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Formby

Yardage
7028
Par
72
SSS
74
Built
1884
Architect(s)
Willie Park jnr, Frank Pennink, Donald Steel, Martin Ebert
Nature:
Historic Amateur Championship links, of elegant tranquility among pines, with a variety of holes.
Location/Address:
Lancashire coast, near Freshfields station. Postcode: L37 1LQ
http://www.formbygolfclub.co.uk
Secretary
Stuart Leach
Telephone
01704 872164
Professional
Andrew Witherup
Green Keeper
Paul Swift
The 16th hole at Formby golf course
The 16th hole at Formby golf course
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Access Policy:
Visitors welcome weekdays; weekends pm
Dog Policy:
welcomed on a lead
Open Meetings:
The Formby Hare (scratch) May
Fees in 1960s
50p
Fees today
£110

Review

Formby Golf Club, founded in 1884, has a special place in the hearts of Fine Golfers. It is to amateur golf what Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham St Anne’s are to professional golf hereabouts – namely, a taste of the Finest.

This course has hosted many important tournaments including four Amateur Championships, the most recent being in 2009 when the young Italian teenager, Matteo Manassero, wowed the crowds with his devastating and steady play, in the club’s 125th anniversary year. It was also here at Formby that a young José-Maria Olazabal first hit the big headlines by beating Colin Montgomerie in the final of the 1984 Amateur Championship.

The 1901 Formby clubhouse, formby clubhouse, finest courses

The 1901 Formby clubhouse

The proud, impressive clubhouse, typical of this North West region, with its walls decorated with pictures of red-coated captains, was built in 1901, soon after Willie Park Jnr extended the course to 18 holes.

The 470 acres of the estate, comprising duneland, heathland and woodland, contain the unique feature of a separate Ladies Club established in 1896 with their own golf course located in the middle of the men’s course and their clubhouse visible on your right as you pass to the first tee.

This whole area is of great importance to nature conservationists and I recall, when playing in the 1980s, while waiting to drive on the 13th tee, looking over into the brooding darkness of the pine woods and watching a family of red squirrels gambolling around, oblivious to us humans and at that time not threatened by their grey cousins.

In the 1970s the threat of erosion of the shoreline required the creation of new holes at 7, 8 and 9, with the 10th changing to a short hole. Frank Pennink, who was then at the height of his designing fame (and soon to also make controversial changes to a number of the blind shots at Royal St George’s) was invited to carve three new holes through the woods.

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The opened-up drive at the 8th

Some have criticised this part of the course as not in keeping with the character of the links and I certainly found the 7th and 8th, when I first played them, to be what I call “Diddy townish”, hemmed-in with lack of strategic choice. These holes have, nevertheless, matured well and, with Donald Steel opening up the drive at the 8th, it has become a fine architectural hole.

The 9th is a very good two-shotter from elevated tees pointing into the prevailing wind with the backdrop of a beautiful line of Scots pine. One of the few glimpses of the sea can be enjoyed from this hole but let us mention here that the beauty of Formby lies in its enclosed, elegant tranquillity rather than spectacular views of sea or mountains.

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A glimpse of the sea at the 9th

The bunkering and approach to the 10th green have had a number of changes to adapt a previously par five green, approached from a different angle, to a par three. Martin Ebert has recently created some interesting undulations at the front, which are hazards that give an attractive unpredictability to the running shot played here.

The only other change to Willie Park’s tremendous initial layout is the creation of a new practice ground around which Donald Steel has bent the 14th hole (435 yards), which, when played down the prevailing wind, requires a raking draw to set up another bumped-in approach.

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Heather on the 2nd

The first three holes provide what some consider to be a gentle introduction, among heather, on flat ground along the railway. Built in 1850, this line allowed so many courses from West Lancs at Blundellsands to Royal Birkdale at Southport to be constructed along this fantastic stretch of Lancashire linksland.

The third is a classic par five testing your strategic bravery when playing from the angled tee across a run of five bunkers. The more of the corner that you take off, the easier it is to take on the ‘John Low-like’ central bunkers at 80 and 50 yards out from a well-defended low green with OOB behind, ringed by Scots pine that creates a peaceful dell at this first distant corner of the course.

We now turn back towards the Clubhouse along a tightly bunkered, 300 yarder with a small green. Assuredly, the sensible option here is to play for position and hope for a good pitch.

The fifth (154 yards) is the most difficult of the course’s three short holes with a high shelf of a green running away to the left. A bank at the back can help a running draw from the right.

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The concave 6th green

There are many challenging approach shots at Formby and at the sixth (428 yards) over rough hillocks you have your heart in your mouth until the ramparts are conquered and you discover how close your ball nestles on the small concave green.

Formby has always been proud of its trees which do give a uniqueness in comparison to Britain’s other finest links courses but thank goodness it was also recognised that they had grown and become too much a part of the course, rather than a background to it. A programme of removal started in 2002 and it is good to remember that, although courses like Swinley Forest are similarly framed by pine, Harry Colt, its designer, also appreciated that the running game, at what some think is his greatest early creation, did not need trees to impinge on the game, though of course the rhododendrons do!

Sadly, laziness by some green committees and the 1980/90s fashion for wet, target-style greens have allowed many self-seeded trees to encroach onto too many of our finest heathland courses. Trees often give greenkeepers a difficulty in choosing the sustainable, fine grasses option, because they hinder air-flow to dry out their course.

formby golf club, 15th hole, finest courses

The very fine 15th

At the high eleventh tee, we are now out standing on the open part of the course with six holes ahead of us, each measuring between 403 and 431 yards, plus the short (127 yard) 16th and the down-wind 17th of 494 yards. At this point in the play, we beat up and down the wind with an array of great two-shotters, defended down-wind by well placed and beautifully revetted bunkering and up-wind at the 12th and 15th by ‘rumpled and billowing ground’, as James Finegan describes it, giving host to entangling, though pretty, outcrops of miniature dog-rose in the rough.

It is interesting to observe the altered height of the trees now standing behind perhaps the best hole, the 15th, in comparison to that of a mere twenty years ago when, in Donald Steel’s book:(on page 175), they are shown as purely “tufts”. This hole needs no bunkers with its plateau fairway and approach to a two-tier green between a number of substantial mounds, to pose the golfer sufficient questions.

Dexter on the 18th tee

Dexter on the 18th tee

Willie Park Jnr displayed his brilliance in creating two fine finishing holes, with particularly unusual bunkering around the long, thin 18th green on what can only be called, in comparison to what has come before, ‘dull land’.

Nevertheless, the flatness here is unimportant, as the quality of the natural drainage and thankfully a policy of minimal inputs of fertiliser and watering have all combined to produce the finest of tight turf, giving us that challenge that blossoms with a ‘joy to be alive’ feeling.

In total this charming course is 7028 yards, par 72, SSS 74.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith 2011.

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