Hillside. Now there’s a misnomer. So it’s worth establishing one thing straight away: Hillside is a links. It’s not flat, by any means, and there are several outcrops of pine, but it is a seaside course in terms of character. In the best traditions, a railway line separates it from Southport & Ainsdale on one side. And on the other is the definitive proof – a mountain range of sand dunes, beyond which lies Royal Birkdale. The region of Southport is real golfing country, a cluster of fine courses unmatched anywhere else in England with the possible exception of Surrey’s heathland belt. And Hillside – the name of the village, by the way – is right in the middle of it.
It is a course of two halves. Broadly speaking, the front nine is the less exceptional, running along largely flat, open ground in a loop back towards the clubhouse. The fun really begins between the 10th green and 11th tee. It’s like boarding an aircraft in one country and disembarking in another. Except that at Hillside the process only takes a matter of seconds.
Suddenly the panorama is that of wild linksland, the ground swelling and pitching like an ocean in a storm. It culminates at the par-five 17th, where an elevated tee gives way to a fairway down below that in turn rises up and up to the distant green. In the space of a single hole, some of the shortest and longest yards you’ll ever play across.
Although Hillside first opened back in 1911, it wasn’t always like this. In the mid-1960s, the club sold some of the land on which the course stood to building developers and used the money to acquire further acreage on the Birkdale side of the course.
It was an ideal arrangement. The new land would have been little use for housing – but it might have been made expressly for golf. From a modest neighbour to the Birkdales, Hoylakes and Lythams, it became an equal.
That was confirmed by the hosting of the Amateur Championship in 1979, when Jay Sigel defeated Scott Hoch. Maybe if the result had been different Hoch’s well publicised disdain for links golf would never have arisen.
The PGA Championship followed in 1982, and is remembered best for Tony Jacklin’s last win of any note as a professional. Its most recent honour was as Tommy Fleetwood’s choice to host the 2019 British Masters, an event that proved a roaring success.
In the clubhouse is a letter from two-time Open champion Greg Norman. In it, he describes this second nine as the best anywhere in Britain.
Originally opened in 1911, the redesign was conducted by Fred Hawtree. Hillside’s history, it seems, is intertwined with its illustrious neighbour:
Hawtree’s father was the architect responsible for Birkdale. It begins with a hole that has been described as the reverse of the infamous 1st at Prestwick. That is to say a railway line runs the length of the hole a yard or two from the fairway – but down the left, rather than the right.
Fortunately, unlike its Ayrshire cousin, the other side of the fairway is not so intimidating, with modest rough rather than omnivorous gorse awaiting the overly cautious drive.
Then comes the first of a handful of holes with shades of Carnoustie about them. The 2nd is Hillside’s answer to Hogan’s Alley. The drive ideally skirts the railway line down the left, while a large bunker on the right prevents a safe route offering the possibility of reaching the green in two.
After a series of open holes, the short 7th comes as both a surprise and a delight. Its sunken green is shrouded by a bank and a phalanx of tall trees. Two medium-length par fours conclude the opening half and the calm before the storm.
The 10th is a par three calling for a shot iron to a green set well above the tee. Then the party really begins. Not only most of Hillside but also great swathes of S&A and Birkdale can be seen from the 11th tee, in what is a view to rival the more famous one from atop Gullane Hill.
A par five lies in wait, but the fairway lies so far below the level of the tee that it’s impossible not to let rip with the driver. The hole – like many at Birkdale – runs between two lines of dunes. Accuracy as much as length is the key to making a birdie. The fairway rises just in front of a green which is backed by a wood, so any approach must be true to find it.
On the other side of the trees lies the 12th, a strategic two-shotter with a pronounced dogleg that provides a nice contrast with the more sparse 13th, a test of controlled strength. The next two are further substantial par fours, one bearing right, the other left, while the final short hole is, at 222 yards, extremely difficult, particularly when the wind is up.
The roller-coaster 17th awaits through the dunes and then the 440-yard home hole completes the experience. It is everything the closing hole on a links should be. Another elevated tee affords a clear view of a fairway, that pivots to the right around two bunkers. A long second is more or less inevitable, and the raised green calls for a committed approach.
Get round in anything close to your handicap and you’ll have played very well. But, like all the best courses, there’s no shame – or disappointment – in coming an honourable second either. It’s taken a while for Hillside to gain this sort of acknowledgement, but a day out round here is guaranteed to satisfy the senses.
2nd 526 yards, par 5
The second nine tends to dominate discussions about Hillside but this is one of several superb holes going out.
Like all the best par 5s, it is a risk-and-reward hole where long hitters can find the green in two. But to do so you must drive perilously close to the railway line down the left and avoid the cross bunkers.
From there the green appears a small target but is reachable. Most will treat it with the respect it deserves and play it is a three-shotter.
10th 172 yards, par 3
Everything a par 3 should be. It is attractive, the dangers are apparent, it is not overly long and a solid mid iron will invariably be rewarded. But miss the green, especially on the wrong side, and the fast two-tier green causes problems.
11th 509 yards, par 5
This is the first of Hillside’s spectacular holes and sweeps downhill and to the left. Generally into the wind, the elevated tee shot often makes life more difficult rather than easier.
The green is above the level of the fairway and beautifully framed by pine trees.