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Royal Birkdale

Yardage
6821
Par
70
SSS
73
Built
1889
Architect(s)
George Lowe, Fred, Frank and Martin Hawtree, JH Taylor
Nature:
Hawtree designed, fine grassed Open Championship links between large dunes, of the modern era.
Location/Address:
South of Southport. Post Code PR8 2LX
http://royalbirkdale.com/
Secretary
Adam Moule
Telephone
01704 552020
Professional
Brian Hodgkinson
Green Keeper
Chris Whittle
royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua
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Access Policy:
visitors welcome
Dog Policy:
No dogs
Open Meetings:
The Birkdale Goblet - August
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£215

Review

In researching its history and trying to work out why is Royal Birkdale so good and well respected when, if the truth be told, so few of the greats of golf have been associated with its membership, I have come to the conclusion that the simplest way to sum it up is in the word ‘modern’.

Other renowned member clubs, for example, Rye, Muirfield, Royal Liverpool, Royal Porthcawl, Ganton, Prestwick, and Royal West Norfolk etc can be said to encapsulate the meaning of ‘traditional’. They have developed, in order to stay on top of their own lofty positions in the golf market, through that thing the British call ‘laid-back class’. This has consistently kept them among the very finest running–golf courses, ie those that give the greatest enjoyment.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The 1930s Art-Deco clubhouse. Click to enlarge photo

Birkdale has a different heritage. There are some very able men and ladies among the captains and presidents of the Club but not one with a title (though Sir Christopher Hewetson, captain in 1993 is the exception that proves the rule, as they say) and Tony Johnson, author of the Birkdale Centenary book, describes the Club as having humble beginnings.

Women were involved from the start and Ladies’ tournaments have added enormously to its history from 1889 when nine holes were created.

There have been many illustrious players who have accepted honorary membership over the years, the first being the amateur Harold Hilton, following his victory in The Open Championship at Muirfield of 1892. A local hero who was killed in the Boer War and associated primarily with Hoylake and West Lancashire,

The second green

In 1897 the club moved to Birkdale Hills (its present site) with its lines of large dunes and flat slacks in between and the course was extended to eighteen holes. The course architect was clubmaker George Lowe from Angus, at that time the pro at Royal Lytham and St Annes, who had two brothers, both pros and later two sons both also pros in Australia. Maybe it is because of my own Scottish ancestry that I am aware of the high proportion of Scots who went out to lead the Empire and let’s hope the UK sets high standards in being once again a leading international trading nation, post-Brexit.

George Lowe’s course was called ‘sporting’ in the golfing press. It was in the old style of many blind shots over the dunes with holes set perpendicular to the present remarkably flat fairways. Tons of soil and railway sleepers were mentioned in early committee minutes which were used to raise the damp areas and to create steps for players over the huge dunes.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Bonnets and long dresses in 1909

The Club’s website claims that the course has hosted more championships and International events since World War Two than any other course in the world – more of that later – the first being the Ladies British Open match play in 1909 and what wonderful hats and long dresses they all wore!

Modern women can thank Gloria Minoprio for being the first to wear trousers on the links at Westward Ho! in the 1933 British Ladies Championship, beaten in the first round by Nancy Halstead from Walton Heath and when she played a tournament at Birkdale she also used only one club, a one iron and was reasonably well placed!

Anyway 1909 was a festival of ladies’ golf in public (while they could still not vote in private!) and Cecil Leitch from Silloth-on-Solway, at the age of 16, launched her spectacular career, in winning the stroke-play event.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Clubhouse behind raised ninth green.

In the 1920s the land occupied by the course, though offered to the Club, was at £19,000 felt to be too expensive and it was acquired by the local town council. Some feared this development but surprisingly the council had no intention of creating a municipal course, but rather granted a ninety-nine year lease on condition the course was re-modelled to be fit for championships and a new club house worthy of the course be built.

This was a truly successful example of government getting out the way and helping create the environment for private enterprise to raise standards from which the whole town and region has benefitted over the years.

