HOYLAKE – Scottie Scheffler's first look at Royal Liverpool was courtesy of video. He watched replays of the last two British Opens on these links and saw what looked to be two courses — Tiger Woods won when the grass was brown in 2006, Rory McIlroy when it was green in 2014.
That describes the last five weeks at Royal Liverpool.
Martin Slumbers, the CEO of the R&A, was delighted by a heat wave last month that made these century-old links dry and crusty, the most testing conditions because of how far the golf ball goes once it gets on the ground.
“A bit greener that I would like,” Slumbers said Wednesday. “But every time I get excited about a nice, brown golf course, Mother Nature comes in.”
Such is the nature of links golf, and such is the backdrop when the 151st Open begins Thursday with English weather that can change in a New York minute.
An unusually wet June has made the fairways green and lush, ideal conditions for McIlroy to end his nine-year drought in the majors. His previous four majors — Congressional in 2011, Kiawah Island in 2012, Hoylake and Valhalla in 2014 — all featured spells of rain and soft turf.
“It's in superb condition,” McIlroy said. “It's basically how I remember it. It's a very strategic golf course off the tee. It's very, very well-bunkered. That's the biggest challenge of this golf course is avoiding those pot bunkers off the tee.”
Cameron Young, the runner-up at St. Andrews a year ago, figured that out quickly. He played the 620-yard closing hole — the longest hole in British Open history — and opted for a driver that he teed a quarter-inch high to play a tight draw with low flight. With the wind at his back, the ball still rolled some 80 yards, beyond the two bunkers on his left.
Looking over at the two bunkers left one conclusion — anything in there leaves little option but to hit out sideways at best, possibly hitting back toward the tee.
The final day of practice brought low clouds and then sunshine. The concern is for rain on the weekend. It was bad enough in 2014 that the R&A went to a two-tee start to avoid the heavy stuff, the first time since the British Open began in 1860 that players started on both tees.
Masters champion Jon Rahm played alongside Phil Mickelson with a big following, and more of that was to come. Slumbers said attendance was expected to be about 260,000 for the week, and there were lines 40 yards long at some gates just to watch the final day of practice.
Links golf is a favorite of so many players, even those with only limited experience. U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark played his first British Open last year at St. Andrews. He also played the British Amateur at Royal Portrush a decade ago.
“I think it’s the purest test of golf. It’s more fun than I think any other golf that we have around the world just because every day is so different,” Clark said. “The wind might come out of the same direction, but every hole seems to have so much variety. The same hole you might be hitting a chip 8-iron; the next day it might be a 4-iron.”
The true defense of any links is the wind, and there has been plenty of that. Tom Hoge was on the driving range Wednesday morning flipping through his irons when he said to his caddie, “I haven’t hit any wedges this week.”
The par 5s have been downwind and reachable in two. So many of the par 4s have been into the wind, and Hoge has been wearing out his mid- to long irons.
It all begins Thursday when Matthew Jordan, a member at Royal Liverpool who made it into the 156-man field by qualifying, hits the opening tee shot.
Rahm has the most wins this year — four — though none since the Masters. Scheffler has been the best player, with two victories, more than $19 million in PGA Tour earnings and the No. 1 ranking, with a game so steady and strong that he hasn't finished worse than 12th all year.
Whether the grass is green or brown makes little different to Scheffler. All he cares about is keeping the ball in the grass.
“If you just avoid the bunkers you can do whatever you want, but any time you’re in a bunker, it's pretty much a stroke penalty,” he said. "The one thing I’ve noticed about this golf course is any time my ball is going towards a bunker I’m very nervous.
“I’m just going to try and avoid the bunkers at all costs.”
The one quirky side to Royal Liverpool is another color — white. The course has out-of-bounds stakes down the entire right side of the 18th fairway, even though there is plenty of grass between the stakes and the grandstand.
There also are white out-of-bounds stakes down the right side of No. 3. This is known as internal OB, and it's not very popular.
“Just don’t hit it over there you won’t have a problem, right?” said Brooks Koepka, who tries to make majors seem simple.
There is a simplicity to the British Open, no matter how fickle the weather or the humps and bumps along the fairways.
One of the slogans the R&A has printed on the side of grandstands says, “Forged by Nature.”
“That's what it is,” Slumbers said. “I think one of the beauties of The Open Championship ... is we don't fight nature. We just let nature happened. It's rained. And it's now green.”
And the claret jug is silver. That's the only color that really matters.