The story of how one deluded golf fanatic created some lasting memories new friends from across the pond at three celebrated Open Championship courses
Early this year, while deep in my misguided preparations for the Brabazon Trophy, I was invited to play the three Royals of England’s Golf Coast – Birkdale, Lytham and Liverpool – by American tour operator Fairways to Heaven on their annual Heritage Classic trip.
At around about the same time I was offered the loan of a £200,000 Bentley for a week.
It was a strange period.
I have always thought of myself as an elite amateur, destined to be swanning about the country in an expensive sports car playing exclusively Open venues. For one week my delusion came true.
So off I set in my rightful place behind the wheel of a car worth more than the house I grew up in to meet up with a group of Americans who headed over the pond for the trip of a lifetime.
We were staying at the Hard Days Night Hotel in downtown Liverpool. It’s a fantastic place if you like the Beatles. It is not short on memorabilia and is situated literally on top of the legendary Cavern Club.
The opening drinks reception was excellent.
Everyone on the trip was related in some way to their golfing partner and almost everyone had travelled as a pair.
There was some element of old friendship being renewed from the 2018 trip to St Andrews but, in the main, people were mingling with one another unencumbered by cliques but safe knowing they had their buddy to fall back on. It was a great atmosphere, helped by the free bar and excellent goody bags that were distributed while our itinerary was mapped out by our perpetually smiling host Dave Reid.
We learned that the Heritage Classic was formed in part to commemorate the passing of a good friend of Dave’s who would travel to the UK on trophy-bagging golf trips with his son.
It was clear from the start that the family feel separates this trip from others, and is perhaps what led to such an easy, convivial atmosphere.
Day 1: Royal Birkdale
Everyone, bar some of the more youthful patrons, was fresh faced and ready to make the short hop on our executive coach to Royal Birkdale.
On arrival, everyone descended on the pro shop and, like a plague of locusts, bought as much branded merchandise as their credit cards would handle. It was quite the sight, like the Next sale on Boxing Day but with more Goretex and 10 per cent less civilised.
The next thing you notice at Birkdale is how unstuffy the club is; dress codes are fairly relaxed, there are no ‘members only’ signs and it feels set up to deliver a great experience for large visiting parties such as ours.
The golf course was, as ever, incredible. A very difficult start gives way to some more manageable holes from the 5th onwards. With the 18th playing as a par 5 from the tees of the day, you are waiting expectantly for the 5, 4, 5, 5 finish to recover your score. As ever, it is the hope that kills you.
Scoring was all recorded on the excellent Golf Genius app, so we were all constantly up to date with the state of the net and gross betterball competitions. This was a brilliant feature of the trip, meaning there was always someone to rib or applaud. It was a way of getting the group together.
Day 2: Royal Lytham & St Annes
An excellent carvery at Royal Birkdale meant an early start to the refreshments that evening, which ploughed an irreversible course to a late finish in the Cavern Club. Nevertheless, spirits were high for the trip up the Fylde coast to Lytham.
Lytham is pure. The first 12 holes are so good. Setting out tight to the railway, as a links experience it is almost unrivalled. Plotting between bunkers, the turf is tight and the test is exacting. I am not sure there is a stretch of golf I enjoy more.
The last six holes are more open, wilder, rugged and less refined, but offering no perceivable drop in standard. It culminates in a grandstand finish in front of the old red brick clubhouse. It is a scene so vivid and stays etched on your mind for a long time to come.
Our American friends loved Lytham. It is what they came for: a proper links, steeped in history but like Birkdale, set up to welcome us.
Back on the fun bus and the group had come together, our trip WhatsApp group was getting bolder and it felt like the 40 or so of us had been golfing together forever.
The evening reflected that as we soothed ourselves in the hotel bar. We were totally integrated apart from on contentious matters, like the Ryder Cup.
Day 3: Royal Liverpool
Due to a relatively recent return to the Open rota, Hoylake is perhaps slightly less heralded than the other Royals. I regaled my group with some ‘fascinating’ facts about the venue, the area, and its history on our now electric WhatsApp group.
Hoylake is a grower. I think this was about my 10th visit and every time you get to know it a bit more. The start is horrible. It asks you to hit two shots of a couple of hundred yards each with out of bounds a threat the whole distance.
The stretch of holes on this shoreline is strikingly similar to the holes running in the same direction some 200 miles north at Turnberry.
As you leave the shore, you are then presented with a string of holes on the flat (it was once a race track). They are grade A championship, twisting and turning but never in the same direction – a Muirfield-esque puzzle of wind and bunkers.
Haven’t played @RLGCHoylake for years. What a treasure.
A plotters paradise and the turf, oh the turf, interact with me again. Please.
Also got to stand near @EngGolfCoast Geoff Harris for 4 hours and THAT is good for your golf. #playedbyncg pic.twitter.com/losxj7IYek
— Tom Irwin (@TomIrwingolf) May 8, 2019
Our group ended up falling for Hoylake. The grand clubhouse and its ubiquitous homages to Harold Hilton were soaked up, and you could sense that perhaps it would be Hoylake topping the list when this trip was recounted back home.
And that perhaps is what the trip was about: Memories. Memories with people already close to you, and the forming of new friendships – be that wizened old men of the links like me, or those setting foot on fescue for the first time.
That evening we were treated to a gala dinner at St George’s Hall in Liverpool, which included a performance by a boys’ choir, the highlight of which was a choral version of the Scouse classic You’ll Never Walk Alone. It was the perfect send off and apt for a family trip.
I had my doubts about being part of an American tour for a few days, but I need not have worried. By the end I had gone native.
My tour buddies shared a love of golf, a drink and a laugh. They were the best company one could hope for.
Next year is Ayrshire and I can’t wait to share more golfing facts with my buddies. “Now, did you know that Prestwick was home to…”
About Fairways to Heaven
Established in 1996, The Fairways to Heaven team is a group of passionate individuals with more than 60 years’ combined experience in the world of golf, travel and hospitality.
Fairways to Heaven Golf offer a one-stop concierge service to help create an unforgettable and authentic golf experience through the use of its industry partnerships throughout the world.
About the Heritage Classic
The Heritage Classic is an annual event that brings together teams of two related by blood, marriage, adoption. Next year, the tournament will be held in Scotland from June 23-27. Courses will include Royal Troon, Western Gailes, and Dundonald Golf Links.
Visit the Fairways to Heaven website for more information.
About my transport
I travelled to England’s Golf Coast in a Bentley Windsor Blue Continental GT with a list price of £159,000 and approximately £40,000 of add-on options. Aside from panicking constantly about crashing, it was an amazing experience. It goes from zero to 60mph in less time that it takes to say it. The Windsor Blue Continental is so refined that it is almost like sitting in armchair for a journey over the Pennies. It has a huge boot but it was still easy to park in a Liverpool NCP.
Heading to the #BritishMasters in the morning via @RLGCHoylake and @FormbyGolfClub get to drive over in this courtesy of @BentleyMotors which has room for my golf clubs and two toddlers (who are not as impressed as me) pic.twitter.com/BZJSZt2Nso
— Tom Irwin (@TomIrwingolf) May 7, 2019
Bentley were a sponsor of the British Masters, which this year took place at Hillside on England’s Golf Coast.