It was at this point with the raising of the necessary investment cash, that Birkdale Golf Club took another modern step and retained Fred Hawtree and JH Taylor (a member of the great triumvirate with Harry Vardon and James Braid, and who fought a rear-guard action against the new ‘strategic school’ of design but by the twenties had recognised its value) who designed the course we know today. This was created with predominantly flat, winding fairways running between the high dunes, which is one of the reasons the pros normally describe Birkdale as so fair. The journeymen pros don’t approve of funny bounces, so are not so keen on quirky bumps and hollows that are typical of so many of the finest traditional running-links courses.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Shrimping on Birkdale beach.

The new white clubhouse, of an aggressively modern 1930 Art-deco design has been described as a ship sailing amid a mountainous sea of sand dunes. The Southport shrimps, a local delicacy, are always on the menu.

Not inappropriately, a ladies’ event, the English Ladies’ Championship of 1935 was the first championship to play the new course and use the new clubhouse, heralding in a new era for the club.

Within nineteen years, including the period of the World War Two intervening, the Club was transformed and by the sixties/seventies was being spoken of as the greatest course in GB&I which was reflected by the number of Open Championships played here around that time.

Robert, Richard and Brian.

Mention should be made of the three important Club professionals in this championship era for the Club. The first was Robert Halsall, who started as a caddy in 1925 and was appointed pro in 1936, before retiring in 1979. Richard Bradbeer, of the famous Burnham & Berrow family (Richard’s father being one of nine boys who all became golf pros, four of whom qualified to play in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s in 1928) moved to Royal Birkdale in 1980 bringing with him his assistant Brian Hodgkinson, who has subsequently become the pro on Richard’s retirement.

It is mentioned by Stuart Fish, a past captain of the Club in his book “The Royal Birkdale Golf Club   Another 25 years” of the history since its centenary in 1989, that Robert Halsall’s elegant swing, after being elected to honorary membership on retirement, could be often seen on the links with a pencil bag and just a few clubs. To the alarm and consternation of some of the more recent members to whom he was unknown, he would play from one fairway to another as the mood took him, perhaps playing a course layout from before Hawtree/Taylor got rid of most of the blind shots!

Until Chris Whittle was appointed in 1994, there had been three head greenkeepers, who all were previously at Gullane.

John Gillan served from 1907 to the 1950s. Douglas Pate then took over before an early retirement in 1978, during which he was responsible for five Open Championships and two Ryder Cups.  He initially kept the links firm and running on fine turf, though towards the end of his time, with the fashion for fertilised ‘green’ greens taking hold and new automatic watering systems coming in from America being over-used, (particularly following the droughts of 1975 and 1976 when even fine grasses had difficulty surviving without water), he did not aerate sufficiently and started to ‘tickle them up’ with fertiliser against the retained agronomist, Jim Arthur’s advice.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The par three seventh green

Tom O’Brien was then appointed course manager and though he worked closely with Jim Arthur trying a number of different methods through the 1980s to re-establish again deep rooted fine grasses, eventually following the 1991 Open Championship, it was decided to take the drastic action of digging the greens up. A compacted layer was discovered which was impeding drainage and collecting the residue of chemical fertilisers. This toxic environment, which was fatal to deeper rooted fine grasses, allowed annual meadow grass (Poa annua) to flourish giving softer, thatchy and receptive target greens.

This change in agronomy to weed grasses was of course disastrous and it must be down to the high respect with which the Club was viewed that it was fortunate to be allowed by the Royal and Ancient to host the 1991 Open Championship.

Australian Ian Baker-Finch won on this occasion, when every lowest score record was broken for The Open Championship. He was remarkably accurate ‘through the air’ and stopping the ball quickly with his approach irons on the soft turf, single putting seven of the last nine greens in his fourth round.

TV commentary finds it easy to adulate a birdie fest on target greens. It is more difficult to find commentators who can talk knowledgeably about the agronomic reasons that make running-golf the more interesting and enjoyable. 

More later on how Chris Whittle’s team has restored the course surfaces but first let us remember the so many memorable events during the height of Birkdale’s pomp.

Jimmy Bruen from Cork, he of the flat and forward lunge swing won the Boys Championship in 1936 and then the Amateur in 1946 both at Birkdale. It just shows that a classic swing may make things easier but nevertheless the game is won between the ears!

Frances ‘Bunty’ Smith OBE, nee Stevens.

