open, which was terrific.
“But in the past couple of weeks we’ve had a significant amount of rainfall, and the course has greened up. So, our fairways and greens are softer and certainly softer than at St. Andrews last year,” he said about the 2022 Open. “We just accept that. We’ll adapt the way we set up the course to the conditions we have and the weather we have.”
This is what an Open has come to mean, where whatever preparation players have done could be for nothing given the chance that the conditions change.
Padraig Harrington of Ireland, a two-time Open champion, said he had been preparing for hard, firm conditions, but knows that could change by the time of the first round.
“It’s not a course where it nearly matters as much what you do getting to know the course ahead of time,” he said. “I’ll only play two nines in practice. You know what you’re doing. At Royal Liverpool, you can be aggressive, but it’s your decision-making in the wind that matters.”
The setup of the Open is regularly compared to the United States Open. This year’s contest at Los Angeles Country Club had lower scores than the United States Golf Association, the governing body in the United States, usually allows with its setup. On the first day, two players broke the championship record, with Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele shooting 62.
Critics said it was too easy, with a winning score of 10-under par. But Harrington came to the course’s defense. It wasn’t the wide fairways that made scoring conditions favorable. It was the greens.
“We’ve never putted on greens that good in the U.S. Open,” he said. “They never got crispy. Usually the greens on a Sunday in that major, the ball won’t stop. I didn’t three-putt all week.”
Stewart Hagestad, a member of Los Angeles Country Club and a two-time United States Mid-Amateur Champion who has qualified for the U.S. Open in the past, said before the tournament that the conditions in Los Angeles were almost too good for a major. “What makes major championship is weather,” he said.
This week at Royal Liverpool, the weather forecast is mixed, but Moir said that was fine. “We’re looking to provide an appropriate challenge,” he said. “We have to recognize the forecast and adapt from there and go with the best information we have.”
It wasn’t always so. One of the turning points for the R&A was the 1999 Open at Carnoustie in Scotland, which earned the nickname Car-nasty, for how tough the course played. That week was memorably brutal.
Jean Van de Velde of France was in the lead after 71 holes. With one hole to go, the championship appeared to be his. He had a three-stroke lead over two players when he hit an errant drive on the final hole.
It only got worse, in a nightmare finish that was more akin to how an amateur would play than an elite player. His ball found the rough, the water, a bunker, even a grandstand. When it was over, he carded a triple bogey, which dropped him into a tie for the championship and put him into a three-man playoff.
In the four-hole match, Van de Velde lost to Paul Lawrie of Scotland. The winning score was 6-over par.
Yet the criticism went deeper than just Van de Velde’s performance. The rough was so high and the fairways so firm that play was brutally challenging and incredibly slow.
Harrington, who shot 15-over par that year to finish in 29th place, said the Open course setups since then had not been as fixated on what the winning score would be.
“In 1999, the R&A brutalized the players and did everything they could to make it tough,” he said. “After that, the R&A said we’ve got great golf courses. We’re going to let the weather determine if it’s tough or easy. They’re not going to get in the way.”
Moir did not disagree with that assessment. “There were a lot of learnings from Carnoustie in 1999,” he said. “The biggest change was the R&A took greater control over the setup. We’re talking 24 years ago — the attention wasn’t as great in those days. It was a different time.”
The biggest change to Royal Liverpool since its last Open has been the creation of a new par-3 and slotting it in as the 17th hole. It had been the 15th hole and used to play downhill to the water; now the shot has been reversed, so players will have to hit a short shot up a hill to a tabletop green that is fully exposed to the elements.
“If we have any sort of wind at all, it’s going to impact on that hole,” Moir said. “It’s an exposed green on top of the dune, and the backdrop is the beach. Any wind will be at its peak up there.”
It’s also an example of how the prevailing wind direction on any given day will determine where the pin is. The R&A has plans for all four days to pick a spot where players will have to navigate the breeze, not just ride the direction it’s blowing, to get a shot in there close.
“The two modern Opens here are great examples of the impact that weather can have,” Moir said. “But what this course will do is it will provide chances to score. There’s an opportunity to make bigger numbers out there, too.”