Some courses are famous because of where they are while others remain in the shadows for exactly the same reason. The venerable links of West Lancashire falls into the latter category. Not on account of its remoteness, like a Macrihanish or a Tenby, more by virtue of being overshadowed by illustrious neighbours. In the same way that Panmure and the New at St Andrews – to name but two – are largely eschewed in favour of Carnoustie and the Old Course respectively, it seems West Lancs, as it is popularly known, suffers by its proximity to the Royals of Liverpool, Lytham and Birkdale, not to mention the likes of Hillside, Southport & Ainsdale and Formby.
Being a part of the highest concentration of quality links courses in England has proved to be a mixed blessing. While the crumpled, bouncy turf is every bit the equal of that at more celebrated surrounding courses, it is true that West Lancs lacks a touch of the spectacular which might attract fleeting visitors spoilt for choice and determined to make the most of a couple of days in the area.
But that’s the only reason immediately apparent, because the course itself has been deemed good enough to host Final Qualifying for The Open on several occasions. It is also the grandfather of golf in this part of the world. Opening way back in 1873 – albeit the layout has been significantly amended since – it is the oldest club in the county.
The original design was effected by a group of Scottish businessmen who had moved south to take advantage of the shipping industry boom on the nearby Mersey. They banished any thought of homesickness by constructing a quintessentially Caledonian links in the village of Blundellsands, within 10 miles of Liverpool.
Opened in 1873, West Lancashire is the oldest club in the country and has been deemed good enough to host Final Qualifying for The Open on several occasions.
In those days, the course straddled the railway, meaning that the half of the course on the seaward side had considerably more character. Relatively recent – and by all accounts sympathetic – work by Ken Cotton, allied to the resiting of the clubhouse, has, if anything, made West Lancs feel even more traditional.
From the outwardly austere clubhouse, the fairways unfurl into the distance, with the coast in close proximity. What follows is good, honest links golf. Only one of the par fours – the last – plays dead straight while the others wind merrily left and right, their angles defined by steep-faced bunkers.
The only element of design that betrays its modern refurbishment is the presence of not one but two greens in front of the clubhouse. Closer inspection reveals the outward nine to defy its description by looping back rather than stretching to the furthest point of the course, something that doesn’t in fact happen until the 14th.
With this notable exception, everything is as it should be. Most of the par fours demand position ahead of power off the tee, the short holes are more devious than intimidating, and the par fives combine the opportunity to pick up a stroke with the promise of a potential disaster.
To say that certain holes are easy and others hard is to ignore one of the basic premises of links golf. Wind strength and direction can make a mockery of such generalisations and there is not a single hole at West Lancs that should not be treated with utmost respect.
Take the remodelled par-five 16th. At 531 yards it is hardly a monster. But bunkers threaten both the tee shot and any lay up while the approach to the green must be threaded between mounds and up onto the raised green.
That marks the start of a classic long hole-short hole-tough-par-four finish, with shades of Royal Troon. The position of the flag is crucial at the 17th, where the long green is set at an angle to the tee and surrounded by sand.
Then the last, a suitably stern par four, demands two solid shots to find the green nestling in front of the clubhouse. Elsewhere, holes 4, 13 and 14 are arguably the pick of the two-shotters. At the first of these, the angled approach is played over rough ground to a marooned green.
Out on the back nine, the latter two run parallel along the course’s far boundary. The 13th is played down a dune-framed valley to a slightly raised green. The 14th, some 80 yards longer, features an elevated, blind tee shot before sweeping right to a green tucked underneath a hillside.
In each case, the design of West Lancs is simple, obvious and flawless. And that’s very much the essence of this honest course. Because of the absence of fanfare and pomp, it would be easy to underestimate. Easy and remiss.