This might also be said of Birkdale’s greatest lady golfer Frances ‘Bunty’ Smith OBE, who may have lacked length and was withdrawn and modest (she was daughter of a golf pro) but possessed acres of determination and was never beaten in five Curtis Cup singles matches around 1950. Her portrait, in recognition of her outstanding abilities, hangs on its own in the Club Dining room today.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Ronnie White

In case anyone should think Birkdale has been dominated by ladies, let us mention also Ronnnie White, the best amateur of his generation in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His portrait from 2001 has also been hung in the clubhouse.

The Club hosted the Curtis Cup in 1948, the Brabazon in 1950, the Walker Cup in 1951 and following the King’s command to add Royal to the Club’s name in 1951, the first Open Championship was played here in 1954 when, at age 24, Peter Thomson became the first Australian to win The Open Championship.

Arnold Palmer made history and ushered in a new era in GB&I golf in winning The Open at Royal Birkdale in 1961, after which all the Americans flocked over to the only major championship held outside of the USA.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Arnold Palmer on the sixteenth hole

A brass plate has been erected on a concrete plinth at the spot where Arnie won the Championship on the sixteenth hole by firing a six iron at a ball that was embedded deep in a bush in the boondocks. His strength somehow achieved the impossible with the ball flying to the heart of the green 150 yards away.

He admitted that he would never normally have taken on the shot but the fact that he only won by one shot from Dai Rees, emphasises that it was this golf shot that catapulted golf into the headlines across GB&I. Dai Rees, the Welshman, had finished with three birdies in the last four holes to go 3,4,3,3 to set Palmer a tough target, at a time when the seventeenth was a par three.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The par three twelfth green

In 1963 Frank Hawtree, son of Fred, was retained to make the course more convenient for large numbers of spectators, though the high dunes surrounding so many of the greens and fairways were already natural amphitheatres. He got rid of the much loved par three seventeenth which allowed the eighteenth to become a wonderful 473 yard, slight dogleg, par four and created the spectacular par three twelfth.

1965 saw the return of The Open after only four years with a course that was running fast. There was a strong breeze on the final day when two rounds were played for the last time. Peter Thomson, winner of four Opens in the 1950s, had his greatest hour against all the top players of the new generation. He needed a 4, 4 finish which was achieved with straight drives and long irons running through the gaps to the heart of the greens. It was true Fine running-Golf.

Club Secretary Col. John Rees had planned on keeping the crowd behind the wooden railings beside the eighteenth but these were trampled down to keep a tradition to this day, and the walking crowd witnessed Peter Thomson come in from the cold and lift his fifth Open Championship.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The par three fourth green with Artisan clubhouse

1967 saw changes to holes four and five. The idea was to take off a proportion of the dune that obscured the bottom of the pin on the par three fourth, but the contractor misunderstood and removed it all. Consequently the hole had to wait until the 1980s when a front left bunker and more green undulations were added before recovering its poise. The Artisans’ clubhouse is next to this green whose members help out the greens staff with work like divoting.

The straight short par four fifth’s fairway was susceptible to flooding and it was converted into a sharp dogleg with a bank protecting the fairway from the slack. Frank Pennink and Robert Halsall both commented that the new pond on the right should be brought closer to the green to bring it more into play. Perhaps the Club decided correctly that running golf courses should not rely on created ponds to provide penal hazards! As Jim Arthur used to say “Golf is not a water sport”.

1969 was famous for Jack Nicklaus’s conceded putt to Tony Jacklin on the final Birkdale green to produce a tied Ryder Cup for the very first time.

Trevino and Lu on 18th green.

In 1971 The Open quickly returned and is remembered for the irrepressible Mexican superstar Lee Trevino playing at the top of his game in the last pair with the hat-doffing Formosan with the toothy grin, Mr Lu. Trevino made a mess of the seventeenth driving into the left hand dune, topping his second and blasting his third over the fairway. Sadly, at this crucial moment Mr Lu, needing a little percentage, flat faced  bump-and-run, up-and-down for his par, made the mistake of choosing to use a wedge and dunked it and his moment of possible glory had passed.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The burnt first fairway in 1976

1976 had one of the hottest summers ever with a major drought and saw again a quick return of The Open Championship to Birkdale. There was rain on the third day but the fairways a colour of yellow were playing bouncy and fast, and Johnny Miller mastered the elements with a record 66 in the last round, beating a newly arrived Seve Ballesteros.

1978 saw Nick Faldo at age twenty-two win his first professional championship in the Colgate PGA at Birkdale.

