Area guide: Southport, EnglandOctober 13, 2018 Courses and Travel
England's leading area rivals Ayrshire, Fife, Aberdeenshire and East Lothian as the predominant golf coast in Britain, writes Chris Bertram
Giving your area the title ‘England’s Golf Coast’ might appear a touch forwardsome, but when the area north and south of Liverpool did so, it was entirely justified.
It comprises Southport, Wirral and Lytham and dominates England’s other leading lights, namely Kent, Devon, Norfolk and Cornwall. Kent is the strongest contender to its crown, but does not possess the depth of the north west – even if we focus merely on the Southport area alone.
It has five GB&I Top 100-ranked courses and four of them are fewer than 10 miles apart; three of them actually touch each other. The sixth dares to be a further seven miles away.
There are numerous restaurants and bars as befits a popular tourist destination, and autumn and early winter are arguably the best time to play them as they will be in super condition yet often much cheaper.
Our No. 1 when we released our Top 100 Courses in England at the end of 2017, Royal Birkdale is a course that comes close to the rare feat of being universally acclaimed.
This uncommon status is derived from its all-round quality. It might not be as strategic as Muirfield, as entertaining as Sandwich or as scenic as Ballybunion, but Birkdale is weak in no categories. It feels like it would be an eight out 10 in any criteria you want to assess it on.
It is fair but challenging, and as ever received widespread praise from the world’s finest players when The Open was staged there in 2017.
Birkdale is characterised by flat fairways running like ribbons between tall sand dunes and you will struggle to think of an especially modest hole as you sit in the famous Art Deco clubhouse afterwards.
The 1st takes you among those dunes that you then cut through for much of the opening 14 holes and is shaped almost like a double dog-leg. A hefty 450 yards off the tips, you will have to hit as much as a hybrid into a green guarded by three bunkers and most notably a large mound front right that hides much of your target.
It’s a strong opener in anyone’s language and is followed by two of the best holes on the course: the 2nd is a slight dog-leg left that plays over a gorgeous crumpled fairway towards a green encircled by rough-strewn banks and sand, and is followed by another well-bunkered hole that ends on an angled green whose surrounds were re-contoured for the 2008 Open.
On the way in, the 12th usually gains the plaudits, and it is certainly a classic par 3 but the 14th is also a superb short hole. The closing quartet play over more open terrain and are fittingly strong. The 15th – dominated by so many bunkers you lose count – starts a 5, 4, 5, 5 finish that gives even higher handicappers the chance of a glorious finale.
The two par 5s to finish include a softened two-tier green on 17 and out of bounds on the 18th, which is a par 4 in The Open and thus very reachable for lots of club golfers.
Add another 18: Hesketh, an Open qualifying venue as well as a co-host with Hillside for the Amateur, it dates back to 1885 and is a proper links on the northern edge of Southport.
Hillside’s most northerly holes sit hard against the southernmost part of Birkdale so it’s not surprising that the former shares the latter’s thrilling dunescape.
Indeed after playing here in the 1982 PGA Championship, Greg Norman said “The back nine holes are the best in Britain”.
The inward half certainly offers a rare scene in England, for these size of towering sand hills are not seen often in the country, being usually the preserve of Irish links and indeed Trump Aberdeen.
The drama of the dune formations is amplified by the changes in elevation and this nine is all about travelling along sheltered natural valleys into the amphitheatre greens.
The first half is often overlooked but while being less dramatic, is very classy, not least the 7th, played to on a green framed by tall pines.
Add another 18: Formby Ladies was in the top 30 of our inaugural Fun Top 100 and is entertaining, playable and memorable.
Formby is well known for the fact it incorporates tall pine trees within a links and is thus often not entirely inaccurately described as a links-heathland hybrid.
It has stellar architectural pedigree with Park, Colt, Braid, Hawtree and Steel all having worked on this former Curtis Cup (Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie being part of the US team) and Amateur Championship (when Olazabal beat Montgomerie in the final) venue.
Formby plays in an anti-clockwise direction around the also-outstanding Formby Ladies, and is a pleasing change of pace and scenery when played in an itinerary of otherwise pure links.
Some good judges believe it to be the finest course in Southport, Birkdale and all.
Your travel guide to England’s Golf Coast continues on the next page, including a two-time Ryder Cup venue and some recommendations on where to stay…