One of the first Open Championship Rota courses I was fortunate to play was Royal Birkdale. Upon entering the property, the first things that hits you is the clubhouse. Once described as a ‘spaceship’, it is not the proto-typical foreboding clubhouses you think of when visiting these great links courses in the United Kingdom. Once inside, you find a building that is oozing in history with pictures and hardware commemorating the 26 Royal & Ancient major championships (professional and amateur) that the club has hosted.
The golf course itself is one of my favorite layouts. It looks like Frederick Hawtree and J.H. Taylor just walked along and plotted the fairways and placed the greens between all the natural valleys and dunes of the property. It is fair but tough. Good and straight shots are rewarded, while wayward shots are penalized by the bunkers, fescue and dunes. There is nothing quirky about this course. It is easily one of the Top 100 golf courses in the world. I have played it three times and enjoyed it more each time around the layout.
If the course gets a wee breeze this week, look for the scores to a bit on the high side this week. Only once has the winner of the Open (Lee Trevino in 1971) managed to reach double digits under par. Royal Birkdale is a wonderful mix of challenging dogleg par 4’s and great par 3’s. There are two par 5’s, but you don’t get them until the 15th and 17th holes. This par-70 will challenge the field and I consider it one of the more difficult Open Rota layouts.
There will be a few key holes this week. Of course, this will depend which way the wind blows on the Merseyside. As I write, the wind is forecast for about 15 mph, with gusts to 25 mph on the first two days of the championship. Given that, here are the key holes from my experience in playing Royal Birkdale.
1st Hole—Par 4, 450 yards
This is a great starting hole and no easing into this layout. A dogleg left, most players will probably take a long iron or hybrid off the tee thread their ball between a bunker and dune on the corner and fescue waiting at the far corner of the dogleg. From there, mid-to-long iron approach awaits to a green which slopes from away from you, front to back. A couple of bunkers guard the front of the green which is surrounded by small dunes. Four is a good score any day here, no matter which way the wind blows.
4th Hole—Par 3, 199 yards
One of things you get at Birkdale are many holes with elevated tees and superb par 3’s. This first of which is this hole. From the very back of the tee, you may have trouble seeing the entire green. Sometimes, it is best not to see what awaits you. Played usually with a prevailing crosswind, you hit a mid-iron downhill to a narrow kidney shaped green. Three bunkers guard the left and there is not much of an opening to run the ball up. A nasty bunker guards the right side and awaits and ball which rides the wind too much off the tee. Any pin on the left side will make 3 a number which gains strokes on the field. Walking off the green to the next tee, you will see the original professional shop at the club.
6th Hole—Par 4, 499 yards
This hole is a beast. The prevailing wind is into you and off the right. A bunker guards the corner of the hole at about 270 yards off the tee. Anything in the right side of this fairway short of that bunker, leaves you a blind shot to the green, as sand dunes line the entire right side up to just short of the green. Designed for a par 5, the green is long and narrow, slightly elevated from the fairway. More than likely, this will be the hardest hole on the course this week.
10th Hole—Par 4, 402 yards
This is a real sleeper of a hole and with the prevailing wind, could be a difficult hole this week. Many will hit a long iron off the tee. You must hit the fairway of this reverse camber hole. Two bunkers guard the corner of the dogleg left, while the fairway slopes right to left toward three more bunkers. The approach shot plays slightly uphill to a green that is perfectly placed in a small amphitheater of sand dunes.
12th Hole—Par 3, 188 yards
Another of Birkdale’s wonderful par 3’s. A solid strike with a mid-iron is a must on this hole. Two deep bunkers guard the entrance to the long green placed between the dunes. Some members say this is the signature hole of the layout.
17th Hole—Par 5, 567 yards
With a prevailing wind, this will be the par 5 which most of the field reaches in two. The tee shot will fly between two large dunes on each side of the dogleg. Two bunkers are on the right side of the landing area, at about 320 yards off the tee. Despite being easily reachable for the players, the 2nd shot must be precise. The green is long and narrow, guarded by three bunkers and large dunes on each side. You will see 3’s and many 4’s here…but I could easily a player in the dunes and a score of 6 ruining a player’s chance at glory this week.
18th Hole—Par 4, 465 yards
Maybe the best finishing hole in the Open Rota. From the championship tee, it is a blind tee shot, as you can’t see the landing area. The tee shot must avoid all the fescue down the right side and the bunkers on each side of the dogleg right. That’s half the battle. Now, you face a mid-iron shot to a green with a narrow entrance and many little humps and hollows around the green. Tom Watson hit a great 2 iron approach here in 1983 to seal his win. That long of a club will not be required this time, but a player needing a 4 to win will need to be precise with his approach.
Often overshadowed by it’s Open Championship rota neighbor Royal Birkdale, Formby Golf Club offers a spectacular layout and challenge for any player. Perhaps a bit different than other links courses, Formby’s layout winds its way through a combination of pine forest and sand dunes along the Merseyside coast It is truly a gem of a golf course and one that you could see yourself playing everyday the rest of your life without getting bored.
The first three holes parallel the Merseyrail Railroad which borders the east side of the property. Hole 2 is a 400 yard Par 4 which requires an accurate tee shot to avoid three bunkers down the right hand side. Avoiding the bunkers is only half the battle on this hole, as your approach miss hold a slightly elevated green, with a deep bunker on the left and a fall-off area to the right and rear of the green.