In the 1980s a few changes were made firstly on the first hole where the height of the right-hand dune was lowered near the green so as to speed up play. No longer did players need to walk across the fairway to ascertain the flag position if they had driven down the right at what is a testing opening par four with a fairway that wriggles its way in s-bends round two opposing sand dunes – a double dogleg.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Cock pheasant in front of raised sixth green.

The sixth fairway was extended left of the fairway corner bunker to tempt the use of the driver. The green was also raised.

There have been numerous new back tees created due to the authorities not getting to grips with the length the ball was being hit but in the 1990s a new championship tee was created for the par three seventh, which radically changed the hole. This new tee requires a longer shot and looks up the green rather than in my view the better hole from the high now winter tee, that plays across the green with bunkers front, left and back. The new tee does though vary the direction of one short hole, playing East/West rather than having all four playing on the north/South axis, parallel to the sea.

The Open Championship return was extended to seven years to 1983 and the weather that year was such that thick rough was predicted to cause high scoring. But actually there were low scores and Tom Watson won his fifth Open Championship within nine years.

Palmer, Trevino. Miller and Thomson, all winners at Birkdale

There is a difference of opinion between the two Birkdale historians as to the quality of the greens in 1983, with Tony Johnson saying they were ‘much praised’. Stuart Fish notes that concern and comments were voiced in particular that they were atypical of links greens. Perhaps it was the, by then, target receptiveness of the greens, that made for easier scoring on four days that produced no wind.

This ‘much praised’ situation sounds similar to Augusta Syndrome, or talking closer to home, like Hunstanton in the 1990s, where soft, shaved, target greens of annual meadow grass (Poa annua) were ‘much praised’ for their speed by inland golfers from around London. These players were used to keeping their handicaps low thanks to their home clubs’ target-style, receptive greens. Eventually Hunstanton’s greens died from the stress of low cutting for speed and that Club had the wisdom to retain Gordon Irvine MG to help return the course to fine grasses, which he achieved in five years without disruption to the playability of members; today it again gives a high ‘joy-to-be-alive’ feeling for its firm trueness of running golf.

Following the 1991 Open Championship with the greens being given a new rootzone, the third generation of Hawtree course architects, Martin Hawtree, re-sculptured them before the original turf was relayed.

Unfortunately, the turf was cut at differing thicknesses and it has taken Chris Whittles’ team quite some time to re-establish fine grasses. He initially over-seeded with brown-top bent and in more recent years with fescue which, when playing the course in 2016, had become the dominant grass species again not only on the fairways but with the browntop bents on the greens.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The fifteenth fairway and green

The difference in the quality of the fine grasses between 2009 when Chris buggy-ed me around the course and 2016 was significant and we can now expect the 2017 Open Championship to be played on a links that has been returned to the same quality surfaces that gained the Club its high reputation in the 1960/70s as the finest running-golf course in GB&I and therefore in the world.

One hopes a lesson has been learnt by the Club members that if they wish to avoid losing their course again for months on end to dig up the greens, it is much better to take the pressure off the greens team by allowing them to control the speed of the greens depending on the weather and recognise ‘greened-up’ greens have their downside. The realisation of this knowledge now allows a consistent trueness of roll to be set as the dominant performance measurement target, rather than mere high speed which just slows down the pace of the game and plays to the ego of low handicappers.

Talking about which course is now No.1 in GB&I, with Golf Digest having County Down, Dornoch, Muirfield and St Andrews Old  all ranked higher than Birkdale at present, it is worth mentioning that Trump Turnberry, following significant investment in design and agronomy is now, rather too early in Finegolf’s view, being spoken of by some and the UK’s premier golf magazine Golf Monthly, as the UK’s new No.1.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

18th green and clubhouse

‘The Donald’, we hope, has listened to his greenkeeping advisers after having opened Trump Aberdeen too hastily, thereby ruining the quality and look of the fairways with ryegrass, has agreed to replace the greens’  rootzone on the Ailsa course. Although John Bambury, who was the greenkeeper during Trump Aberdeen’s grow-in, has had success in re-turfing Ballybunion Old with 100% fescue turf from their own nursery these last two years, it is likely to take Allan Patterson’s team at Trump Turnberry a little while, much as it has Chris Whittle, to establish a dominance of fine grasses to achieve real firmness, having also like Royal Birkdale relayed the original Poa/Browntop bent turf.

