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High and Mighty: Royal Birkdale a unique member of Rota
Many decades before Pete Dye built what is considered the original stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, there was Royal Birkdale, site of the 137th Open Championship. With flattish fairways set amidst high sand dunes -- some of the highest in all of Britain -- Royal Birkdale allows it patrons to perch atop the dunes and peer down upon the action, of which, given history, there should be plenty.
By Jay Flemma, Special to PGA.com
In 1961 a storm out of the pages of the Apocalypse swept through Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, reducing the tented village to wreckage and wreaking havoc on golf shots. Battling for the lead on the final day of the Open Championship, Arnold Palmer hit a drive on the 15th hole that sliced wildly in the maelstrom, finally settling in the deep rough at the base of a vertical grassy bank about 150 yards from the green. With the gallery watching in stunned disbelief, he slashed a 6-iron from a lie that called for a sand wedge. Slicing through like a scythe felling wheat, his hosel wrapped in grass, Palmer somehow muscled the ball onto the green, saved par, and went on to win the Open. Astounded, Open Championship officials embedded a plaque at the site of Palmer's historic shot.
Palmer repeated as Open Champion the next year at Royal Troon. Many years later upon returning to Troon for the 1989 Open Championship, Palmer was asked by a newspaper photographer during a practice round to pose beside the plaque. After flailing around in the rough on the side of the 15th hole for several minutes, Palmer asked his caddie, the venerable Alfie Fyles, "Hey Alfie, where's that plaque?" In dry humor typical of the British, Fyles responded, "About 600 miles away. You're on the wrong course."
Such is the lot of Royal Birkdale. So much grand history has been made here, but because the name doesn't roll off the tongue, invoke the name of a Saint, or have a massive resort to shill for it, it's the course Americans sometimes overlook, even The King, who won there. Nicklaus also must share some blame. He once said Open Championship venues get worse the further south you go.
That's unfair, because except for St. Andrews, no course has hosted more Open Championships, eight in all, beginning in 1954 when Peter Thomson won the first of his five Open Championship titles. Thomson's Open Championship career has "Birkdale Bookends" -- the last of his five wins happened here in 1965.
Indeed, for many years, Birkdale was blessed with well-decorated champions. In 1971, Lee Trevino completed a trifecta that even Tiger Woods has never accomplished -- he won the Canadian Open, Open Championship and U.S. Open all in the same year. His one-shot victory over Liang Huan Lu -- who the tabloids dubbed simply "Mr. Lu" -- was on one of the epic battles ever fought at an Open Championship as the Taiwanese player, even obscure in his homeland, never wilted in the crucible of the grandest world stage in competitive golf.
In 1976, Johnny Miller, in the midst of a torrid run, where he won seemingly at will, held off a valiant charge by a new face, a young and exuberant teenager from Spain named Severiano Ballesteros. Then in 1983, Tom Watson won his fifth and final Open, at Birkdale, tying Thomson's mark of five wins, and leaving him one behind the legendary Harry Vardon, still the only man to claim six Claret Jugs. You may remember that Open for Hale Irwin's costly whiff of a tap-in putt during the third round. He lost by one shot.
Lately, Royal Birkdale has seen some off-brand winners as well. After numerous high finishes in the Open, Australia's Ian Baker-Finch finally broke through with his only major victory in 1991. He carded a blistering 29 on the front nine on Sunday. In 1998, Masters champion Mark O'Meara held off Bryan Watts to claim the Open in a campaign where he ultimately won Player of the Year honors.
Yet, 1998 may be better known across the pond for the emergence of an affable British teenager who captured the hearts and minds of the entire United Kingdom with a mixture of pluck, grace, youthful vitality and scintillating golf shots. Justin Rose, then still an unknown amateur, came of age in Southport that week, hanging in contention until the bitter end, and giving the crowd a thrill that still echoes through the years.
Rose was about 50 yards short of the last green and in a thick, clingy patch of marram grass to the left of the green. From the deck of that sinking ship, he pitched in and all England rejoiced. "The whole place shook when he holed that shot" recalled sportscaster Joel Blumberg. "It was an incredible moment. You felt the whole place just lift off the ground and then come back down."
"It was amazing," echoed David Clarke, editor-in-chief of GOLF Magazine. "Everyone one jumped in the air at once when the ball disappeared. The entire grandstand reverberated and the place rang with the cheering. I've never seen the like to match it in golf: football, perhaps. The stands just shook and shook with the joy of it all."
Indeed, all Merseyside rocks every 10 years or so, as though the Beatles have returned to prominence, every time professional golfers return to Birkdale. The patrons are duly rewarded for their fervor with outstanding views of the golf: Birkdale was a stadium golf course long before Pete Dye built Sawgrass in the states on a similar principle -- the flattish fairways are set amidst the high dunes, some of the highest in all Britain. Patrons ring the dunes and look down upon the action.
