At the British Open, you can’t forget about the weather

Royal Liverpool FC will host the British Open, which kicks off on Thursday, for the third time in 20 years. And the biggest deciding factor in how a course is played and who wins could be the one thing R&A, Britain’s golf’s governing body, has no control over: the weather.

When Tiger Woods won here in 2006, the course was flat and baked, with temperatures nearing 100 degrees. Woods kept his booming driver in the bag in nearly every tee box, opting to strike irons on most holes to control the flight of his ball and play a roll on tricky fairways.

Eight years later, Rory McIlroy played the same track, dating back to 1869, in very different circumstances. It was moist and lush. The temperatures were in the 70’s, and a heavy rainstorm blew in after the third round.

While both players have low scores — 18 less than Woods and 17 less than McIlroy — and beat their closest opponent by two runs, that contrast is how R&A likes it these days.

“It wasn’t easy,” McIlroy said in a later interview at the time. “There were a few guys running on me, so I had to stay focused and get the job done.”

Going into this week, the R&A said it has a series of plans that will match the weather forecast for testing golfers. Where the tees and pins will be placed will be determined less by the length of the hole in the scorecard or the slope of the green and more by conditions the board cannot plan in advance: wind, rain, heat and hail.

“It’s fair to say we’re very much in the hands of the weather,” said Grant Muir, executive director of governance at R&A, who leads preparation on the Open course. “A couple of months ago, there was a drought, and the course was very dry and scorching. We thought we were heading into a hard, fast open, and it was great.

“But in the last couple of weeks we’ve had quite a bit of rain, and the course has thrived. So our fairways and greens are softer and definitely softer than they were at St Andrews last year,” he said of the 2022 Open. “We just accept that. We’ll adapt the way we lay the course according to the conditions we’re facing and the weather we’re in.”

This is what “open” has come to mean, as anything the players do in order to prepare can be free of charge if circumstances present themselves with a change.

Padraig Harrington From Ireland, two-time champions, he said he had been preparing for tough, rigorous conditions, but knew that could change by the time of the first round.

“It’s not a course where it’s almost as important as you do to get to know the track early on,” he said. “I’ll only play two in practice. You know what you’re doing. At Royal Liverpool, you can be aggressive, but it’s the decision-making in the wind that counts.”

The Open’s setting is regularly compared to the US Open. This year’s competition at the Los Angeles Country Club had lower scores than the United States Golf Association, the US’s governing body, would normally allow. On the first day, two players broke the tournament record, with Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele shooting a 62.

It was too easy, critics said, with 10 wins under par. But Harrington came to the course’s defense. It wasn’t the wide fairways that made the scoring conditions favorable. It was greens.

“We’ve never played on this good green at the US Open,” he said. “It’s never been crunchy. Greens usually don’t stop on Sundays in this major. I haven’t triple-hit all week.”

Stuart Hagstad, a Los Angeles Country Club member and two-time US Amateur Intermediate Champion who has qualified for the US Open in the past, said before the tournament that conditions in Los Angeles were almost too good for a major. “What makes a great tournament is the weather,” he said.

This week at Royal Liverpool the weather forecast has been mixed, but Muir said that’s fine. “We look forward to providing the right challenge,” he said. “We have to get to know the expectations and adapt from there and go with the best information we have.”

It wasn’t always like that. One of the turning points in R&A racing was the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie in Scotland, which earned it the nickname Car-nasty, for how hard it was to play. That week was unforgettably brutal.

Jan van de Velde France was leading after 71 holes. With one hole to go, the championship seemed to be his. He was three strokes ahead of two players when he hit a wrong drive on the final hole.

It got worse, in a terrifying ending that was more like playing an amateur than playing an elite one. I found his rough ball, water, dugout, and even grandstand. When he finished, he carded a triple-bogey, which knocked him down in a tie for the championship and put him through to a three-man playoff.

In the four-hole match, Van de Velde lost to Paul Lowry of Scotland. The winning score was 6 par.

However, the criticism went deeper than just Van de Velde’s performance. The roughness was very high, the lanes were very firm and the play was very hard and incredibly slow.

Harrington, who scored 15-over-par that year to finish 29th, said that open course settings since then have not been focused on which score to win.

“In 1999, the R&A team brutalized the players and did everything they could to make it difficult,” he said. “Then, the R&A said we have great golf courses. We’ll let the weather decide if it’s hard or easy. They won’t get in the way.”

Muir did not disagree with this assessment. “There were a lot of lessons from Carnoustie in 1999,” he said. “The biggest change was that R&A took more control of the setup. We’ve been talking about 24 years ago—it wasn’t much interest in those days. It was a different time.”

Royal Liverpool’s biggest change since their last championship was the creation and introduction of a new Par-3 game as the seventeenth hole. It was the 15th hole and was used for downhill play; Now the shot has been reversed, so players will have to hit a short shot up a hill into a green tabletop completely exposed to the elements.

“If we had any kind of wind at all, it would affect that crater,” Muir said. “It’s an exposed green on top of a dune, and the backdrop is the beach. Any winds would be at their peak there.”

It is also an example of how the prevailing wind direction on any given day determines where the pin is. R&A has plans for the four days to pick a spot where players will have to navigate the breeze, not just ride in the direction it’s blowing, to get a close-up there.

“The two recent vents here are great examples of the impact weather can have,” Muir said. “But what this course will do is it will create scoring opportunities. There is an opportunity to achieve higher numbers there as well.”