The time it will take is not surprising when the pressure from golfers who fork out £200 per round, demand perfect and fast greens every day of the year. There are not many greenkeepers who can achieve this and the Club made an outstanding choice in Chris who is locally born and became course manager firstly at St Annes Old Links and then Muirfield before returning to the North-West and becoming course manager at Royal Birkdale in 1994. There are some good course managers who have learnt under Chris and are now at Woodbridge, Northamptonshire County and Royal Porthcawl.

Royal Birkdale is and always has been a modern club, continually updating its iconic clubhouse to be compatible with its rising status.

So, let’s forgive the blip in the 1970/80s. A lot of other clubs also gave in to the siren voices of the ‘fertilise and cut it low brigade’. The greens, now cut at between 4 and 5mm, are back to their finest. The fairways are high in fescue and the course is now set up to compliment its challenging design of strategic doglegs, fine par threes and two interesting par fives.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Phallanx of trees behind 18th fairway

The experience of Royal Birkdale gives a high ‘joy-to-be-alive’ feeling. Normally played at 6821 yards, it is now some 7400 yards from the tips, with more than 100 small deep bunkers. It is an ecological haven with the inappropriate trees gone along with the buckthorn and even the formerly attractive in the wind, white poplars are no longer present. Natterjack toads, sand lizards and pheasants are here in abundance and as Peter Thomson summed up “to have grown from a local club with nine holes to its present day eminence is a great achievement”.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The 18th now played without trees.

While usually the heart of a FineGolf review is a detailed appraisal of the holes, our Birkdale analysis is going to break that theme. Birkdale’s are well known and many other publications will go into infinite detail. FineGolf believes it is more interesting to discuss the wider issues of the course and Club and hope our readers will acquire something from that discussion.

Having said that, I will make this one observation; though many greens are backed and sided by sandhills and some are raised from the level of the fairway as at six, eight, nine, ten, eleven and sixteen,  there are also some delightful, well cut run-offs of tight turf from which a putt or a flat-faced bump-and-run is the best choice. The new swale to the right of the eleventh green and the deep one at the front of the third green are memorable and let’s hope the Open Championship pros do not ‘dunk’ or ‘skim’ too many of their modern wedge shots from out of these subtle running-hazards.

My final comment in this review concerns the two recent Open Championships of 1998 and 2008.

Mark O’Meara came to Royal Birkdale in 1998 already wearing the Masters green jacket and though Tiger Woods set a 281 clubhouse score both O’Meara and little known American Brian Watts were tied on 280 before O’Meara won the four-hole play-off.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

Justin Rose after holling-out

However, the shot of the event that everybody remembers is young amateur Justin Rose holing out from rough fifty yards out at the eighteenth, heralding his arrival on the world stage.

Our first ever GB&I winner at Birkdale was Padraig Harrington in 2008 when he retained the 2007 Open title won at Carnoustie, making great use of his rescue (what I call cheating clubs, though I do have to admit to having one in my own bag!) clubs to good effect against that finest of long iron strikers Sergio Garcia.

Tiger was not playing through injury but Padraig won despite carrying wrist pain, which just supports the old saying, “beware the injured golfer”.

The tournament might have been remembered for how well Greg Norman at 52 played for the first three rounds in a strong wind but he faded to a 77 in the fourth round. After a two putt birdie into the wind on the par five, 544 yard fifteenth, (a hole where many risk/reward decisions are required) Padraig achieved his back-to-back victories with a legendary five wood to the newly designed, tiered seventeenth green and dropped from three feet his eagle.

royal birkdale, gordon irvine, hawtree, open championship, poa annua

The 17th fairway and green

So let’s finish with some words from Padraig: “It was a true links test in every sense, with the wind making putting extremely difficult and dictating which holes played tough, where poor shots were punished and good shots rewarded. Remaining patient was key, as was the need to accept the weather and any bad bounces. While the 17th hole is where I hit one of the best shots of my career, the fairness and constant challenge of the whole course stands out to me”.

 

See “The history of the Royal Birkdale Golf Club 1889-1989” by A.J.D.Johnson and “The Royal Birkdale Golf Club – another 25 years” by Stuart Fish.

 

FineGolf  review  written by Lorne Smith 2017.

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