Royal Birkdale Golf Club

Merseyside

  • Par 72
  • 7018 Yds

Should you ever be fortunate enough to tread the prestigious fairways of Royal Birkdale, you and your playing companions will be the envy of precisely every other golfer in the country for a few precious hours. 

In such circumstances, perhaps you should spare a thought for those poor souls forced to accept second best at the likes of Woodhall Spa, Sunningdale, Wentworth, Ganton, and Sandwich.

Not to mention Hoylake and Lytham, the pair of links courses within 30 miles or so of Birkdale, both of which hosted The Open long before it too joined the unofficial rota.

From Kent to Cumbria, Devon to East Anglia, no-one will be enjoying quite the same all-round golfing experience.

Because Royal Birkdale is the best course in England. Period.

If that – admittedly uncharitable – thought doesn’t have you plotting your way to the Lancashire coast sometime soon, then perhaps the prospect of walking in the footsteps of Birkdale Open champions such as Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Peter Thomson will prove irresistible.

Alternatively, you could try to recreate the exploits of two players who thrilled the Open galleries even more than the eventual champions did.

In 1976, a young Spaniard by the name of Seve Ballesteros was playing in his first Open Championship. Standing two strokes ahead of Johnny Miller heading into the final round, he was unable to sustain his erratic brilliance of the opening three days and the American eventually won by six shots, with a fine closing 66. 

But it was Seve’s outrageous shotmaking that lived longest in the memory, reinforced by an eagle at the 71st hole and an audacious up and down at the last, when he chipped between two bunkers to within four feet to pip Jack Nicklaus for second place.

Two decades later, it was the turn of an even younger pretender, 17-year-old amateur Justin Rose, to steal the limelight from the champion.

Mark O’Meara may have won his second Major of 1998 but the quintessential memory of that championship will forever be Rose pitching in at the last to take fourth place.

Birkdale has not been so kind to its previous two champions.

Ian Baker-Finch was unable to use his win in 1991 to establish himself at the top of the game. 

The richly talented Australian shot closing rounds of 64 and 66, still a joint record for the final 36 holes of a Major, and then watched his game subsequently disintegrate. The lowest point came at St Andrews when he managed to hook a drive out of bounds at the 1st – a feat beyond many amateurs, let alone an Open champion.

Baker-Finch retired from competitive play soon after that and now commentates for ABC on the PGA Tour that ‘98 champion O’Meara still plays on.

His Indian summer did not last into 1999 and the American has since failed to compete seriously in any Major championship.

It was announced recently that Birkdale would host its ninth Open in 2008, a decade on from O’Meara’s victory.

That allows ample opportunity for club golfers to pay the area a visit in the meantime – and it comes highly recommended.

Quite apart from the region’s three Open venues, Hillside, Formby, S&A, West Lancs, Hesketh and Wallasey are all close by and all of the highest quality.

There is arguably no finer destination for a golfing break this side of St Andrews.

The ideal base is Southport, a popular resort since Victorian times and now packed with hotels, B&Bs and places to eat and drink – perfect for a weekend away, especially since motorway access to Liverpool and Blackpool makes it highly accessible.

Birkdale is just a few miles down the coast, with Hillside and Hesketh flanking it on either side and S&A beyond the former, on the other side of the train tracks.

It is a links-lover’s paradise.

Something of a late developer, it was 1951 before Birkdale became Royal and another three years after that until The Open first arrived. 

As though making up for lost time, it has since held Curtis, Walker and Ryder Cups, as well as any number of prestigious amateur events and the Women’s British Open.    

Its unparalleled status within English golf has become less a matter of opinion than a statement of fact.

Birkdale’s most distinctive feature is the highly unusual Art Deco clubhouse.

The white exterior was (successfully) designed to resemble an ocean liner ploughing between the massive dunes that are a trademark of the club.

There’s always something special about a course where each hole is divorced from the others, but it’s almost unheard of for a links to manage this effect.

