Played by NCG: Royal BirkdaleSeptember 13, 2017 Courses and Travel
You've seen it on the TV this summer - maybe you were at the Open. But what is this Lancashire links actually like to play?
Where is Royal Birkdale?
Reason for going
My colleague Tom Irwin and I somehow blagged our way into a qualifier for the Turkish Airlines World Cup. So only a month after Jordan Spieth lifted the Claret Jug on the 18th and with the grandstands barely dismantled, we pitched up planning to make our own mark on this ten-time Open venue.
What to expect
Brilliance, to put it simply. As seaside links go, Royal Birkdale pretty much tops the pile.
You’ll hit through valleys between giant sand dunes – nowhere is this seen more pleasingly than the 17th – and you’ll find it impossible not to recreate those magic moments that echo everywhere here.
I would have tried everything bar Spieth’s practice round heroics on 13 if I’d had the chance.
Make a pilgrimage to the plaque, to the right of the fairway on the 16th, and marvel at the miracle shot Arnold Palmer played from a bush on his way to winning the Open in 1961.
If you love links golf – I mean really love it – this is all of your dreams come true. It’s considered the fairest of Open tests and there is definitely something in that.
With the exception of the ninth – a quite evil hole in its difficulty – there’s relatively few blind shots to confuse you. The bunkers aren’t particularly hidden. Much of what you’ll need to negotiate is spread out in front of you.
If you find the fairway, you’ll generally stay there. Good shots are largely rewarded. But here lies Royal Birkdale’s sting in the tail.
The way to succeed here is to plot your way around – play almost defensively. Find the fairways, keep out of trouble and resist the urge to be cavalier. If you do that, you can score.
Nothing good, though, comes from finding the fescue – or the rough. Or the bunkers. I speak from experience.
Royal Birkdale label this as one of the ‘world’s finest golf experiences’. This is not an exaggeration.
My best bit
Striping a hybrid off the first tee into the middle of the fairway – finding a strip of grass that had eluded so many of the world’s best during Open week – was an exhilarating experience.
If only I hadn’t still had 250 yards to the green! I particularly enjoyed getting out of the front bunker at the fourth – splashing a sand wedge to six inches as I parred three in a row.
But the 12th at Birkdale is a truly beautiful par 3 with the green looking miniscule behind the four bunkers guarding the front.
I didn’t hit the smoothest of tee shots and had a curling 15-footer left for par. I couldn’t help but give it a big fist pump when it found the bottom of the cup.
You’d expect me to say the 18th and it is a spine-tingling feeling hitting your approach to the green in front of that famous Art Deco clubhouse. You would be wrong.
I loved the vantage point of the 13th during the Open and it was just as good playing it. It’s quite a sight looking down the fairway of this par 4 with most of the course stretching out in front of you and the white flecks of the clubhouse shining at you in the distance.
The view’s great and the hole is not bad either.
This is partly down to the bunkering – there are 11 of them lining the way at various points of this 422 yarder and if you find one, as I did after a vicious kick left from a fairway bound drive, then accept that it’s going to be a full shot penalty. Those who go further left will find a narrow stream running down to about 40 yards out.
You’ve got to hit the green in the right spot too. A tough bounce here and you’ll be flying off the back and into some deep stuff on a steep bank.
What to look for
Probably the most difficult opening hole on the Open rota. It’s 450 yards off the blues and an absolute monster.
If you play a lot of classic designs – think Harry Colt and Alister MacKenzie – you’ll know they generally gave you a chance to ease your way into a round.
So you’d get a gentle opener before you tackled the rougher stuff. Not at Royal Birkdale. You can destroy your scorecard here with a couple of errant shots off the first tee.
The fairway’s tight on either side – out of bounds running all the way down the right and some thick foliage on the left that’s just as dangerous.
Even if you manage to negotiate this stage, you’ll have to find a green that’s partially hidden by a 50-yard mound and protected by three bunkers. The putting surface slopes away from you at the back and that’s no easy up and down either.
It’s not even stroke index one, either. It’s 11. I didn’t even get a shot!
When I go back
I’ll avoid all temptation to cut the corner on the fifth once again. After finding the pond ruined what had been a decent start – I was one-over gross up to that point – I realised I’d made a massive mistake and never really recovered. I have learned my lesson.
For more information, visit the Royal Birkdale website.