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.
I was never a Tiger fan. Sure, I admired and respected his immense talent. But I was never a fan. Growing up, I was never a Jack fan. I respected Nicklaus, but I have always tended to root for the underdog, so my golfing idol was (and to this day) Tom Watson. In other sports, I support the Seattle Mariners in baseball, the Seattle Seahawks in American football and Crystal Palace in Premier League football. Again, I respect the Yankees, Patriots and Manchester United, but they aren't the underdogs.
So, as the Quicken Loans National begins this week, Tiger’s event on the PGA Tour, I must admit that I miss Tiger, in the same way I miss Jack.
Rarely do you get to see an athlete perform at their pinnacle. One moment in sports history that I find myself watching every year at least once is Secreatriat’s run as a three-year old horse winning the Triple Crown, culminating with his 30 length win at the Belmont Stakes. Three Triple Crown races, three Triple Crown records (which I believe still stand today).
In my opinion, we will never see another period of dominance in golf like Tiger had. Watson had his run in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but it still doesn't match what Tiger was able to accomplish. Tiger’s execution and shot making on the golf course was unparalleled. Some of his performances were like Secretariat winning the Belmont by 30 lengths (US Open and the Masters). It seemed he never made a poor decision and in many ways, played very conservative golf (hitting stinger 2 irons while Phil and other were blasting drivers into the corporate tents, settling for more 8-15 foot birdie putts than most make in a lifetime rather than trying to stiff every shot). Sure, he was very talented…but his mind and thinking on the golf course was the big difference maker and separating factor from the rest of the field. Nicklaus was the same way.
It is probably true that you do not truly appreciate something great until you don't have it any more. I would love to relive Jack’s seven stroke 1980 PGA Championship win. I would love to experience Tom’s 1980 Open Championship and 1982 US Open wins again. Why? Because they were great performances my great players. I miss being able to witness and respect the greatest players playing at an elite level and being at the top of the game.