One of England's greats

Royal Birkdale

Royal Birkdale Golf Club

Royal Birkdale Golf Club

Date Reviewed
August 23, 2017
Reviewed by Ed Battye
Royal Birkdale is a golf course which is incredibly hard not to like but at the same time it’s not an easy one to truly love.

If it were a football team it would probably be the Arsenal side that won multiple trophies under George Graham in the late 80’s and early 90’s when the phrase, "One-nil to the Arsenal" was coined.

That successful team was built on a tight defensive discipline and similarly Birkdale hardly has a chink its golfing armour.

However, I like my golf (and football) a little bit more free-flowing and whilst I’m not quite from the Kevin Keegan school of “however many you score, we’ll score more” I do like to be entertained when I’m on the golf course and whilst Birkdale certainly has its moments (several of them) it’s mostly calculable and lacks a certain flair. Unlike some other top bracket golf courses it hasn’t got a sparkle in its eye.

Not dissimilar to Saunton the fairways are relatively flat and they give mostly predictable bounces, although there are still many subtle creases and natural undulations to be found. The green complexes are all very nice but without any real moments of true magic and the actual greens themselves are good without being exceptional.

The above probably comes across in way that I don’t like Birkdale and that’s wrong because I do and it’s in my personal top 15 in the United Kingdom. I hold the course in high esteem and really admire it. I have enjoyed every single one of my many rounds here, wandering through the dunes, but I have to admit it doesn’t stir the soul like Royal St. Georges, Dornoch, Turnberry and St. Andrews to name just a few of its peers.

This historically important club drew its first breath in 1889 as Birkdale Golf Club but didn’t move to its present site until 1897. Over the decades it has seen many alterations and received royal patronage in 1951.

The links has held more championship and international events since World War II than any other course in the world. Open Championships, Ryder Cups, Women's British Opens, Senior Opens, Amateur Championships, Walker Cups and Curtis Cups have all been contested in this fertile corner of Southport.

It’s pedigree as a test for elite golf is unsurpassed and that sums it up quite nicely for me; Birkdale would be much higher on my list of courses to play for card and pencil golf rather than for a fun social round.

From the tee it is undeniably strong. With the exception of Sandwich it’s a more demanding driving course than the venues mentioned above and possibly the fiercest of all those on the Open rota. Numerous bunkers, which must be avoided at all costs, are located at every step of the way down most of the fairways and there is usually a preferred side to be. You are continually asked to decide between hitting driver, 3-wood or a long iron to carry, challenge or skirt the hazards.

Into the greens it is very fine too and it’s easy to see why the pro’s love returning here every decade or so for The Open. You’re unlikely to have any really unlucky bounces and recovery shots are all fairly straightforward… as far as links golf goes anyway! Everything is laid out in front of you, blindness is at a minimum and you’re never left wondering or hoping where your ball might end up after you have executed the shot.

For the majority of the time I tend to find the aerial route is the preferred method of attack and that is perhaps the underlying reason why Birkdale doesn’t quite click with me as it does for so many other links. Of course, there are some holes where you have a realistic option of playing into the green along the ground, or feeding one in somehow, but for the most part I always feel the holes are best attacked through the air.

As I alluded to earlier there are very few flaws at Birkdale. From a technical viewpoint there isn’t a bad hole amongst the 18, indeed there isn’t even a weak one. In context the third, fourth and fifth is arguably the weakest run on the course but this is quickly forgotten by the end of the round. And even these three would slot in comfortably on most decent links courses.

One of my favourite holes is the second, which funnels up beautifully to a green set in the dunes (as many are) and the run of holes from the ninth to the 12th is undeniably special. The last of this quartet is one of the best looking short holes in the land.

The grand opening hole is also a beast in a left-to-right wind as it turns right-to-left before twisting the other way as we near the green. And the 16th is also a hole I always really look forward to playing as you fire to a raised green with some serious drop-offs and bunkers to negotiate.

The routing also keeps us on our toes with constant changes in orientation and rarely do two holes follow the same path. The course momentarily returns to the white Art-Deco clubhouse after nine holes before venturing out into the dunes once again.

Pleasingly the fescue rough was very playable and the greens were in fine condition on my visit towards the end of August, just a month after The Open had been staged on this most famous of links.

Numbers and par shouldn’t really matter but played from the daily tees the course has a par of 72 but this somewhat awkwardly involves having three par-fives in the last four holes; the 18th would be far better as a tough two-shotter as it is for The Open. From the white tees it plays 6,829 yards whilst from the yellows it is just less than 6,400 yards.

Many commentators say Birkdale is the fairest of them all and as far as Open courses go ‘tis true but this is still high quality links golf we’re talking about and it embodies so many elements that makes golfing by the sea so great. Birkdale isn’t one of my personal favourites but it’s irrefutably one of the best.

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