The first of Formby’s par 3’s, the fifth hole, marks the beginning of a challenging stretch of holes to end the front nine. Typically, playing into the prevailing wind, the 183 yard hole has three deep bunkers to the left of the green and a severely sloping green from back left to right front.
The sixth hole also plays into the prevailing wind and at 428 yards, is all the par 4 you could ask for. Bending slightly from right to left, your drive must avoid the three bunkers down the right and the fescue down the left. From the fairway, the approach will be blind, as some sand dunes block your view of the green. No greenside bunkers around this green…the dunes are all the protection it needs to make this hole difficult.
The seventh hole, a 410 yards Par 4, winds it’s way through the pine forest. The hole, somewhat shaped like an ‘S’ requires and accurate tee shot to put you in position. I chose to hit 4 hybrid the times I have played here, leaving myself a short iron approach. Driving down the right side of the fairway, you will leave yourself a blind second shot because of a large dune at the corner. Your approach shot must be played wisely, as the green slopes severely from back to front…anything above approach left above the hole will leave a testing challenge for a two putt.
#9 nine is my favorite hole at Formby and its most challenging. From an elevated tee, the 450 yard par 4 playing back into the prevailing wind is all right there in front of you. Distance and accuracy are required on the tee shot, with pine forest bordering the left and fairway bunkers on each side of the fairway. With the green nestled up against a grove of pines and among small little hillocks, your long iron or fairway wood approach will need to be solid and straight..no telling the bounce you may get if you miss this green.
To start the back nine, #10 is a long par 3 of 215 yards. From the slightly elevated tee, your shot must navigate two green side bunkers, that because of the terrain, tend to be magnets for just the slightest of off-line shots.
Holes 11-15 begin a stretch of testing Par 4’s and look like what you typically picture when thinking of links golf courses…rolling links land with tall fescue on each side of the fairway. Measuring from 400-433 yards, these holes look like the greens and tee were just placed perfectly among the dunes, with nothing to protect the player from the winds.
You will hear about Royal Troon’s #8 Postage Stamp Par 3 during the upcoming Open Championship as the best short par three in the world. However, Formby has one that may be just as good. The 16th hole measures only 139 yards from the back tee and hitting the green could be one of your more challenging shots all round. The green complex is almost like an upside-down bowl, with three deep bunkers and fall-off areas all around. I have been fortunate that the times I have played Formby, I have had to hit no more than 8 iron…some members have told me there are instances where the wind forces you to hit a long iron or hybrid to reach the green.
A good finishing hole should be more than just a challenging well-designed hole. It should leave you with a nice image of the club in your mind. Formby accomplishes this with its 18th hole. At 440 yards, you tee off from a chute of pine trees. The drive must thread fairway bunkers lining both sides of the fairway. As you walk up to your drive, off to the right you will notice Formby’s charming clubhouse and it’s Clock Tower just to the right of the green emerging out from behind the treeline. Having played here three times, the walk up the 18th has been more enjoyable each time. The success of your second shot will depend largely on appropriate club selection…the green is 55 yards deep and can be a challenge to judge where the flag is located.
A stop in the Formby clubhouse is a must. As you enter the bar area, you will immediately notice the Formby Hippo. The Hippo was shot by one of the early members at Formby and given to the club upon his death in 1909. If you are looking for accommodations, the club also has a Dormy House for overnight visitors. When you stop in at the Golf Shop, Head Professional Andrew Witherup and his staff will give you a warm welcome and offers a fine selection of apparel and items to remember your visit. There is also a separate 18 hole Ladies Club and Clubhouse.
When I am in the Merseyside, Formby is a must-play. It offers everything you could be looking for in a round of golf.
Also, right down the street, you will find a restaurant that is perfect for the post-round meal and pint. The Freshfield is a neighborhood pub with delicious food and a selection of ales that is unmatched. They even produce 14 of their own ales. Family friendly (and dog friendly), I never visit Formby without stopping by the Freshfield.
Believe it or not, there is already some absurdity being mentioned (usually on Twitter) when it comes to how the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union will affect the game of golf. So, I thought I would list some things on how the Brexit will (or will not) affect the golf industry.
1. The US will still play Europe in the Ryder Cup--Even though the UK is leaving the European Union, the Ryder Cup will still be staged between players from the two continents. Technically, the UK is on the European continent...they are just leaving the economic and governing structure known as the EU. So, for all of those people hoping the US could go back to dominating the Ryder Cup by just playing English/UK players....think again.
2. In the foreseeable short term, the cost of playing golf and traveling to the UK will decrease--The British Pound fell to a 30-year low against the US Dollar immediately this morning upon the UK referendum results. The cost for golf trips, greens fees, hotels...really anything in the UK will immediately decrease in cost for US travelers because of the exchange rates. Likewise, any products you like t purchase from the UK (Twining's Tea, HP Sauce, etc.) will also take less out of your pocket. Donald Trump already said Brexit will bring more people to his renovated Turnberry...you may not like him, but he is right on this issue.
3. Travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland MAY be affected--Ireland is part of the European Union and there has not been a border check between there and Northern Ireland since the Troubles. With the UK (which Northern Ireland is a part of) out of the European Union, there is talk of adding a border check at the IRE/NI border. Now, you can stay in Dublin and drive straight up to play courses like Royal County Down or Ardglass in about 2 hours. With a border crossing and customs check...you better add at least a 1/2 hour to this trip...making your golf day-trip just a bit longer and bothersome. Stay tuned on this issue.