Matt Fitzpatrick’s caddie, Billy Foster, called it “a monstrosity”. Two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington claimed it was “without doubt, one of the most beautiful par-threes you will ever see”. Perhaps Jon Rahm was the most accurate this week in describing Little Eye, the new 17th hole at Royal Liverpool not as the worst or best thing in golf, but simply “a turtleshell”. An elevated green with perilously deep bunkers on all sides and no obvious bail out, the only option to avoid trouble is to land the ball squarely on the green. It’s a lot easier said than done. Rather, it is a terrifying golf shot, like trying to flick a marble onto a car bonnet.
In an age where distance is king, this is a different test for the world’s best players. In some ways, the 17th is what the Open is all about, unpredictable, testing and exposed to the elements.
You can make birdie here, but you could also easily make a six. As the smallest green at the course (around a third smaller than the average green size at Hoylake), there are obvious comparisons with other great par threes: Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp or the 17th island green at TPC Sawgrass. It is not designed to be nice.
For a championship that is at pains to talk about its history and remind us how its dunes and fairways are honed by the elements – the grandstands here at Royal Liverpool all carry the grand reminder of Hoylake being ‘Forged By Nature’ – it is a novelty to find something new, shiny and man-made. The architect of the hole, Martin Ebert, admitted that the R&A had talked to him about wanting to “create some drama right at the end of the Open.”
“Even with a four-shot lead, someone who is in that great position will be nervous when they’re standing on this tee”, continued Ebert.
The hole has been completely flipped, so that players now hit towards the coast and into the prevailing wind, a move that has also allowed Royal Liverpool to lengthen the adjacent par-five 18th to over 600 yards. Heavy rough and a wide bunker guard the 17th green front and back, so club choice is key here, especially with the gusts. Players used everything from a five-iron to a gap wedge in practice.
Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion and one of the LIV golfers aiming for a Ryder Cup berth this September, was lucky to escape with a bogey on Thursday, after only slightly misjudging his tee shot.
“The 129-yard pin today was playing about 140-142,” Reed told the Guardian. “You just never know with the wind. In practice I hit a flighted seven iron, and a gap wedge to the back half of the green. Today, I hit pitching wedge [into the front bunker] but I was a yard short of being on top.”
Despite his struggles, Reed remains a fan of this corner of Hoylake. “When you make par threes 300 or 310, those are the dumbest holes on the planet”, he says. “What’s the point? You don’t need length to make a par three hard. All you need is a diabolical green, some hazards and some wind and that will be enough to challenge the top players in the world.”
The worst place to finish off the tee is right, tantalisingly close to Thursday’s tricky pin position, with a steep guttering slope that collects any stray shots into a deep bunker, like a sadistic pinball machine with no flippers.
To get out of the trap, players must not only clear the steep front lip of the bunker, but also ascend another 10ft of fairway before the safety of the green. Hit it too hard and the ball could easily fly the dancefloor and end up in more sand on the other side. Too soft and the ball will simply roll back down the grassy bank back into your footprints.
Shots from both the tee and the bunkers are made completely blind and just like taking off a bandage on a nasty wound, there is a painful wait to what damage has been done. Only once you’re actually standing on the green, with a fine view of the Wirral coast and the Little Eye island on the Dee Estuary from which the hole gets its name, do you know what’s what.
One of Thursday’s biggest casualties was Lucas Herbert, who arrived on the tee box as the early leader at three under but left the 17th at even par after an ugly six. Having missed the green long and left from the tee, he then chipped through the green to the right sand, duffed his first bunker shot into the bank, chipped out to 18ft and two-putted.
“I don’t think I’ll be the only one to run up a big number,” sighed Herbert after signing for even-par 71. “Our group all missed the green. It’s not easy. When there’s no wind, it’s a gap wedge and you can make a two pretty easily, but that wind gets going and you can’t really feel it too much on the enclosed tee. It becomes a really tricky shot.
“I had sort of one foot in the bunker, one foot out,” Herbert continued. “It didn’t come out the way I wanted and it rolled back in. It felt like there were about 5,000 professional golfers sitting around us in the stands watching it.”
Hoylake members watching on from the stands aren’t professionals, of course, but some of them are fuming about the changes to this part of the course. If some of the world’s best golfers are making triple bogey in July, what chance do the 15-20 handicappers have with the wind howling in the winter?
Still, that is a problem for the amateurs. For this week only, what the 17th does provide here is a grandstand finish for the players and the punters. It’s a potential card wrecker, and come Sunday, “Little Eye” will scare the life out of the leader and give late hope to the chasing pack.