"Birkdale is an outstanding links, one of my favorite venues of all, and one of the best to watch a tournament," replied a positively glowing Karl McGinty, a popular golf writer for the Irish Independent. "The spectators can stand in rings atop the dunes and see the action well, sometimes on two or three holes."
Birkdale was originally laid out in 1889 by George Low, but was completely rerouted and redesigned by Fred G. Hawtree of the venerable British golf architecture firm of Hawtree and Taylor, a proper rejoinder to America's Jones boys. Fred's son, Fred W. Hawtree, created a new par-3 12th hole and rebuilt many greens in 1991, added some contour, most notably at the fifth and 17th. Before those changes, the playing corridors were as flat as a West Texas highway, (even though set in a lunar dunescape), giving Birkdale a reputation for flatness and fairness.
You won't hear the pros complaining. They love the flattish fairways: there's none of the capricious bounces found at St. George's or St. Andrews or Carnoustie. In that respect, Birkdale is unique among Rota courses. You don't get uneven lies in the fairway. If you leave the fairway, watch out, because the dunes are shaggy, bumpy and tall. But Birkdale is the Rota course most akin to target golf. Even in a one-to-two-club breeze, the playing corridors are reasonably easy to hit and hold. That's one reason why Americans have had so much success there over the years. Hit the fairway, then hit the middle of the green and have a run at birdie.
Reigning Open Champion Padraig Harrington agreed. Speaking with McGinty and Brian Keogh of the Irish Sun, Padraig explained, "I can understand why a lot of players would rate this very highly. It's not a tricky course, there's nothing funky about it. Everything is there in front of you ... The greens themselves are not severe and if there's some slopes off them, there's not too many ... The decision-making should be reasonably straightforward on this golf course. Avoid the bunkers off the tee. Hit it in the middle of the greens because it looks reasonably inviting from there."
Additionally, among Rota courses, Birkdale and St. George's share one common strategy: score on the front nine, hang on for dear life on the back nine. Birkdale's front is much shorter. Players may drive the green on the par-4 fifth hole, but in cutting the dogleg over hair-raising dunes, they bring a pond placed forty yards short of the green into play. Seven pot bunkers ring the green. The 480-yard par-4 sixth hole may be the toughest on the course. The hole sweeps to the right, but the knee of the dog-leg is guarded by a deep bunker at the base of a massive dune. The long, tight par-4 eighth saw Lee Trevino "bless" the green after sinking a twisting 35-foot birdie putt on Sunday in 1971.
While players will skyrocket up the leaderboard on the front like fireworks, the longer, tougher back nine will be equally dramatic in exacting revenge. The 10th is a sharply curving dog-leg left; a tall dune and heather guard the inside of the knee, a deep bunker guards the outside. The green is tightly tucked into a treacherous dell of marram-covered dunes where the wind swirls. The relatively new par-3 12th is equally well-protected, defended further by the fickle winds ebbing and flowing off the coast and around the dunescape. Thirteen, 15, and 17 are prodigiously long holes and 16, though short, is a tough fairway to hit in a crosswind, the prevail on that hole. It also features a plateau green more akin to the upside-down saucers of Donald Ross.
The finish is one of the most demanding and colorful in golf. "Scylla and Charybdis" -- two monster dunes that take their name from the Greek legend of Odysseus -- frame the plateau fairway and must be traversed with a long, straight tee shot to even get started in the right direction when playing this hole. But a birdie can be claimed as the green accepts long approaches well. Tony Jacklin sank a 60-foot putt for eagle there in 1969 to draw even with Jack Nicklaus in their famous singles skirmish in the Ryder Cup that ended in a draw with Nicklaus' grand concession of a missable putt on 18. Finally, the brutishly long and narrow par-4 18th, featuring a wishbone shaped fairway, will play about 490 yards this year and play to a green fronted by two of the deepest pot bunkers on the course.
With Tiger Woods injured and not in the field, and the course having a welcome familiarity for an Open venue, everyone will feel like they have a shot. Moreover, the last five winners here: Watson, O'Meara, Baker-Finch, Trevino, and Miller were not the longest hitters, but were laser-accurate with their irons and were stellar putters. With tennis rackets and superballs for modern equipment, maybe a long bomber, probably an American, will surprise everyone and claim the Claret Jug if there is no wind. But if we finally get some wind in July at the Open -- finally -- look for a shotmaker to emerge, possibly a European Tour player.
On that note, don't count out Harrington, even though he still has burdensome demands on his time as a newly minted major winner. He won at Carnoustie, so he can win at any Rota course. Still, he's not counting his eggs before they're in the pudding. "There might be a lot of players coming here and liking it, which is not what I want," he said candidly. "I'd be happier if everybody turns up and hates the place, that's a good thing for me."