In the shadows of its more famous neighbours, Southport & Ainsdale is criminally underrated. Steve Carroll sampled this north west gem

Be honest with me. When you think about golf in Southport, what comes first to mind? Is it Royal Birkdale – the home of so many Opens – or Hillside, which so recently shone in the British Masters?

Are you stopping off at Formby, or heading down the coast towards the rugged links of West Lancs?

If Southport & Ainsdale comes into view, well done. For you are indeed a true links connoisseur.

Now let’s be clear. A course that was ranked 74th in our Top 100 Great Britain & Ireland list isn’t exactly flying under the radar.

But if it’s not forgotten, then it is still criminally underrated when compared with its immediate neighbours.

So let’s show you why the next time you’re on the way to England’s Golf Coast, you need to add another 6,800 yards of links loveliness to your to-do list.

Southport & Ainsdale

What can we expect from Southport & Ainsdale?

It may be on the same linksland as Hillside, and Birkdale to an extent, but Southport & Ainsdale is a different challenge.

It’s much flatter, in the main, than either of its contemporaries. Having said that, though, you’re only a couple of steps up to a tee box away from being greeted with views of the whole links.

If you’ve been brought up on pictures of windswept links layouts, you might be surprised to see vast swathes of heather flanking a number of the fairways.

It’s a beautiful sight in bloom, as it was when we visited, but it also provides a very different examination than you might expect when trying to extract your ball from fescue.

Bunkering is prominent, especially early on. There are around 120 dotted around Southport & Ainsdale and 48 of them can be found on the first five holes.

It’s Lytham-esque in places in that respect – see if you can avoid any of the 16 that border the narrow fairway of the par-5 2nd. You’d better be hitting accurate drives and irons from the off.

It’s old school design at its best and James Braid’s work has been allowed to live. You’ve got blind shots and approaches, you’ll hit through massive dune corridors, and take on greens that undulate sharply. It’s a lot of fun.

The most obvious example of that, and a hole that simply wouldn’t be built today, is the 16th: Gumbleys.

It’s a difficult enough tee shot but the eye can’t help but focus on the enormous sleepers 325 yards away. You’ve got to get away well just to consider lifting your second over this massive obstruction that lifts 20 feet into the air.

A cavernous bunker below awaits those who try and fail. ‘Pray!’ is what the course planner says about the tactics here and, certainly into the wind, there is an element of that. Even if you do get the ball over, it’s still plenty of carry to find a long, narrow, green.

This is Southport & Ainsdale in a nutshell – and it’s magnificent.

Southport & Ainsdale

What were your favourite holes?

You’ll come away talking about Gumbleys, and rightly so. Its quirkiness demands it. But the 17th is an all-time par 4. Let me explain. The elevated tee shows off the perfectly curved dogleg in all its glory.

Swivel 360 degrees and you’ll get some of the best views of the links. You can see the silhouettes of golfers specked out all across the course.

Many great links holes emanate from the proximity of a railway line and Merseyrail services rattle past all the way down the right hand side of this 456-yard beast.

While the view from the teeing area is epic, it also leaves you in no doubt as to the effort ahead.

Everything that can possibly snarl up your ball – fescue, heather, a brutal bunker at 300 to catch the Bryson wannabes – is all there to see, to distract, and to get inside your head.

You can’t par this hole if you don’t find the fairway and, even if you do, one of the smallest greens on the course means even a short approach is not straightforward. It’s simply magnificent.

Braid’s renowned for the quality of his short holes – and I love his heavy bunkered affairs that force you to thread the needle. But while the opener is a difficult start, it is the 8th – actually without any sand in sight – that is the standout.

The task seems simple at first: hit it 150 yards and find the shelf. If only it were that easy. Plateau, as it is known, is uphill for a start and usually into the prevailing wind. If you don’t find the green, the ball is going to drop around 30 feet to the bottom of a large slope.

So you must club correctly. Otherwise, as I found, you’ve got a conundrum – basically try and flop it, such is the vertical nature of the slope, or gauge a putt and run it up.

You probably won’t be able to see even the top of the flag from the bottom. They don’t make them like this anymore. I wish they did.

Southport & Ainsdale

Tell us about your best bit

The 10th. 158 yards. 7-iron. A shot that never left the flag and, in fact, ever so slightly clipped the back of it as it settled 12 inches behind the hole. It was so nearly my second hole-in-one. It was, instead, a hugely satisfying two on a hole that was playing downwind to a raised green. If only every shot looked, and ended up, like that one.

Will you do anything different next time?

I will acknowledge that long par 4s are not my strong point and step down from the tips to the yellow tees. When the wind gets up, and obviously it does quite a lot given Southport & Ainsdale’s proximity to the Irish Sea, then it becomes a very stern test of driving indeed. Don’t be a hero.

Southport & Ainsdale

I’ll also spend more time in the Ryder Cup room in the clubhouse, which looks back at the two events the club hosted in the 1930s, and browse the incredible memorabilia that’s on display.

Finally, where is Southport & Ainsdale?

Southport & Ainsdale lies a couple of miles outside Southport heading south along the A565.

For more, visit Southport & Ainsdale’s website.

Now watch the Vodcast…

I was joined by my colleague Dan Murphy both on the course and on the latest NCG Vodcast to discuss Southport & Ainsdale.

Have you played Southport & Ainsdale? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.