LOCATION: SOUTHPORT, MERSEYSIDE, ENGLAND
DESIGNER: GEORGE LOWE(1897)
LATER MODIFIED BY FRED G. HAWTREE, J.H. TAYLOR, FRED W. HAWTREE
Although it’s a links in the truest sense of the word, Royal Birkdale is as uncharacteristic a version of this genre as you will find. First, there are the dunes, the tallest and grandest on the Open rota. Then there are the fairways. Links courses are usually typified by incessant waves of humps and hollows but there’s barely a ripple on Birkdale’s pancake flat landing areas. Often, the only giveaway sign you’re standing in the middle of one of the world’s most eminent links is a fly-by from a seagull. And finally, there’s the flora and fauna. Far from looking like a dry running links, Birkdale is often lush, green and vibrant. Glance in one direction and you’ll see sable hues of Marram grass-covered sand hills; turn the other way and you’re staring into a wall of dense greenery or woodland.
It’s this collection of juxtapositions that makes Birkdale so beguiling. Although it is often regarded as one of the easier Open venues, with many tees perched atop the dunes, Birkdale bares razor-sharp teeth when the prevailing winds kick in. The fairway bunkers are generally small but punch above their weight thanks to slick contouring that magnifies their size, the gnarly Marram grass is fearsome while the small crowned greens are often elevated, surrounded by awkward-shaped bunkers and difficult to read. Underestimate it at your peril.
Golf course review: Royal Birkdale
A links that breaks all the rules
It may be one of Britain’s most cherished and majestic links, but Royal Birkdale is in many ways anything but your typical Open Championship golf course, says Nick Wright.
Royal Birkdale, as we know it, was designed in 1889 but the shaping of this majestic course set among the rocky sand hills that unfurl along the Lancashire coast owes as much to the ferocity of the winds that have whipped in from the Irish Sea for eons as it does to the architectural hands of George Low, the legendary professional JH Taylor and three generations of the Hawtree family that have been responsible for refining its ebb and flow in recent years.
Although it’s a links in the truest sense of the word – in that it was built on land reclaimed from the sea – in many ways Birkdale is as uncharacteristic a version of this genre of the game as you will find anywhere on these shores. For a start, there are the dunes. In addition to providing impressive framing and the separation of one hole from the next, they’re also the tallest, grandest and most imposing in the Open rota, simultaneously enhancing the viewing experience on individual holes for spectators but making general course navigation confusing for them.
Then there are the fairways. The very first thing you notice when you view the course by drone from 100ft above is the stark contrast between the rollercoaster dunes and the pancake flat strips of grass that flow between them. Links courses are usually typified by incessant waves of humps, hollows and swales – like those found on the other Royal-designated Open hosts St George’s, Lytham & St Annes and Liverpool – but there’s barely a ripple to be seen on most of Birkdale’s landing areas. In fact, the absence of undulations on the opening and closing holes (photos right), is as conspicuous on this type of terrain as a white Art Deco clubhouse in Merseyside. At times, the only giveaway sign that you’re standing in the middle of one of the world’s most eminent links is the occasional squawking fly-by from a seagull. Even the pungent, salty sea air that typically welcomes your arrival at an Open venue is notable by its absence – caused by the distancing of the course from the shoreline by a busy highway. Despite the fact you know the ocean is just over the hills and not so far away, you’re never treated to a sea view.
And finally, you have the vegetation. Far from looking like a hard, dry running links, depending on the weather conditions, Birkdale can often be found lush, green and vibrant. Mingling among the towering dunes are mini copses and patches of woodland. Glance in one direction and you’ll see nothing but the sable hues of Marram grass-covered sand hills; turn the other way and you’ll find yourself staring into a wall of dense greenery. At times, it feels prehistoric.
It’s the collection of juxtapositions and contrasts that makes Birkdale so beguiling and visually spectacular. While it can be argued that the lack of those fairway humps and hollows robs players of the one true essence of links golf – the unpredictable wayward bounce – it’s this very same trait that many also claim makes Birkdale the fairest test of golf in the Open. Fairest –or easiest – is a matter of perspective but based on what we’ve seen in the previous nine Opens staged at Birkdale since 1954, it’s not totally imprudent to suggest that when conditions are benign the course can be bowled over as cheaply as a 1990s England cricket team. Johnny Miller raced past Seve Ballesteros here in the final round of the 1976 Open with a barrage of birdies, Ian Baker-Finch had an outward nine of 29 in his final-round 66 to win in 1991 and Denis Durnian flew out in a record-breaking 28 in 1983, the same year eventual winner Tom Watson started his quest for the Claret Jug with a double bogey at the very first hole. But as Davis Love III found to his peril in the 1983 Open, danger lurks everywhere at Birkdale. The 1997 US PGA champion covered the first nine holes in an impressive 30 strokes in his third round before running into a 10 at the 10th.
Having said that, Birkdale does boast the toughest opening hole on the Open rota as well as an especially demanding finishing hole. At the 1st, the fairway sweeps left past a bunker cut into the side of the landing area and then to a green partially hidden by a mound and bunkers on both sides. Adding to the tension is the spectre of out-of-bounds down the entire right side of the hole. The 18th is your stereotypical Open Championship closing hole – a long, demanding par 4 with just a hint of dog-leg. Most of the top players will opt to lay-up short of the bunkers that cut into the corner of the dog-leg and attempt to thread a mid-iron through the narrow entrance to a small green that falls off steeply at the back.
In calm weather, both holes literally are a ‘breeze’ for the world’s best, but when a gentle wind turns into a gale, Birkdale bares its teeth. Many tees are perched atop the dunes, subjecting drives to the mercy of the prevailing wind – an effect that has been exacerbated following the removal of several thousand wind-absorbing trees from the dunes following the 1998 Open Championship.
The course is protected by man-made methods, too. For example, the strategically-placed fairway bunkers are generally small but can punch above their weight thanks to slick contouring that gathers balls towards them like bees to honey. And the gnarly Marram grass that resides just off many of the fairways can be especially fearsome if the weather has been wet and warm.
At first glance, the greens are fairly small and seemingly innocuous, but the burrows are subtle and, in many cases, barely perceptible. As Royal Birkdale’s Head Professional, Brian Hodgkinson, observes in the sidebar in this feature, “It can take a while to ‘get’ the greens. It’s easy to miss a lot of putts by a small amount.” They are also often slightly elevated from the fairway, surrounded by awkward-shaped bunkers but nearly always seamlessly blend and extend into the aprons and approach areas.
A view from above reveals the crowned look to many of the putting surfaces and the ripple effect of the swales that Martin Hawtree introduced during his redesign of all 18 greens to improve drainage following the 1991 Open. The result of this extended shaping is that only purely-struck shots to the correct distance are likely to hold the putting surface. A perfect example of this protection by contouring is evident at the 439-yard par-4 16th as well as at the par-4 9th hole, where the pin is guarded by two
pot bunkers and a deep swale at the front and a sharp run off at the rear.
At many courses, the par 3s define the character of the whole course and this is evident at Birkdale. There’s not a weak hole among the four and each has its own unique defence system. The 201-yard 4th plays downhill to an exposed green that falls away steeply on both sides while the 178-yard 7th also plays downhill to a green surrounded by a ring of pot bunkers. On the back nine, the 183-yard 12th hole, widely lauded as one of the world’s best, plays into a long narrow green nestled into the dunes while the tee on the 201-yard 14th is set back into the hills, where it’s difficult to judge the wind. They are thinking man’s par 3s and Birkdale is a thinking man’s course.