HOYLAKE, England — The British Open packs 154 years of history on links courses that have been nurtured more by time than by tractors.
It returns Thursday to Royal Liverpool. It’s the second-oldest golf club in England, established in 1867 before anyone in America knew much about the Royal & Ancient game.
For all its heritage, the charm of this major is what lies ahead. No one ever knows what to expect.
Consider the landscape.
Royal Liverpool was so brown and baked when The Open was last here in 2006 that the R&A asked players to take extra care if they smoked, and it had two fire engines stationed on the golf course. The ball rolled so far when it hit the ground that Tiger Woods hit only one driver over 72 holes and won by two shots.
Now the grass is greener than it was at Pinehurst No. 2 for the U.S. Open. It feels like a new course this year.
“It’s lush. The greens are soft and very green. Fairways are pretty similar,” said Rory McIlroy, who took a scouting trip to Hoylake last week. “But I think they are going to get a spell of good weather leading up to The Open, and hopefully it will get a bit firmer.”
He recalled watching in 2006 when “the ball was like bouncing down a road on the fairways.” McIlroy said he could hit as many as five drivers each round.
“It’s going to be a little different,” he said. “There’s some thick spots of rough on the course, so avoiding that and avoiding those fairway bunkers ... if I can just do that, and anyone else can do that, then they’ll have a good chance.”
A greater change might be the landscape of golf.
Woods was at the height of his powers eight years ago when he won the claret jug for the third time. He was the first player in more than 20 years to repeat as Open champion. He would go on to win the PGA Championship that year, making history as the only player to capture multiple majors in successive years.
Now he makes news when he can even play in a major.
Woods has had three surgeries since he was last at Royal Liverpool — two on his left knee, the most recent March 31 to alleviate a nerve impingement in his back, which caused him to miss the Masters for the first time and then the U.S. Open, too. The British Open will be his first major in 11 months.
Woods returned earlier than anyone thought — himself included — three weeks ago in the Quicken Loans National at Congressional. He missed the cut, which annoyed him, but he played without pain, which thrilled him.
“I hate to say it, but I’m really encouraged by what happened this week,” Woods said. “What I was able to do physically, and the speed I had and the distance that I was hitting the golf ball again, I had not done that in a very long time.”
He wasn’t worried about the little mistakes, mainly with his short game, because he could fix them.
But how soon?
Woods is 38 and without a major in six years, leaving him at 14 for his career and four short of catching Jack Nicklaus. It might help to return to a course where he has won before, except that this is a different golf course. And he is not the same player.
“We haven’t seen Tiger really, really play well in a while now,” two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said.
There hasn’t been a dominant player even during his time away from various injuries and surgeries over the past five years. Golf is ruled by committee.
McIlroy, with two majors by age 23, is just now starting to get his game back in order. Martin Kaymer is in the best form, having won The Players Championship and U.S. Open by going wire-to-wire in both. Adam Scott is No. 1 in the world. Phil Mickelson is the defending champion. Justin Rose is fresh off a big win at Congressional. Bubba Watson is a Masters champion again.
All have had moments of greatness, none of it sustained.
Nineteen players have won the 24 majors that have been held since Woods won his last one.
“We have all witnessed what Tiger has been able to do over his career, whether that’s come back from injury and win, come back from any sort of off-course stuff and win. I mean, win the U.S. Open on one leg,” McIlroy said. “Is it foolish for people to write him off? I would say so. If he’s playing and he’s competing, he’s got as good a chance as any.”
Considering the circumstances, Woods winning would be a surprise.
Then again, for as long as golf’s oldest championship has been around, it is still capable of delivering a few shockers.
Perhaps that should be the adage for The Open: The more things stay the same, the more they change.