• Open Championship

Hoylake of fire

Alex Perry at Royal Liverpool
July 16, 2014
Royal Liverpool is looking gloriously green ahead of The Open Championship - much to Ian Poulter's delight © Getty Images

Welcome to links golf - a different kind of beast.

Wind and rain comes and goes and intersperses with glorious sunshine. Firm grounds and unpredictable bounces mean headcovers rarely come off player's drivers.

Chatting to ESPN on Tuesday, one member of Hoylake's most famous golf course revealed he doesn't even own a driver, because the "crazy nature" of the conditions mean it's safer to stick to the long irons.

So what do the players think of the course?

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The last time the Open Championship was held at Royal Liverpool in 2006, champion Tiger Woods mainly kept his big stick in the bag - only getting it out once over 72 holes.

"Having had so much time off [following back surgery in March] I came over a little earlier," he says. "And it worked out. The course is a little bit softer than what it was in '06 but still is playing tough. I've played three practice rounds now and have had three different winds, so that's been helpful to be able to see the course in different conditions."

One of the differences, Ian Poulter tells ESPN, is visual. "Well it's green this time," he says, "and last time it was brown."

He adds: "The ball isn't running as far on the fairways. We are forecast fairly benign wind conditions on the first couple of days so we can expect guys to be very aggressive. The wind will be back for the weekend so should make it quite fun, but still a very good test of golf.

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"As always in links golf, it's important to keep it out of the fairway bunkers and the greens are relatively flat, so players who are clinical from tee to green will post a good number.

"The par-5s are crucial to scoring well around here - 18 is one of them. I probably shouldn't say, but it's probably the easiest of them on the course. But that's risk and reward. You can open up the par-5s very easily if you can hit driver and it just depends whether you're prepared to take on gorse bushes down the left-hand side or bunkers down the right-hand side on a couple of the par-5s.

"They will be a factor to good scoring this week."

Rory McIlroy is happy to agree with his Ryder Cup team-mate.

"The par-5s are key this week," he says. "If you look back at '06, Tiger played the par-5s in 14-under par, so the majority of his scoring was done on the par-5s. There are four really good opportunities to make birdies out here, especially when on the back nine there are a couple of tough holes on which if you make par then you're doing well."

Going into more details about his club use, McIlroy adds: "I usually carry a 5-wood instead of a 2-iron, but I just think for this terrain and the conditions and the wind, the 2-iron just goes that little bit lower, which is obviously better for these conditions.

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"I'll use [the 2-iron] on the first two holes, definitely. It will be an important club and I might use it four or five times during the round."

World No.1 Adam Scott, meanwhile, is much more accustomed to his 2-iron.

"I use it every week of the year," he reveals. "It's in my bag full-time. I think the idea of playing the rounds is to have a real level of comfort on every tee that you step on. And then knowing what club it is instinctively without having to look at a yardage book and yards, to figure it out.

"It's very hard to figure out how far balls roll on fairways like this, even though we're all saying that it's softer than a links - last year anyway, and the last time we were here. It's very hard to know exactly how far it's going to roll, so you have to have that level of comfort. And I think that's what I've done well the last few years by coming up early and playing a lot of rounds."

For American Billy Horschel, a man who plays very little links golf, it's about getting acclimated to the conditions.

"I've been here since Saturday to get used to the different shots you need to play around this course," he tells ESPN. "It's important to get over here and feel comfortable with the shots that lie ahead of us.

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"I've taken two weeks off to get used to hitting knock-down shots and three-quarter shots rather than full, high shots and feeling comfortable with flighting the ball down, taking a little spin off, working the ball left-to-right, right-to-left, playing against the wind. You can't simulate the way the ball bounces around here, the fairways are a little bit different, much firmer, and there's fescue grass - it's so different to what we have in the States, where it's so much softer, so important to work that technique and get a similar contact every time.

"But a simpler secret? Hit greens. If you miss the green, you never know what kind of lie you're going to get. You could be in a really deep pot bunker, you could be in some deep fescue, you could have a 40-foot putt up the hill, you could hit it too soft and it would fall back to your feet or you could hit it too hard and it goes racing way past the hole.

"When Tiger Woods won here in '06, he hit 85% of the greens and when you look at the stats of all major winners, they're in the top five or so in greens-in-regulation.

"For the most part, my driver will stay in my bag. In my three practice rounds so far, I've hit it probably five or six times. I've been using my 2-iron which might mean longer into the green but it's important to take the fairway bunkers out of play - because there is no way you're finding the green from any of those."

The Open Championship of 2006 was a much browner affair... © Getty Images

Alex Perry is an Assistant Editor for ESPN UK. He tweets at @AlexPerryESPN

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