The afternoon light is streaming through the arched windows of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, where Joe Pinnington, the club historian, and I are having tea. The low sun makes the bold colors in his bow tie sparkle, his ruddy cheeks glow, his eyebrows glimmer like sheaves of straw. He is a happy man, and little wonder. After an absence of thirty-nine years, the British Open is coming back to Hoylake, the hallowed links that begin just outside the clubhouse windows and stretch toward the Dee Estuary of the Irish Sea and the faintly purple hills of North Wales on the horizon.
"Ten years ago," Pinnington is saying, shaking his head, disclosing a terse English smile and a glance of candor, "getting the Open back was just a dream—a dream."
Beyond the window, the famous Hoylake wind is tossing the club's blue-and-white flag atop the distinctive two-piece wooden flagpole that thrusts from the putting green like a ship's mast. The clubhouse is rich in references to its storied past—to name just one, the flat-blade putter that Hoylake hero Allan Graham used to defeat Bobby Jones, six and five, in the 1921 British Amateur. (Of course, Jones more than made up for that stinging defeat when he won the 1930 British Open at Hoylake for the second leg of his Grand Slam.) But that somewhat larger shaft of wood, worthy of a tall ship, in its own way harkens back further, to the source of Liverpool's might: shipping, the cotton trade, mercantilism on an international scale. From the docks at the mouth of the Mersey River flowed the wealth that earned Victorian Liverpool the sobriquet "Second City of the British Empire" and, about the same time, built Royal Liverpool—host now to its eleventh British Open—into one of the all-time great venues in the world of golf.
A father and his teenage son are warming up for their round, rolling long-shadowed putts. In just a few months, the best players in the world will be here, vying for the Claret Jug. Far from the gloomy, depressed city the Beatles beat out of as soon as they became famous, Liverpool today is ascendant: Tourism is up, and hotels, luxury apartment towers and upscale shopping malls are under construction practically round the clock.
For Royal Liverpool, it's been an eternity. The last man to hoist the Claret Jug here was the great Argentine Roberto De Vicenzo, then 44, who withstood a late charge by the twenty-seven-year-old Jack Nicklaus to win by two strokes.
Pinnington was there that Sunday in 1967. He had grown up in one of the modest village houses that flank Hoylake's back nine. His father was not a member but paid a shilling a year for the right to enter through the back gate and walk on the course. Pinnington, home from college, squeezed into the gallery on the eighteenth green to watch the final pair—De Vicenzo and Gary Player—putt out.
The moment was rife with emotion. De Vicenzo, a tall, loose-muscled fellow with what Golf Digest described as "a drowsy swing that was surprisingly powerful," was a gifted ball striker but an erratic putter. In ten previous British Opens, he had finished second or third six times. Yet he never lost his affable nature, and he arrived at Hoylake in 1967 the strong sentimental favorite. On Saturday, Player set a then course record sixty-seven, which De Vicenzo, finishing half an hour later, equaled.
On Sunday, Player faded after the tenth, where he three-putted while De Vicenzo holed a tricky uphill five-footer for par. Ahead, Nicklaus birdied the eighteenth for a sixty-nine, but De Vicenzo soon settled matters. On the par-five dogleg sixteenth he hit what Ben Wright, reporting in the Financial Times, called "the greatest golf shot I've ever seen—a towering three-wood... across the out-of-bounds practice ground that exactly bisected the gap between the greenside bunkers." He made birdie, then parred seventeen and was on in regulation at eighteen, setting the stage for the win many thought they would never see.
"Along the eighteenth fairway," Pinnington recalls, "old gray-haired men had tears streaming down their cheeks, it was so joyous an occasion."