Brilliant Birkdale set to shine again

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The players love this Southport links where the fairways are flat and the greens true

Oakmont, Winged Foot, Carnoustie and Shinnecock Hills. These are major championship venues that send a shiver down the spine of the steeliest of tournament professionals.

Yet none have provided as stern a test as Royal Birkdale the last time the Open came to Southport, back in 2008. There was no fertilising of rough or narrowing of fairways. No back tees materialised in adjoining neighbourhoods and no greens were shaved and parched to within an inch of their lives.

What did happen was that the wind blew and the rain came down, for a day or two at least.

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By the time the sun had come out on Sunday afternoon and Padraig Harrington was striding down the 18th fairway saluting the crowds, only four men could point to totals that were within 10 shots of par for the week. Harrington’s unforgettable eagle at the penultimate hole saw him finish at +3.

Four shots further back was Ian Poulter. And two behind him in a field spread-eagled by the weather were a pair of Open champions from the past and future in Greg Norman and Henrik Stenson.

There were no complaints about the course – this was merely an illustration of the capricious nature of golf by the seaside.

It was so cold and wet on Thursday morning that the 1985 champion, Sandy Lyle, walked off after nine holes complaining that he was no longer able to hold the club.

It was so windy on Saturday that play had to be suspended because balls were oscillating on the most exposed greens.

The lowest round all week was 67, a mere three under par. A repeat performance this time around is unlikely, if not entirely impossible to rule out.

Past champions in the previous nine instalments of the Open to have been held here include Peter Thomson (twice), Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino.

The only one-time major champion is the elegant and talented Australian, Ian Baker-Finch, whose game subsequently disintegrated to the extent that he drove out of bounds on the 1st at St Andrews, the widest fairway in championship golf, just four years later.

It was 1951 before Birkdale became Royal. Three years after that the Open first arrived. It has also held Curtis, Walker and Ryder Cups, the Ricoh WBO and the Senior Open.

Not only is Birkdale famous for its champions, but also the men who so nearly won here.

In 1976, a young Spaniard by the name of Severiano Ballesteros was playing in his first Open. Two strokes in front of Johnny Miller ahead of the final round, he was unable to sustain his erratic brilliance and the American eventually won by six.

Royal Birkdale

But it was Seve’s outrageous shotmaking that lived longest in the memory, reinforced by an eagle at the 71st hole and an audacious up-and-down at the last, when he chipped between bunkers to four feet and pipped Jack Nicklaus to second place.

Two decades later, an even younger pretender, 17-year-old amateur Justin Rose, stole the limelight. Mark O’Meara may have won his second major of 1998 but the quintessential memory will forever be Rose pitching in at the last.

Birkdale’s most distinctive feature is the Art Deco clubhouse, whose white exterior was designed to resemble an ocean liner ploughing between the massive dunes that are a trademark of the club.

Formed in 1889, the members moved to Birkdale Hills, the current location, eight years later with the clubhouse arriving in the 1930s following the extensive redesign to George Low’s course carried out by Fred Hawtree and JH Taylor in 1931.

Ahead of the 2008 Open, Martin Hawtree, the grandson of Fred, added new fairway bunkers and controversially redesigned the 17th green. It has since been modified but is still an uncomfortably small target.

Birkdale’s flat fairways that are located on valley floors running between the dunes. The prevailing breeze blows off the Irish Sea across the line of play on most holes – and as any golfer knows there is nothing more challenging than a stiff crosswind.

With the 9th returning back to the clubhouse, Birkdale is not a links where one nine plays considerably harder. That said, with only two par 5s, both in the final four holes, the back nine will be more scoreable.

The miserly par of 70 dictates there will be few scores significantly under par unless conditions are benign. Who will prevail to raise the Claret Jug in front of that famous white clubhouse this time around?

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