Formby Golf Club
Formby Golf Club ranks number 19 in the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in England listing and number 46 in the Golf World Top 100 Golf Courses in the UK & Ireland listing.
Sat in the heart of England’s revered Golf Coast, it takes something truly special to stand out. Rob McGarr discovered that Formby Golf Club not only does that, but is a course unlike any other.
Formby Golf Club in Merseyside is separated from the rest of the UK by a railway line that runs northwards to Southport. The track flanks the east side of the course and you’ll almost certainly see trains rattling by while you play the opening three holes. You access the club by crossing said railway and then turning immediately right up the aptly named ‘Golf Road’, which leads you into the club’s car park.
But it’s not the railway line that really separates Formby from the rest of the UK. Rather, it’s a unique cocktail of differing golf course characteristics that make Formby one of a kind and set it apart.
The club website proclaims Formby is “truly one of the world’s finest Championship links golf courses,” and it is, but we can assure you that it is much more than that. Would a simple links course be flanked by tall pines on many holes? Would it employ steep banks of heather to significantly bolster the visual appeal and toughen the golfing challenge? Would it weave its way through these acres of pines, shutting you off from the rest of the course?
Formby is so much more than a links course. It’s part-links, part-heathland, part-parkland and part woodland. To waste time trying to categorise Formby is to miss its unique charm. We can think of few courses in the world you could play with a four-ball of golfers who all prefer different things from a golf course and yet all walk off the 18th green completely satisfied.
Many argue that Formby is the best course on England’s Golf Coast, a mighty accolade given that the portfolio includes the likes of Hillside, Royal Birkdale, Southport and Ainsdale as well as Open venues Royal Lytham and Royal Liverpool. While we wouldn’t perhaps go as far as to put Formby in top spot amongst such strong competition, it more than holds its own in an area that boasts more top class courses than anywhere else in England.
If Formby’s uniqueness isn’t temptation enough, consider that the design has been touched by the brilliant minds of Willie Park, James Braid, Harry Colt, Donald Steel, Martin Hawtree and JH Taylor.
The result is a gem of a golf course that has evolved gently and subtly over the years. Inside the grand but welcoming clubhouse you’ll find a plan of the course, dated 1912, showing Willie Park’s original 18-hole layout after he was given the nod to transform what had been a nine-holer since the club’s inception in 1884.
Alongside that sits a 1994 plan showing the changes that have taken place in the intervening years. Cross-referencing those plans is the only way you would ever be able to identify the changes, as every on-course alteration has been handled so adeptly you would never be able to identify which parts have remained untouched for over a century and which parts are relatively new.
The tweaks, changes and improvements are plentiful, because Formby is a club that never rests on its laurels. More than £400k has been spent on the course and machinery in the last two years, and renowned architect Martin Ebert has been enlisted to undertake a full course analysis programme ahead of further alterations. Formby is steeped in history but always looking to the future.
The Blue Monster and the hippo
While it hasn’t hosted the Open Championship like some of its nearby neighbours, Formby is not short of competition pedigree. It has hosted the Amateur Championship four times, first in 1957 when Scotsman Robert Reid Jack emerged victorious, and most recently in 2009 when 16-year-old Matteo Manassero became the youngest ever winner.
José María Olazábal beat Colin Montgomerie 5&4 here in the 1984 final, the most illustrious in the Championship’s history, contested between two players who would go on to share more than 80 professional wins. Formby also hosted the Curtis Cup in 2004, the Brabazon Trophy on four occasions, and regularly serves as an Open qualifying venue.
It’s plenty challenging enough for the game’s best players and, in truth, best enjoyed by those reasonably competent at keeping the ball in play. Like most of the best courses, every hole at Formby is interesting to play. But with interest comes challenge. Let a complete novice loose on Carnoustie or Augusta National and you’re as likely to put them off golf for life as instil a lifelong love of the game.
Even if you elect not to tackle Formby from the blue tees at its maximum length of 7,032 yards – a par 72 dubbed “the Blue Monster” by members – you’ll still find a course ready to challenge you at every turn.
Formby’s beautiful heather is best enjoyed from afar, rather than in the middle of it, desperately hacking away trying to get your ball out of the blasted stuff. Thankfully, the thousands of pine trees that frame the property are rarely in play. Nonetheless, wayward golfers are likely to find Formby a very challenging golf course.
