I’ve played all three courses on this adjoining tract of linksland multiple times and I’m still undecided which is my favourite. You could also throw in Formby, located just down the road, and even stretch to Hoylake on the Wirral up to Lytham on the Fylde Coast, and all that lies in-between. Hillside keeps fine company and holds its own.
The Club, established in 1911 but significantly altered - some might say modernised - in the 1960s by Fred Hawtree, has staged many amateur and professional tournaments in it's illustrious history and was recently chosen by the European Tour to stage the 2019 British Masters, hosted by Tommy Fleetwood. The R&A have been a regular visitor to the Links with The Amateur and Ladies Amateur Championships being played here as well as Final Qualifying for The Open on numerous occasions.
In the not so distant past I have played at Hillside at its sternest, from the tips on a brutal day in the Pines Trophy, but my most recent visit was on a benign late-June morning with a brilliant blue sky overhead and just the slightest of breezes not even capable of stirring the flags. Hillside plays magnificently in all conditions.
Routed in two returning loops of nine, the front side wends initially its way out alongside the train line, which slices the links of Hillside and S&A, out to the fifth green before turning back to the clubhouse. We momentarily switch back on ourselves at the third and also play perpendicular to the other holes at the short seventh but otherwise we are mostly moving out and back. There is a noticeable tightness to the turf on the more open outward half which requires plotting as opposed to brute force.
The inward half, for which I’m sure Greg Norman must still be claiming the royalties from his famous line, “The back nine holes are the Best in Britain”, transitions from modest sandhills to monumental dunes as we are continually moved towards different points of the compass. At times the hills must run close some of the dunes on the Irish coast in terms of size but here we almost exclusively play through the valleys; from elevated tees, to flattish fairways, up to raised greens. We rarely, if ever, have to go cross-country and traverse the sandhills which means each hole is perfectly framed.
I must admit I really enjoy the subtleties of the first nine where we find some excellently sited green complexes with clever greenside bunkering. The second, third, sixth and ninth are all particularly noteworthy amongst a strong collection.
The train track down the left side of the first two holes is just close enough to make us wary of it and the burn at the third is used especially well. I care not for the fourth but the next five holes are a delight which culminate in the tough, broken-fairway, ninth.
There is no denying that the back-nine is dramatic with the two par-fives (the 11th and 17th) both visually stunning; the former is a truly sensational hole which curves around the dunes before rising gradually to the green which is very similar to the 9th at Formby.
The famed 10th, played uphill to a secluded green set amongst dunes and tall pine trees, is also a great hole thanks to the shape and slope of the green coupled with the very adjacent pot bunkering. The four par-fours between the 12th and 15th are all interesting in their own right with a cunning putting surface at the turning 12th, a high green at the next, then a plunging drive before another sharp dog-leg at the 15th.
A grandstand and entertaining finish is guaranteed over the final three holes with a brute of a par-three, played to a massive two-tiered green, followed by the visually impressive 17th and a tough finisher back down to the clubhouse. Into the wind a par-par-par finish over these closing three holes is some accomplishment.
As you would expect from a championship links the fairway bunkering is just about spot on throughout. There is at least one trap for every club in the back from Driver to 3-iron so you must really be on your game off the tee or alternatively lay well back and leave yourself a long approach. A number of the fairways also kink, bend or in some cases significantly turn which also adds to the difficulty. Whatever strategy you choose Hillside is a solid test of golf.
There are many similarities to bordering Birkdale in so much that you get what you deserve on this very fair links whilst it lacks the quirk of neighbouring S&A. Regardless of personal preference Hillside does its job very efficiently.
Following a 4:00am alarm call we’d already driven for more than six hours and covered over 350 road miles before boarding a ferry at Oban sailing to Lochboisdale.
The Halifax Golf Club, often better known as Ogden, is a course that divides opinion.