HOYLAKE, England – The inherent dangers of expectations aside, history is made at Hoylake.
If all Grand Slam gatherings were created equal we wouldn’t talk about the 1986 Masters or 2008 U.S. Open in hushed tones, but on the eve of the 143rd Open Championship it’s hard to imagine all that rain and wind forecast for the week not sending all the cosmic tumblers into proper order.
Royal Liverpool, a leafy contrast to its gritty namesake city just across the River Mersey, has a history of delivering the Grand Slam goods.
In 1930 Bobby Jones won the second leg of the single-season Grand Slam (which included the U.S. and British Amateurs at the time) at Hoylake and in 1967 Argentine Roberto de Vicenzo hoisted the claret jug on the Wirral peninsula to dull the heartbreak that was looming at the ’68 Masters.
And of course Tiger Woods put on a major clinic the last time the championship was played at Royal Liverpool, dissecting the links with long irons and flawless ball-striking to win the last of his three claret jugs.
It is the kind of track record that defies the cynicism of lowered expectations and lures even the most jaded observer into thinking something special is afoot.
Outrageous possibilities, like Martin Kaymer following in Jones’ footsteps to do what no player since Woods has done since 2002 and claim the first two laps of the modern Slam.
Or perhaps it would be a redemption Open, with Adam Scott putting the pain of his meltdown in 2012 at Lytham to rest for good.
“It was obviously not the finish I wanted there,” said Scott, who bogeyed his last four holes to finish a stroke behind Ernie Els in ’12. “But that gave me a lot of confidence not just about playing well in majors, but also that I had the game to win an Open Championship.”
For some, the ultimate reclamation project would be Woods, less than four months removed from back surgery and starting the week with just 36 competitive holes since coming off the DL.
That scenario seems about right since the last time Woods was in this corner of England in 2006 he picked apart this links like a surgeon, hitting 48 of 56 fairways for the week (first in the field), 58 of 72 greens in regulation (T-2) and just a single driver for 72 holes.
“Playing at (the Quicken Loans National) was a big boost to me,” Woods said on Tuesday. “The fact that I was able to go at it that hard and hit it like that with no pain. I've gotten stronger since then, I've gotten more explosive, I've gotten faster since then.”
Of course, a lot has changed since Woods dismantled a dusty Hoylake eight years ago. He’s dropped from No. 1 in the world to outside the top 50 and back again. He’s played five Opens without adding to his claret jug total and endured two major surgeries.
Scott has gone from a major championship afterthought to a perennial Grand Slam contender; Henrik Stenson has endured two slumps and emerged as a world-beater, again. Ditto for Rory McIlory and Kaymer.
And rain has fallen at Hoylake.
Unlike 2006, a traditional English summer greeted the field for this week’s championship via a forecast that calls for plenty of rain, wind and even the chance for a thunderstorm, which is anything but traditional in the United Kingdom.
“I think (golfers) change a lot. Everyone changes over eight years,” Scott said. “We’ve got a completely different golf course that we’re looking at this week. It’s a completely different animal.”
What doesn’t seem likely to change is Hoylake’s unique ability to deliver memorable finishes. In the 11 Opens played at Royal Liverpool, the list of winners range from Woods (2006) to Walter Hagen (1922) with few, if any, duds along the way.
Which makes the potential atop this week’s tee sheet that much more compelling. Few times over the last half dozen years have so many players arrived for the game’s oldest major playing so well.
Justin Rose – one of four players who can overtake Scott atop the ranking this week – may be the game’s hottest player having won his last two starts (the Quicken Loans National and last week’s Scottish Open); Scott hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since overtaking Woods atop the Official World Golf Ranking; Kaymer has won two of the year’s three biggest tournaments (the U.S. Open and Players); and Stenson has finished in the top 5 in his last three events, including a tie for fourth at Pinehurst, and will be paired with Woods for Rounds 1 and 2.
“I think it would have been a lot of sleepless nights for him as of late. When did the draw come out? He looked tired, didn't he?” Stenson smiled on Wednesday when asked about the pairing and whether or not Tiger feared him.
While the Swede’s take was tongue and cheek, his relaxed approach to a pairing that many players would have happily sidestepped just eight years ago is indicative to the increased parity in golf, if not Royal Liverpool’s penchant to produce memorable champions.
As a rule, Hoylake delivers history and it’s hard to imagine this year being any different.