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 Royal Birkdale, 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.
Following the ethereal morning session at West Lancs we glided about thirty minutes up the coast to Royal Birkdale. The drive ambled through pastoral English hamlets and the coastline became more rugged. Buoyed by a proper cup of black coffee (which proved to be a surprisingly elusive commodity on the trip), we arrived to find a harsh dunescape, seemingly removed but not isolated from the nearby Irish Sea. Immediately memories abounded: IBF’s 64-66 weekend in ’91, Big Cat’s missed opportunity in ’98 (backed up a Saturday 77 with a final round 66 to miss playoff by a single shot), and the crisis averted in ’09 when Norman made noise and Poulter led midway through the final round before Padraig Harrington neutralized the threat in heroic fashion. With the Open back at Birkdale this July, Soly and I were keenly interested in scoping out the scene and correspondingly this recap goes a bit deeper into each specific hole due to the relevance of this year’s Championship.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) March 24, 2017
Accompanied by Alex Perry of National Club Golfer, we ambled out to the first tee and commenced 18 holes of beautiful, masochistic golf. From the outset, Birkdale offered up a first-class experience that, owing to the dunes, isolated you from the outside world in a way that the other courses we played did not. The quaint throwback starter’s hut and stern, yet straightforward, opening par four provided a warmer welcome than the Skechers display featured prominently in the pro shop. The subsequent two holes are also two-shotters that make it incumbent upon the player to value precision over distance. That decision repeated itself throughout the day, which prompted the group to agree on that the course is very “Spiethy” in that it requires a disciplined approach and should stand up well against many of the bomb-and-gougers plentiful in the professional ranks these days. Please keep in mind that the rough was down, the greens slower, and we were presented with an opposite (and much softer) wind than what is typical, and still got our butts kicked.
Birkdale was delicious. pic.twitter.com/tcxCitdFyg
— Tron Carter (@TronCarterNLU) March 24, 2017
The fourth hole brought us to the first of Birkdale’s par three’s, a group which we found to be quite exceptional. This one was a long, well-bunkered affair with a flattish green. While Birkdale’s greens aren’t severe they do feature a number of tricky run-offs and swales around the peripheries.
The fifth heads west toward the dunes, typically into the wind, and features a charming dogleg right that will be an interesting case study on course management during the Open should there be a benign day. Despite the hole only measuring 346 yards, Soly and I struggled to figure out if it would be worth someone like DJ bombing one over the corner and threading the minefield of bunkers fronting the green. Through the first five holes we found the course to be solid, if unspectacular.
Then we arrived to the 6th hole, at which point Birkdale stopped being polite and started being real. Mad real. Heading south along the dunes, and though a couple hundred yards from the water, there’s a distinctively rugged beach vibe. A prototypical “four and a half” the dogleg right features two bunkers guarding the bend, some pretty gnarly mounds down the right and an uphill approach to a deep, long green – exactly the type that makes you question why par even matters.
The next is a cheeky one-shotter with a hellish array of pot bunkers (a common theme indeed).
The 8th is a girthy par four back toward the clubhouse and played dead into the teeth of the wind for us. Soly hit one of the better long irons I’ve ever seen a playing partner hit – frozen rope off a crazy stance, threading a couple scary bunkers fronting the left to reach a green replete with what the yardage book calls some “very deceptive borrows.”
The 9th is a greenlight special – blind tee shot but once the pros figure out their lines they’ll be in the go-zone. After making the turn the 10th is the inside spoon lining the 9th. Well-bunkered and turning to the left in pretty dramatic fashion, the hole places a premium on placement in the fairway. Again, not punishing but plenty of trouble lurking should one get out of position. The eleventh is a longish par four that coerces you into strategic decisevness off the tee with several menacing bunkers.
The four of us reached the 12th with our rigs in varying degrees of disarray, with the exception of Soly, who was building a score. Of the group, only I found the narrow putting surface. Soly’s shot rolled off the front of the green, slithering into the bunker guarding the front right, and compounded by the fact that this particular bunker (along with a few others throughout the course) was roped off as ground under repair. He found the designated drop area directly behind said bunker and was tasked with hitting a flop shot off a bare lie to an elevated convex green with little-to-no green to work with and four different run-offs distinctly in play. This was our WELCOME TO ENGLAND moment. He proceeded to make five and we trudged silently to the next tee.
The next hole is terrifying yet thrilling – a nearly 500 yard par four affair playing dead into the wind on this particular day (likely opposite during The Open) and featuring a trench running down almost the entirety of the left side and penal bunkers down the right. Timeless shit – dropped delicately into the sand hills, this was one of the standouts of the entire trip.
Fourteen is the final one-shotter on the course, a bit longer than the others and eminently fair, any misses will be swiftly rebuked, especially if the wind is up.
The final four holes feature over 2,000 yards traversing over and around rugged terrain, 40 bunkers, immense dunes and the most dramatic elevation changes of the round en route back to the clubhouse. Any enthusiasm for the birdie opportunity afforded by a par five quickly evaporated while navigating the narrow fifteenth, which features eleven bunkers within 150 yards of the green and a spiny putting surface. A precision par five if there ever was one. The 16th was all about the drive – a demanding uphill four to a green that will reject any #LPCP approaches that aren’t intently hit. The 17th is another complicated par five, as evidenced in the flyover below. Sided by OB down the right (a lovely dog park and Hillside Golf Club on the other side of the…hill), heather down the left and theatrical mounds throughout: the contouring felt like something you’d find at the blue-blooded clubs of New England, only these contours were completely natural. From the fairway, the green looked about three yards wide.
Both the 15th and 17th tempt you into being aggressive and then body-slam even the slightest mistake, with the contours and tall grass multiplying misses. In hindsight, Padraig Harrington’s decision to go for 17 from 280 yards out ahead by two shots in the final round of the 2008 Open is both insane and legendary. Soly should be glad that his round went by the wayside on the 12th, because the 17th would’ve been even more painful judging by how our entire group played it.
Battered and brutalized by the back, we reached 18. The Championship tee box is set back on the right, making the hole more of a dogleg. We played it from the left set of tee boxes – similar length but much straighter. Perhaps I recall this hole more fondly than my playing partners as I hit what was my shot of the day to about 25 feet. A world-class finishing hole, featuring a tear-drop green with a pinched landing area, accuracy and distance control are essential on the approach.
To the shock/awe/amazement/delight of a few members enjoying pints on the veranda, I proceeded to completely miss the hole from about three feet on the comebacker en route to a horrifying three-putt to close out the day.
If the debacle on the 12th was our “Welcome to England” gut punch, then sitting on the back porch of the iconic, delightfully quirky clubhouse whilst enjoying a pint and a bowl of delicious broccoli stilton soup served as our “Welcome to England” embrace after a stout test. We marveled at some of the history on display in the clubhouse and then opted for the scenic route back to Liverpool. On the way we passed by Hillside, Formby, and Southport & Ainsdale Golf Clubs, all said to be remarkable in their own right and all deserving of a round during a return trip to the area. I envy those headed to Southport for The Open.
In retrospect, that aforementioned bowl of soup is a good analogy for Birkdale: hearty, timeless and more than a little funky.