MAGAZINE 2023-24

Every year the build up to the Players Championship, the biggest professional event outside the majors, is dominated by talk about one hole: the island green par-3 17th.

This is an annual event. The hole never changes. But we cannot stop talking about it.

There are nerve jangling qualities and its position on the course as the penultimate hole ensures it remains a central theme every time the world’s best players descend on Sawgrass.

So, stand by for something similar when Royal Liverpool stages The Open this summer. It is a fair bet that every player brought into the interview tent will be cross examined on “Little Eye”.

And it will not be a geography exam on the small island in the Dee Estuary after which the hole most of us know as the fifteenth is named. It will be all about how this unique development will impact on the world’s oldest and most prestigious championship.

The Open configuration means that, like the treacherous 17th at Sawgrass, “Little Eye” will be the penultimate hole, a place where the Claret Jug could easily be won or lost.

Royal Liverpool Golf Club / Kevin Murray
Royal Liverpool Golf Club / Kevin Murray

“Someone’s dreams will be over or they’ll be made,” says Royal Liverpool’s European Tour star Matthew Jordan.

“I do see it potentially deciding the championship. I don’t want to put my neck on the line but I certainly think we will see something happen there. Whether it’s from the leader or maybe someone in fourth or fifth place.”

As anyone who has played the Martin Ebert designed par-3 can attest, there is little margin for error on what is comfortably the shortest hole on the course. Penal sand awaits only a marginally errant shot.

It will be essential viewing for galleries eager to see the elevated green. “Any time you introduce a new hole it's a big deal,” says American golf columnist and architect Geoff Shackelford.

“But it’ll be a monumental story because this one is pretty extreme and a huge change. Plus, it comes so late in the round and in windier conditions it will be the type that looms the way 17 at TPC Sawgrass can be a burden.

“Looking so much more dramatic than the hole it replaces and from the rest of the course, will put it in the crosshairs of players if it turns out to be too difficult.”

Like all links golf, how the new hole plays will be determined by conditions. “It depends on the weather,” says Jordan, who is desperate to be a part of the 156 man field this summer.

“The guys are so good now that if there is no wind, 130 yards, it is not going to create too much drama. However if you get the prevailing wind and people have to start trying to knock down eight and seven irons then it becomes so much tougher.

“Then you will get a variety of twos, threes, fours, even fives. So it will certainly be interesting.”

Royal Liverpool Golf Club / Kevin Murray
Royal Liverpool Golf Club / Kevin Murray.

Jordan also sees “Little Eye” as a scene within a much bigger drama that will play out over the closing stretch of holes with a new tee extending the last to more than 600 yards.

“Especially now that they have brought in the out of bounds on what will be 18 for the Open championship,” he says. “So those two holes, with the par-5 15th as well, are going to create a big amount of drama when a lot can change.

“I think that was the idea behind “Little Eye”. It is short enough for guys to birdie but if you miss that green you are in trouble.”

This is why past Hoylake champions Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, along with the rest of the world’s best players, will be grilled for their views on the new hole.

“Is it fair?” “How will it play?” “Is it out of character with the rest of the course?” “Will it decide the championship?” - or a simple “What do you think of it?” I can hear all these questions already.

“It’ll definitely be a big talking point in the build up,” Jordan acknowledges. “I don’t think we’ve had that signature hole before. We’ve got a lot of good holes but you picture some of the best holes like the 18th at Carnoustie and the stuff that brings, the 17th and 18th at St Andrews, they bring a variety of scores.

“Now we’ve brought that in and there’s going to be a lot of talk about it. I just hope it lives up to the expectation.”

Iain with 2022’s Champion Golfer of the Year, Cam Smith.
Iain with 2022’s Champion Golfer of the Year, Cam Smith.

Set up will be vital and The R&A are usually masters at making the most of the layouts they use. Expect chief executive Martin Slumbers to also face questions about how the hole will play in Open week.

For “Little Eye” it will be all about hole locations. “It’s not the biggest green in the world so there’s not many pin positions,” Jordan says. “But I think they’ll have four to six generic spots they can use and that’ll be all that you need.

“If it gets really windy or firm then they can move the holes a bit further away from the edges. But there’s some tricky pin positions out there.”

Personally, having come to grief on the couple of occasions I’ve been fortunate enough to play it (zero Stableford points so far), I cannot wait to commentate for BBC 5Live on the action.

Seventy-first holes of Opens are so often pivotal. They form part of the championship’s history and “Little Eye” is about to enter those pages.

The tension surrounding the leaders as they approach the tee will be palpable, and that is why we will spend so much of the build up discussing the merits of this tiny but hugely significant hole.

It is a fair bet that every player brought into the interview tent will be cross examined on "Little Eye".