When you think about traveling abroad to play golf, the first two places you think of are probably Scotland and Ireland. I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of golf in the British Isles, yet I was completely in the dark with my understanding of the quality of the golf courses in England. James Somerside from Golfbreaks.com reached out to us to discuss the idea of introducing us to a sample of what northwest England has to offer. Tron and I managed to pull together a trip on relatively short notice, at which point James started working his magic planning out the golf and logistics. As we hopefully capture in this and the posts to follow, both the quality of the golf and the richness of the experience along England’s “Golf Coast” were revelatory.
In addition to this summary post on the Belfry, and the other posts that are to follow, please check out both Part I and Part II of the podcast that we recorded on the last night of the trip prior to flying back to our respective locales.
The trip included six incredible courses over the course of four days, starting with The Belfry, and followed by West Lancashire, Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool, Wallasey, and Royal Lytham.
Options abound for getting to northwest England. I had some flexibility with regard to airport options, but considering Tron’s more limited flight choices coming from Florida, and the Windsor office location of Golfbreaks.com, we determined that London was the best place to meet. Our host James picked us up from the airport Thursday morning, and we were off to our 2:00 tee time on the Brazaban course at The Belfry.
I would hate to call a course that has hosted four Ryder Cup courses a “warmup” round, but considering the itinerary ahead of us, it was hard not to see it as such. We were tired, Tron was jet lagged from an overnight flight, and our games were (perpetually) rusty. The Belfry was an ideal way to break up the drive from London to Liverpool, and for a rabid Ryder Cup fan like myself, very cool to see in person.
When I travel to play golf, I’m looking for a different type of experience to the one that I can get at home (wherever that may be). The links courses in Scotland and Ireland have given me that experience, and it’s one that sticks with you pretty much for the rest of your life. Conversely, as a parkland course in central England, The Belfry was reminiscent of some of the best courses I’ve played stateside, and provided some variety to an otherwise links-heavy itinerary.
The Belfry is a fairly large resort situated in a geographically convenient spot between the major commercial hubs of England, and features three 18 holes courses, a large clubhouse, hotel, corporate events center, and even a night club (which the twitteratti reminded us of at every chance). We were fortunate enough to get a crisp-yet-comfortable 50 degree afternoon with sufficient wind for our tee time on the Brazaban course.
Of the six courses that we played, The Belfry was the only parkland style course. And while I swore to myself that I would not compare it to the rest of the slate, I feel like it’s important to point out that our experience was a bit inhibited by the condition of the course, and understandably so. The sandier turf at coastal links style courses is designed to handle the weather 12 months out of the year, and typically drains much better than a low-lying inland course with darker soil. That our trip was presaged by a few days of steady rain, plus the fact that it was March in England, added up to a course that was not yet in peak condition.
You may be looking at these pictures, seeing the most lush green grass you can imagine on a golf course, and wonder what the hell I’m talking about when I mention the course condition. I made the horrible mistake of busting out my white pants for this round, and by the second hole, I was splattered in mud all the way up to my knees. The grass had not fully taken form throughout the course, and there were enough mudballs here to give Ted Scott nightmares. The greens had just been punched/sanded, which is an expected sight considering the time of year and the weather that preceded us.
The golf course itself was a stern test, aided by winds gusting to 30 mph, soft fairways and damp air. We found ourselves hitting long irons and woods into some long par fours back into the wind, and struggling to carry the creek on the 225 yard, dead into the wind par-3 12th. There’s a lot of water hazards throughout the course, with the most memorable being the par five 3rd hole, the par four 6th, the par four 9th, the illustrious driveable par four 10th, and the remarkably demanding par four finisher.
The 10th is steeped in history, and really defines a classic match play hole. The decision as to whether or not to go for the green in competition is a real one. At the outset of a long anticipated trip the decision was less taxing. We were aided with a clear visual to the green that is not afforded to anyone who will be visiting here a month later, as trees protect the view of the narrow green from the tee box, and add an extra layer of intimidation.
Each of us hooked our tee shots left of the water and onto the hill abutting the left side of the creek. A quick consensus formed among the three of us and another set of balls were re-teed. Tron put one on the very front of the green (see below), and I hit a wind aided rocket way up into the air that plugged on the back of the green, and backed up to about 15 feet.
The 18th played into the wind for us, and was an absolute beast. The hole glides severely from right to left, but it’s hard to call it a dogleg since it’s all there in front of you. The tee box sets you up at a tough angle to the relatively narrow landing zone, and you’re left to decide how much of the water you want to take on. The further left you take it, the longer the carry, but the shorter the approach into a stiff wind and up a decent slope back towards the clubhouse. So many intense Ryder Cup matches have come down to this hole, and I can’t imagine trying to hit that tee shot and approach under all immense pressure.
The tee shot on 18:
To say that the 18th green is MASSIVE would be an understatement, and I was legitimately fearful that I didn’t have enough club for this putt.
We shook hands on the 18th green, and retired to the clubhouse for sustenance. I was amazed at how abuzz the place was – certainly a juxtaposition to the nearly empty course we’d just played. Cold beers, big screen tv’s and comfy chairs were a welcome sight to the three of us, and Tron’s face lit up as he realized that at 6:30pm the live golf coverage of the WGC Match Play was just heating up. We ambled around the clubhouse after a few pints and marveled at the walls adorned with Ryder Cup memorabilia, pictures, and startling reminders of ghosts of Ryder Cups past.
I enjoyed The Belfry overall. I think had we not had such an unbelievable lineup of links courses in great condition to follow, I would likely hold The Belfry in a higher regard. One of the course’s best features would be its exceptional condition, which is the shape that we’ve seen it in at the Ryder Cup throughout its history, and while we missed out on that, I think it says a lot about the vibe and the atmosphere that I can say that I enjoyed the course and would recommend it. Don’t go too far out of your way to play it, but it serves as a worthy compliment to a trip up to the northwest, particularly if you are en route from London.