Some of Formby’s best holes are also some of its toughest. The stretch from five to nine is the standout portion of the course, commencing with a glorious, challenging par 3, with a green that slopes from back to front protected, as if it needs it, by three cavernous bunkers to the left and one short.
The approach shot to the 6th plays blind, and is therefore mercifully one of the few greens not guarded by sand. It is, however, an upturned saucer where any missed green will leave a very challenging up-and-down.
Though it gives you nothing for free, Formby never feels unfair or like it’s trying to catch you out. It simply rewards good shots and punishes poor ones. Play well and you will score well. The course conditioning is always excellent and the greens are firm but receptive.
The 7th is a short par 4 with a fairway that appears so thin from the tee that you feel like you’re trying to land a jumbo jet on a test match wicket. When you get down there, you’ll realise it’s wider than you thought, but not by much.
Only a perfectly placed tee shot will give you a clear view of the elevated green, which slopes severely back to front, with such a steep drop-off any approach shot coming up short can end up 60 to 80 yards from the putting surface. Any putts from above the hole will have potential embarrassment written all over them.
Not many championship courses have a par 5 as the stroke index one. Even fewer when it’s under 500 yards from the very back tees. Formby isn’t like most golf courses. The 8th may not defend itself with sheer length, but a tabletop fairway with severe drop-offs on both sides make for a very intimidating tee shot.
Find the fairway and the green is reachable in two, but meandering banks and changes in elevation mean you’ve done very well indeed if you’re putting for eagle. The green offers the day’s first view of the Irish Sea, but you’ll need to stay focused on a tricky putting surface that offers some devilish pin placements.
The 9th is a long par 4 playing directly towards the water, with sea views enhanced by an elevated tee. The prevailing wind is straight towards you, adding distance to a hole that’s already 444 yards from the yellow tees. Heavy rough on both sides, two fairway bunkers, and rough hillocks sitting between the fairway and the green complex mean it’s easy to put yourself in trouble.
After a mid-section of tougher holes and more extreme topography, Formby finishes the way it started, with three holes of a more parkland feel that ease you back towards the clubhouse. After his 2009 Amateur Championship victory, Manassero said, “Formby has so many exceptional holes, but my most memorable is the par-3 16th”.
It measures just 120 yards from the yellow tees, 139 from the blues, and is ranked the easiest hole on the course, but you won’t feel that way if you miss a tight, raised green, guarded by three small but deep bunkers.
The 17th is the last of Formby’s three par 5s, all of which measure less than 500 yards from the yellow tees. It’s definitely reachable in two, although taking driver from the tee brings three fairway bunkers into play, and a narrow, two-tier green is well protected by a single bunker short-right.
It’s a chance to make up some ground at the end of your round, but can easily see you come undone if you get it wrong or find yourself distracted by the impressive mansions tucked behind trees on the right-hand side of the tee box and fairway.
No other hole on the course is as heavily dotted with bunkers as Formby’s par-4 finale, with five fairway traps and six around a green that measures 55 yards from front to back. A straight tee shot that dissects the bunkers is paramount, as is club selection on your approach, otherwise you’ll leave yourself in definite three-putt territory, not what you want when overlooked by the magnificent clubhouse.
Formby’s clubhouse offers a touch of grandeur but still relaxes you with a warm welcome. Be careful not to find yourself in a snooker match on one of the two championship-standard tables with club member John Parrott, a man who spent 14 consecutive seasons in the top-16 of the snooker world rankings.
Two things particularly worth taking in are the clubhouse clock and hippo. Yes, hippo. The clock was donated by Joseph Bruce Ismay in 1909 to celebrate the club’s 25th birthday. Ismay was chairman of the White Start Line, the Liverpool shipping company that built the Titanic.
The hippo has been at the club for 110 years, having been presented by the widow of Edgar Storey, club captain in 1896, and now sits tucked away in the corner of the bar. It deserves a good rest, having been borrowed by the Royal Navy in 1940 for use as a figurehead on HMS Veteran towards the end of World War II, where dive bombers managed to knock out one of its teeth.