Playing links golf in Open week at a course close to the venue is a very special experience. Like standing at a backstage door, it adds a frisson of excitement, the action so close you can almost taste it. The urge to be involved, be there and be part of it all is tangible.
Playing a style of golf the same as the protagonists will face this week on days and venues so close to the main event allows you to kid yourself you are facing some of the same challenges. No hordes of crowds, bumper pay checks nor Claret Jugs, but the same rumples and bumples, gusts of wind, icy-fast greens and pinched lies that will go some way to deciding this week’s winner.
This week, more than any other, the conditions are ‘proper’.
If left alone, we will see conditions like Murifield in 2013 or Hoylake in 2006. The Opens we all dream of. So what separates the skills required to win at a links venue as opposed to any other and what elevates it above any other forms of the game? We have talked about little else this week.
One of my playing partners this week was a beginner, experiencing seaside golf for the first time.
I expected a startled rabbit unable to compute the moonscape, intimidated by the wispy grasses, and spooked by warren-like pot bunkers.
Not so. He bounced out downwind at West Lancs, his low-spinning, invariably straight drives extracting maximum benefit from the firm turf and the wind at our backs. So that is where we will start. Links conditions can be your friend. Used correctly, favourable conditions bring unspeakably long par 4s into range for even moderate golfers, they replace long irons with wedges, and typically flat greens give everyone a chance and make no one look foolish.
They key thing here is the ball is moving on the floor and it is this beautifully simple variance that inland golf can only rarely – generally at heathland courses – replicate.
Elsewhere, we have wind, yes, but a parkland tells us to hit the ball through the air at all times. The best links golf lets us choose. Crucially a links remains possible when a parkland becomes unplayable.
Once we find ourselves playing for bounce, for roll, and allowing for break on shots from 200 yards or more you have a game with a different essence to airborne golf, a game where touch, skill, vision and, yes, luck count as much as strength and athleticism.
As such, the course this week will level the field. Rory McIlroy says Birkdale is a tease: and you only have to look at the 1st to see what he means.
Many of the field can hit the sweeping high draw required to carry the solitary fairway bunker and leave themselves a short iron in, but few will risk that shot with the prevailing wind off the left.
Even the longest hitters will be playing short and right of that same bunker and leaving themselves a shot of around 200 yards into one of the most intimidating opening holes in championship golf.
It is for this reason that Tom Watson could compete at Turnberry in 2009 with a clubhead speed little higher than a decent club player can generate. He crafted his way into a play-off in the bomber era and made us all feel young again.
A links does not need much to make it challenging. Take the short par 4s that Formby Ladies offers in abundance, which demonstrate this perfectly. They are generally reachable from the tee and protected by a solitary bunker on one side. That allows a way in for a perfectly directed and shaped drive but snares anything even slightly errant. Rory is correct: they ‘tease’. They offer you more than hope of a birdie while plainly laying out the risks. It is not new thinking, but it is a simplicity that is lost in so many cases.
So, downwind you can score – providing you can stop the ball from running through fairways and greens – and the conditions are your friend. What about when faced with the opposite challenge?
Here the ball-strikers have a chance to shine. You must control your flight. Spin is magnified sending the ball spiralling upwards, sideways – backwards even. Patience becomes a virtue, perfect golf is not possible. You will have to chip and putt, you will not be able to hit the ball close all the time. Pars feel like birdies and that mindset itself is too much for some. An important caveat is that the wind can also be your friend, arresting a bouncing ball, cushioning a high-flighted lob, providing clarity of thought to shot shape. Those that embrace this learn to love it; those who do not leave frustrated.
The best links rough gives you a chance. It is wispy not chewy. Once again it is teasing you to go for the heroic, it allows you to get the club to the back of the ball, it gives you a chance.
From time to time you launch the ball skyward and the ball rockets out, the grass trapped between clubface and ball removing all spin, and you quickly learn that a ‘flier’ can damage you as well as flatter you. Another variable is added and the puzzle goes on.
I have enjoyed every second I have spent bouncing around various north-west coast links this week and I will enjoy my Open experience more for having had just a tiny insight into the conditions the players as facing. They, of course, will master them better than any of us ever will and goodness me we should respect them all the more for it.
What was that? Who will it suit? Our friends at NLU say Birkdale is ‘Spiethy’ and I tend to agree. He can golf his ball.