It is mid-June and Craig Gilholm, Links Manager at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, thanks the groups of Club members and visiting golfers that make complimentary remarks on the condition of the Hoylake course as we enter the final month before the start of The Open. He then quietly goes about his business, knowing that there is still a lot to do before the Club can welcome the world’s best golfers to golf’s oldest Major.
“Yes, the course is looking well, but a lot can happen between now and the 17th of July”, said Craig.
A final top dressing has been applied and mowing is beginning to pick up in its intensity. The greens may receive a tonic of liquid fertiliser if growth slows significantly over the next week or two, but only enough to ensure that the playing surfaces can be groomed to the level of perfection expected at a Major Championship and the standards set by the man who is the biggest critic when it comes to the condition of the golf course; the Links Manager himself.
“So far, so good, but we are prepared for anything the weather provides,” said Craig, referencing the scorching hot summer that provided such a dry and running test of golf the last time The Open came to Hoylake in 2006.
The rough is more prominent and thicker than in 2006, and even a month of dry weather is unlikely to weaken it to the degree seen 8 years ago. The grass cover to fairways is more resilient to drought than it was in 2006, with far more fine fescue to be seen thanks to a successful programme of overseeding.
A new irrigation system is in place; but this will only be used to keep grass alive and not to present lush, green fairways.
“The new system means that we can use water more efficiently, with no leaks, and it is our insurance policy to help strengthen and rejuvenate the turf in the autumn if we have an extended period of hot and dry weather,” explained Craig.
Whilst the tees, fairways, greens and bunkers continue to receive the necessary level of attention required to prepare them for The Open, it is the non-playing areas of the site that took up much of the greenstaff’s time through the spring of this year.
“Although we saw record crowds in 2006, for The Open, this year we have been mowing out notably larger areas for spectator routes, the tented village and all of the other infrastructure that accommodates Open hospitality,” reports Craig. “We work very closely with The R&A and their contractors to ensure that the ground is prepared well in advance of them coming onto site to put up the stands and marquees,” he added.
It is not only human visitors that will appreciate this work. Skylarks have been safely nesting across the golf course thanks to the early implementation of rough grassland mowing patterns. The song of these rare, red-listed birds can be heard on every hole and there are currently plenty of juveniles to be seen scurrying about in the shorter rough. Information icons on the course map on TheOpen.com feature skylark and other wildlife that are to be found on the Hoylake links, including the European protected amphibian, the natterjack toad.
With most of the grandstands now fully erected, the skeleton frames of the last few nearing completion, and the tented village taking its final form, the waiting is almost over. “We are ready for The Open,” said Craig, “but I will continue to closely monitor the turf, above and below ground, to ensure that we present a true links test during the practice rounds and the four days of competition.”
Craig, who moved to Royal Liverpool from another Open venue, Muirfield, is a links man through and though. “I thrive on the challenge of producing a golf course that provides the sort of playing characteristics that faced the pioneers of the game we know today. Firm, running conditions are what links golf is all about and whilst the course may not look as dry as it did in 2006, the golfers will still have to plot their way around it, and the eventual champion will have to display the inventiveshot-making we saw from Tiger Woods when he lifted the Claret Jug at the end of my first Open as Links Manager at Hoylake.”
The sense of excitement in anticipation of welcoming the world’s best golfers, the world’s media and thousands of spectators is palpable as the course and The Open infrastructure approaches the climax of preparation activities. A repeat of dry and warm, though perhaps not quite so hot, weather will be most welcome but, whatever the weather, Hoylake will be ready. When the presentation ceremony takes place on Sunday 20 July, Craig Gilholm can relax for a few hours before resuming his quest to prepare the finest links for the members and guests of Royal Liverpool Golf Club.