Formed in 1889, the members moved to Birkdale Hills, the current location, eight years later with the clubhouse arriving in the 1930s following the extensive redesign to the course that was carried out by Fred Hawtree and JH Taylor in 1931.

Originally designed by George Low, what is now the 5th used to be the opening hole.

As one of the easiest holes on the course, it was a considerably more gentle beginning than its successor.

Now the first tee shot must hug the line of the bunker on the left on the inside corner of this 449-yard dog-leg. Out of bounds lurks menacingly to the right and only a fine tee shot permits a clear view of the green for the second.

With holes running in constantly changing directions and fairways flanked by massive dunes, it’s easy to lose your bearings.

You can also forget there’s anyone else on the course and it comes as a surprise at various points when you emerge close to a green or fairway you’ve already seen.

There’s always something special about a course where each hole is divorced from the others, but it’s almost unheard of for a links to manage this effect.

Only from the elevated tee at the short 7th is a view offered across the links, elsewhere the fairways tend to run in glorious seclusion.

They are also remarkably flat, one fundamental reason why the course meets such approval from the modern tournament professional.

After the 1st, the next significant challenge is the 6th, surely as mighty a two-shotter as any in championship golf.

Formerly a par five, this is a hole where even today’s equipment cannot guarantee reaching the green in regulation when conditions are unfavourable. 

Being able to carry the two fairway bunkers from the tee is almost a prerequisite to making a two-putt par, but even from there, the green sits far away, elevated and fronted by sand.

Following the awkward drive at the 9th, played blind across the angle of the fairway, the 10th tee is back in close proximity to the clubhouse.

There’s no time to draw breath because this right-to-left dog-leg skirts between bunkers and wild hillocks and can cause all manner of problems when it plays into the breeze.

The 12th, right at the far end, is arguably Birkdale’s outstanding short hole. From the tee, the green is an oasis of short grass, surrounded by rough-sprouting dunes. It’s a test of nerve as much as skill.

At 498 yards, the 13th is a par four only in name, and at that only for the professionals. It plays every inch, its flat fairway seeming to extend forever and the distant green never quite in range.

The 14th is another short hole of genuine quality before the start of Birkdale’s famed closing run.

In years gone by, no fewer than four of the last six holes were par fives, but since then both the 13th and 18th have become fours.

The 15th, at a shade under 550 yards, is still very much a par five. With 13 bunkers punctuating the fairway at regular intervals, a clear strategy is essential.

The 16th is best known for Arnold Palmer’s exploits there in the 1961 Open, when it was the 15th. The American famously managed to extricate his ball from the apparently impenetrable undergrowth, slashing it onto the green on his way to victory.

The last of the par fives, the 17th, turns left at driving distance, the fairway defined by two giant mounds, evocatively named Scylla and Charybdis, which must be avoided at all costs.

The last hole, a long dog-leg right finishing underneath the clubhouse’s bay windows, is positively awash with memories, Seve and Rose’s heroics among them. 

There’s also Brian Watts’s exquisite sand shot – played with one foot out of the bunker – which secured a play-off with O’Meara in ‘98, and Watson’s two-iron approach to confirm his fifth and most recent win Open in ‘83.

But none of these moments can compare to the culmination of the 1969 Ryder Cup.

Sixteen of 31 matches had already gone down the last when Tony Jacklin drained a long putt at the 17th to square his decisive singles against Nicklaus in the last match of the day. 

With the overall scores also tied, the result would all depend on the 18th.

Both somehow found the green in two, but neither could get as close as he would have liked with his third. Nicklaus calmly rolled his ball into the hole and promptly conceded Jacklin’s putt.

It was a gesture in the grandest traditions of the game; and it belongs to one of its grandest venues.

Address

Waterloo Road
Birkdale
Southport
Merseyside
PR8 2LX

Telephone

01704 552 020
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