Scan the itinerary of any golfer on a pilgrimage to the British Isles and the chances are Formby Golf Club will be somewhere near the bottom, next to the reminder about buying presents for the family at the airport on the way home.
There is one reason for this oversight and it has nothing to do with the quality of the course, which is an absolute gem. Indeed, even on a winter’s day, when the breeze is bumpy, the greens bumpier and the workmen working on the 10th green look like Arctic explorers who have mislaid their Huskies, it is easy to argue that Formby is the best links in England never to have staged an Open Championship.
Which brings us to the explanation for Formby’s relative obscurity: It is surrounded by three links that actually have staged the Open. Royal Birkdale is a five-minute drive along the Lancashire coast. Royal Lytham & St. Annes is just along the M52. And Royal Liverpool is south, just through the Mersey Tunnel.
The club was founded in 1884 as a nine-hole course open for just the winter months. Willie Park extended it to 18 holes around the turn of the century. The closing four holes were lengthened in the 1920s under the supervision of James Braid.
More recently, like every other course on the planet, Formby has not been immune to the impact of modern technology. In addition, the club also has had to cope with coastal erosion. The sea is encroaching at a rate of two meters a year—a miserable fact of life for Burgess and his predecessors, who have been forced into some radical surgery. In the early 1970s, Donald Steel laid out new 7th, 8th and 9th holes away from the shoreline and put in a new tee at the 10th, turning it into a par 3.
Geography dictates that Formby be called a links. It’s close to the sea. It has dunes and beautiful, sandy turf. Yet stand on the 1st tee and you could be fooled into thinking you are looking out on one of England’s great heathland courses, with tree-lined fairways and gnarly heather just off the fairways.
Like most great courses, the opening hole offers a gentle introduction. The real business of the day begins on the 538-yard 3rd, a gentle dogleg; a definite birdie chance, this hole, provided you can hang on to the rock-hard fairway, avoid the trees, rough and steep-faced bunkers, then hole a snaking 60-footer across a green that holds more secrets than a CIA operative.
The back nine is almost a different course, as the pines give way to a more open, traditional linksland. But it isn’t any easier than what has gone before. The wind comes into play; so does the bunkering. Take the 12th hole, 421 fearsome yards into the breeze. The green is guarded by a solitary bunker that, although relatively modest in size, seems to have a catchment area roughly the size of Greater Merseyside. It is a place where hopes of reviving the round go to rest in peace.
Unlike Royal Liverpool, which has some great holes but also a few bad ones, Formby is without a weakness. But apparently, the R&A believes the place has a few infrastructure problems. Finding the course is an ordeal, even with the help of a map, satellite navigation and a friendly local. There is nowhere to park 10,000 cars a day and no room for the ubiquitous tented village.
Still, the club doesn’t seem too bothered, and the it will hold its fourth British Amateur in 2009.