Appeared in July/August 1998 LINKS
Royal Birkdale Golf Club was founded in 1889, but its spirit and soul are firmly entrenched in the 1930s. The mood is apparent from the instant you arrive at the gleaming white Art Deco-style clubhouse.
The championship links belongs to the same era, being largely the mid-1930s design of Fred Hawtree and John H. Taylor. By the 1930s blind shots, even on a links, were widely regarded as outdated and apart from an uphill tee shot at the 9th, Birkdale has none. Two-tiered greens were very much “in” however, and Birkdale has several of these. As for the positioning of bunkers, dictated more by nature than anything else on the older links courses, the hazards at Birkdale are strategic, if a little too uniform in the opinion of the traditionalists.
But what distinguishes Birkdale from ancient links is neither the greens nor the hazards, but the fairways, emerald ribbons that weave their way amid a singularly dramatic dunescape. From a distance Birkdale looks like an amazingly rugged links. The sandhills are the largest and most extensive in England, their scale exceeded only by Ballybunion in the entire British Isles.
Yet the fairways are, in fact, among the flattest and most “even lie-producing” you are likely to encounter on a British links. This is because the course is primarily routed along the base of valleys which run beneath the avenues of dunes. The fairways do not attempt to clamber up and over the dunes (as at Prestwick and St. George’s, for instance). Awkward stances, like blind shots, are totally alien to Royal Birkdale.
Along with Muirfield, Royal Birkdale has gained a reputation as Britain’s “fairest” links. The absence of capricious terrain is fundamental to this, as is the highly strategic (as opposed to penal) hazard placement. From tee to green, Birkdale presents an extremely strong obstacle test. The golf course rewards crisp, accurate hitting—it is no coincidence that both Johnny Miller (1976) and Tom Watson (1983) won here. And when the elements are stirred it encourages and again rewards the shotmaker: Arnold Palmer (1961) and Lee Trevino (1971).
The course opens with three solid two-shotters—and three changes in direction—and a lengthy par 3. The teasing begins at the 346-yard 5th, a short, and in very favorable conditions, drivable par 4. The first gargantuan challenge comes at the 473-yard 6th, a formidable dogleg with a deep bunker sited at the point of the dogleg: It eats into the fairway and at one time actually traversed it—until somebody decreed that cross bunkers were unfair and old fashioned. The hole also has an exposed, slightly plateaued green that slopes sharply from back to front.
While many of the fairways and greens are located below the level of the dunes, quite often the teeing areas are elevated and situated on natural platforms. Exhilarating downhill tee shots are common and three of the four short holes are played in such a manner, the 156-yard 7th being the most dramatic example.
The 13th, once an easy par 5, is now a mighty 475-yard par 4. (Strange how “Old Man Par” can so dictate a hole’s perception!) The 16th is a medium-length par 4 with a raised green and a plaque just off the fairway that commemorates an Arnold Palmer miracle recovery in the ’61 Open: Palmer thrashed a 6-iron out of impenetrable rough and somehow contrived to land his ball on the green.
Tony Jacklin eagled the par-5 17th during his epic encounter with Jack Nicklaus in the final singles match of the 1969 Ryder Cup. It enabled Jacklin to square the match and on the final green Nicklaus conceded the Englishman’s “very missable” three-footer—a gesture that ensured the first ever tied Ryder Cup contest.