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Royal Liverpool Golf Club

Afterward, De Vicenzo had a party in the clubhouse with some members with whom he'd grown close. On the way out, he clapped one of his English mates on the back and exclaimed, "How about that, amigo?I just come to see my friends and I win ze bloody thing!"

On that exultant day, nothing could have seemed more natural than the Open returning to Hoylake soon. Between 1897, when Royal Liverpool joined the Open rota, and De Vicenzo's emotional win in 1967, the only club that had hosted more Opens than Royal Liverpool was St. Andrews (twelve to ten). And that is only the tip of the Hoylake iceberg.

Long before Liverpool locations like Penny Lane and Strawberry Field began giving visitors goose bumps, the Hoylake course was a shrine on the golf map. Named for the pleasant village on the Irish Sea in which it resides, across the Mersey River from the grimy docks of Liverpool, Hoylake began its rise to prominence in 1869, when Old Tom Morris's big brother George came down from St. Andrews to lay out nine holes and then, two years later, a second nine. As early as 1910, Bernard Darwin was able to write, "At Hoylake, the golfing pilgrim is emphatically on classic ground."

Consider: Hoylake held the first ever professional golf tournament, in 1872, with a prize of fifteen pounds that was won by Young Tom Morris. The course also held the world's first amateur championship, in 1885, and many more since, most recently in 2000. The rules of amateur status were set down there. Only two amateurs besides Bobby Jones have ever won the British Open—John Ball and Harold Hilton. Both were men of Hoylake. The Walker Cup also has its roots there.

Even in the annals of equipment, Hoylake plays a role. The modern rubber-core ball proved itself in two championships held there in 1902, instantly ending the era of the guttie.

And some believe that Bobby Jones got the idea for the Masters' Green Jacket at Hoylake. According to Pinnington, who has written an updated edition of the club history, at a dinner on the eve of the 1930 Open, Jones sat next to Kenneth Stoker, who was wearing the red jacket with dark green lapels that identified him as a captain or past captain. As Stoker used to tell the story, Jones admired the jacket, and Stoker offered to give it to him if he won that week.

Whether Stoker, who died in 1982, made good on the promise, is uncertain. But it's nice to think about as Pinnington leads me up the clubhouse's grand staircase to the second-floor Club Room, where that 1930 dinner was held. There, surrounding leather armchairs and picture windows overlooking the course, the framed portraits of more than 120 past captains in their red jackets give the oak-paneled walls a rosy glow.

Despite this history, and unthinkable as it seems, the fact remains: Royal Liverpool entered a twilight after 1967 that would last for thirty-nine years. During that period, the Open transformed itself into a widely televised, heavily attended and corporately stocked modern sports event, while other, more aggressive clubs with more land to handle the larger crowds assumed Royal Liverpool's spot in the rota. For example, Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which is forty miles north of Liverpool, hosted only four Opens throughout Hoylake's seven decades of glory; since 1967, it has had six. Royal Birkdale has had five Opens since 1971, versus only three in all the years before. And Turnberry has held three since joining the rota in 1977.

Pinnington ponders the reasons. "Perhaps we didn't push ourselves enough to get the major events," he muses. "Maybe there was a lack of ambition in the club, and even we thought we were [best suited for] an amateur event. The course went down; club finances weren't good."

Actually, the story plays out on a much bigger canvas, as big as twentieth-century history. As Pinnington himself points out, "Our club and Liverpool have a very similar thread. From the mid-1800s to the First World War, it was up-up-up-up. Between the two wars, things sort of leveled out. And then after the Second World War, the club lost control. As did Liverpool."


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