When you think about traveling abroad to play golf, the first two places you probably think of are 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 myself and Tron to a sample of what northwest England has to offer. We 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 West Lancashire, 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.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) March 24, 2017
When doing these summaries, it can be challenging to find the proper adjectives to describe the experience without repeating yourself. I’m just gonna throw out a quick “sorry I’m not sorry” in advance of all of these next five posts, because there are only so many synonyms in the English language for the word “incredible”, and I’m not exactly a wordsmith (Tron’s note: Soly’s a takesmith!). Our morning at West Lancashire was the quintessential links golf experience, and blew us away.
The shock factor that came with laying eyes on the lush green grass framed by the brown heather surrounding the first fairway may have been influenced by the fact that we had next to no expectations for this day. Everyone has heard of Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool, and Royal Lytham, but to be honest, I had no idea until this trip that they were all located within an hour of each other in and around the Liverpool area. Despite a decent reservoir of knowledge on top golf courses around the world. But I had never heard of West Lancashire before James arranged a tee time for us, and with those three courses previously mentioned also on our itinerary, it was hardly the headliner. Getting the opportunity to play a hidden gem like West Lancs to supplement The Open rota courses is what helped make this trip so incredibly special.
The fact that I hadn’t heard of West Lancs is more of an indictment of myself, and not of the course. The club is steeped in history and dates back to 1873, and is one of the ten oldest clubs in all of England. Like many old courses, it’s situated near a railway line which frames several holes on the back nine. When you realize that the reason that it sits so close to the train station is because that’s how people got to golf courses back in the day, you start to feel the history of the property at a different level. There are touches of the old glory all over the place, yet it somehow blends seamlessly with the modern game.
The first thing that we noted about the setup was the simplicity of the operation. The unassuming clubhouse immediately delivers the message that you’re here for the golf. This may sound like a criticism, but it’s the polar opposite. You’re welcome to tote your bag right through the front door, and you walk through what feels like a sort of disorganized caddyshack. The carpet in this room is like worn astroturf, which inherently tells you it’s fine to wear your cleats through it, throw your bag down, and not feel like you have to tip-toe around the place. In the states, it seems like country clubs get into pissing contests with each other over the size and the grandeur of their clubhouses, missing the point of golf entirely. Here the membership dues aren’t put towards a posh 19th hole. They go instead towards the maintenance of the 18 holes that sits just beyond those glass windows.
As was the theme of the trip, we were greeted with perfect sunshine, and unseasonably warm temperatures. With a 7:30 tee time, and morning forecasts in the 30’s (Fahrenheit), we laced up the tights and Under Armour underneath the day’s scripting (I rocked my trademark blueberry pants – before we left the hotel Tron asked why I hadn’t paired the white belt with them and tried to surreptitiously get me to put it on). The extra warmth proved unnecessary, and we were shedding layers before we even teed off.
I legitimately had trouble wiping the smile off my face when I looked at the first hole. It’s not an incredibly unique hole, but the whole setting was sublime. Fresh out of European winter, I was hesitant to book this trip before Q2 even hit considering the UK’s reputation for weather. And here we were on a Friday parading down the first fairway at West Lancs with our bags and rusty golf games in tow on an absolutely perfect morning.
It may sound hyperbolic, but these types of walks are truly spiritual for a golf nut. The different colors of the grass, the sound of the sea just over the dunes, and even the smells in the air give you sensory overload. It’s impossible to be anything but giddy. The way the sun hits a links course in this hour, the way the turf flows right into the small sod-faced bunkers, and the hint of dew collecting on your shoes all rolls up into a feeling of golf nirvana. How many chances in your life do you get to do this kind of thing? We only get so much time off a year from the daily grind, and there’s absolutely nothing I’d rather be doing than hamming it up with your buddies down the fairway of a great links golf course.
The second hole was one of the best on the course. The back tee (noooo big deal – no seriously, no biggie – this was one of only two courses we tipped it out on) is elevated, and gives you a great view of the sea. With the winds down, the fairways start to look a lot wider and they actually seem uncharacteristically welcome. West Lancs is not built to handle the huge crowds of a major championship, but it does boast a long history of Open Championship qualifying events, along with many other tournaments. It’s got all of the elements of a distinctive, worldly championship golf course, just without the theater capacity surrounding the holes.
