The bulldozers are out at Royal Birkdale as another venerable layout announces significant alterations. But is such change necessary, or should they leave well alone? Our From the Clubhouse team discuss
For some, it is England’s finest course. But Royal Birkdale’s exalted status among lovers of the sport has not stopped the club bringing in the bulldozers.
These are not piecemeal changes at the Lancashire links. A brand new par-3 15th, a completely redesigned 5th, and a re-shaped 7th are just some of the alterations planned by architects Mackenzie & Ebert over the next couple of years.
Explaining the transformation, Royal Birkdale course chairman, Neil Cruickshank, said: “The changes at Royal Birkdale reflect our dedication to upholding the club’s esteemed reputation while offering a golfing experience that is second to none.
“We are confident that these alterations will be warmly received by both our members and visitors from all around the world.”
But should a classic course be put under the knife? Are they always evolving and altering to remain – in Birkdale’s case – at the forefront of major championship thoughts?
Or should such a venerated layout be kept as a museum piece?
The naysayers can come out in force when changes really alter what was once there before. Royal Liverpool’s new par-3, Little Eye, also the brainchild of Mackenzie & Ebert, came under sustained criticism during last summer’s Open.
Our From the Clubhouse team of Tom Irwin and Steve Carroll debated the merits of Royal Birkdale’s changes and asked whether these legendary layouts should always be open to alteration, or whether they should stay timeless.
Should courses like Royal Birkdale be kept as museum pieces?
‘The proof will be in the pudding’
We’ll have to wait until the work is complete and go and play to figure it out, says Steve Carroll. But these are quite a lot of changes to a course that many people already believe to be England’s No. 1.
I do ask myself about the point of it. I’m sure they would say it’s about improving what they’ve already got, making it fit for the modern game, making it even better, but they made changes at Hoylake and they’ve not been universally well received.
On the other hand, Mackenzie & Ebert also worked at Turnberry and I don’t think anyone would argue that Turnberry isn’t better as a result of those changes.
You can take a very renowned course and just elevate it into something entirely new.
Royal Birkdale, along with Hoylake, has never been a museum piece. I think the 12th, which everyone raves about when they go there, is a relatively recent invention as far as the history of the course is concerned.
But it is a risk. I don’t think you have to be negative about that. When you make alterations of this magnitude, it’s always going to engender comment.
As always when changes like this are made to top courses, we’ll all be very keen to sample the work when it’s done. It’s a perfect chance to go back, isn’t it?
‘There’s a difference between being the best golf course and architecturally significant’
I think if you’re starting to pull out bits of history and say, ‘that doesn’t exist anymore’, then surely you are diminishing things slightly, says Tom Irwin. What is also interesting is that, often, these courses are ranked as number one in that territory.
Turnberry is one of the best examples of this. They made an enormous number of changes to improve it. That’s quite a jarring thing. If you’re already saying, ‘this is already the best course and it’s had millions of pounds spent on it to make it better’, what is it now? Definitely the best course?
I think everywhere can be improved, which sometimes gets lost in the hyperbole surrounding certain venues.
The argument that says, ‘this golf course must be as good as it can be’, because it’s ranked No. 1 or it’s had an Open is kind of flawed because, as I’ve said, even the very best venues can be improved upon.
But it’s a very, very fine balance in trying to improve something for the sake of progress, and because everything can be made better, and then removing something from the experience of going there.
You only need to look at the outpouring about the patio on the Swilcan Bridge, which wasn’t affecting the playing area at St Andrews at all.
I think there’s a difference between being the best golf course and being historically and architecturally significant and that is often misunderstood.
I play at Alwoodley (Dr Alister MacKenzie’s first course) and I think we’ve got a responsibility to protect the golf course as it was intended because it’s MacKenzie’s first brain dump.
I’m not sure that’s quite the same as some of the venues we’re talking about here because their principal role is to continue to be a test to the world’s best golfers, while retaining some of the shot-making and uniqueness they don’t see week in and week out.
So I think I’m all for progress at these venues as long as it’s not forsaking some of those historical spots.
Now listen to the From the Clubhouse podcast
You can listen to Tom Irwin and Steve Carroll discuss the changes to Royal Birkdale on the From the Clubhouse podcast. Click here to tune into the episode.
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