I’m always so impressed with courses that age well, particularly a course like this one that is approach its 150th birthday. The game was completely different back in the day, and courses were able to be fit into spaces that wouldn’t work if you were designing a course today. Some old properties don’t have the space or the capability to expand their golf holes, and any effort to redesign the links usually means jamming tee boxes into awkward locations. This could drastically affect the design of the hole as it was intended, and the charm of the original layout can get lost in the process. There was none of this at West Lancs, and while I surely don’t have a complete history of the updates made to this course over time, I can say that it has aged as gracefully as Christie Brinkley.
Here’s an idea of the perfect conditions we had, and how the heather frames the fairways so beautifully on this shot off the 4th tee:
We strolled through the front nine with the sun continuing the rise, and the benign conditions slowly faded away along with the dew. As we made the turn to the back, the wind really started to howl. That we were able to ease into the course, and the trip, without a stiff wind on the front nine was a gift – more so than any other course we were able to enjoy each other’s company without having to worry about the variables inherent with wind, and dial in our swings a bit.
The par threes impressed us throughout the entire trip, and perhaps none more so than at West Lancs. The sixth (captured here) seems rather simple, but with the pin tucked behind the bunkers on the right, was deceptively inviting, and of course I took the bait.
Another hole that stuck out to me was the par five 11th. The hole runs along the aforementioned train track, with an ancient stone wall dividing the course from the commuters. The tee sets you up to aim towards the wall and try to draw the ball back down the length of the fairway. Here’s Tron dialing up a draw down the left side.
While this thought might terrify Branden Grace, it was a really fun shot, and a great opportunity to spray a little sauce as the train casually zoomed by.
— Tron Carter (@TronCarterNLU) March 24, 2017
The club’s website features an impressive hole-by-hole tour with flyover videos. At the risk of highlighting the majority of the holes on the course, Tron and I felt 2, 4, 8, 11 and 14 were exceptional, along with the aforementioned one-shotters. Also, the drive on 18 is among the hardest I’ve ever played, especially when the wind gets going, with water down the right, bunkers and heather down the left and a cheekily narrow fairway. The overriding theme at West Lancs, as with most links, is course management. The bunkers look deceptively simple (even in relation to the other courses we played on this trip), but they’re strategically placed all over the course, and are the first thing you look at when you open up the yardage book. If you catch one well, you can really run out in these fairways and if you get too aggressive you run this risk of getting funneled in. Tron’s tee ball suffered that fate:
With the green surfaces casually rolling into the next teeing area, the golf course becomes so much more inherently walkable and natural. This was probably the most enjoyable walk of all the courses we played as there was just enough elevation change to provide views of the Irish Sea, but without making it a strenuous hike. There would never be any need to take a cart on a course like this, and it’s the way golf was intended to be played.
Of all of the places we played on this trip, this was the course I felt most at home, and the one that I could most visibly picture myself being a member at. It’s certainly helped by the fact that we were greeted with a smile and a welcome in the pro shop, and that the club was happy to show off their layout. There was no feeling of pretentiousness or exclusivity that you might think there would be with such a historic club. I’ll be back in the area for The Open this year, and I’m already lining up another chance to tour around this gem.
As mentioned prior, we knew next to nothing about West Lancs, and I’m glad we were able to experience it that way (despite the couple dozen people who went out of their way on twitter to tell us “oh man , West Lancs is awesome, enjoy!”) This is where both Tron and I mentioned where we see the value in a touring company such as Golfbreaks.com putting a golf package together for you (yes, they did pay for our trip, but they’re not paying me to say this). While we had heard of the Open rota courses, we would have had to do quite a bit of research to have stumbled upon this place. The Golfbreaks.com folks have the knowledge of the area courses, and the relationships at the respective courses to get you setup to play at the best courses. They do the digging for you, and it’s at no greater cost that what you would be paying if you were setting it all up on your own. If you’re making your way all the way across the pond wasting a half day on what turns out to be an uninspiring course can be demoralizing. Conversely, feeling like you’re being let in on a well-kept secret like West Lancs can make the whole trip feel worth it just on it’s own.
Thanks to everyone at the West Lancashire Golf Club for a truly memorable morning of golf at a very special place. I can’t wait to come back.