SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND | I’m a history buff, which means I try to devote prodigious portions of my travel time visiting ruins and museums. Even on golf trips. And I almost always balance the hours I spend on courses with stops at local places of interest, to feed my cultural appetite as much as the one I have for the royal and ancient game.
I say almost because I didn’t make any off-course plans when I recently visited England’s Lancashire Coast. There were no afternoons at the celebrated branch of the Tate Museum in Liverpool, nor tours dedicated to the legacy of its hometown band, the Beatles, and other prominent pop music groups that sprung from its gritty streets in the 1960s. Forget walks down Penny Lane or ferries across the Mersey. It was golf this time around, and golf only.
But golf from a very strong historical perspective given the courses I was playing–courses that more than satisfied my need for intellectual enrichment. For each of the places at which I visited was a museum unto itself. Like Royal Liverpool, host of 11 British Opens and 18 British Amateurs since its founding in 1869. Or Royal Birkdale, where nine Opens have been contested, and where Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson all hoisted Claret Jugs. Birkdale is also the site of two Ryder Cups, and the one in which Jack Nicklaus famously conceded Tony Jacklin’s putt.
Then, there is Royal Lytham St. Annes, which has held 10 Open Championships as well as a pair of Ryder Cups. Bobby Jones made his miracle bunker shot on the 17th there that all but secured his win at the 1926 Open. And it’s the course on which the late, great Seve Ballesteros hit an otherworldly wedge from the makeshift car park on No. 16 within 15 feet of the cup on the way to his first Open Championship victory in 1979 – and then made the birdie putt.
Those Lancashire courses are so historically rich they even have plaques in the ground honoring some of those great shots. Such as the one on the right side of the 16th fairway at Birkdale, the spot from which Palmer muscled his approach from the gorse onto the green during the last round of the 1961 Open he won. In addition, their stately clubhouses boast expansive exhibits of clubs, golf balls, scorecards and other memorabilia that not only recount the championships they hosted and the players who won them but also tell some of the best stories the game has ever spawned.
In writing about the Links of Hoylake, Bernard Darwin opined that while it belonged to the members of Royal Liverpool, it also was a part of “the whole world of golf, for it has played a great part in the history of the game.” Truer words have rarely been scribed, but Darwin might as well have been talking about Birkdale and Lytham, too. And Formby Golf Club, the fourth course I played on my tour and the site of four British Amateurs, including the 1984 championship that saw Jose Maria Olazabal beat Colin Montgomerie in the finals. They are great monuments of a great game, yet remain highly relevant as they continue to host major championships in the modern era.
They are also a lot of fun to play.
Lytham is a flattish track and tight off the tees, a thinking man’s course pocked with more than 200 pot bunkers that quite ably protect par. The Irish Sea is nearby but never in view. Suburban homes surround the course, and a commuter train line runs along the south side of the layout, which was revamped by Harry Colt just before World War I. Darwin once described Lytham as a “just beast,” and he must have come to that characterization after playing it on a day when the wind was blowing, for it can surely howl there. The mix of holes, and the shots they require, is delightful.
And the four finishing holes are among the best in the British Isles, a series of meaty four-pars that ends with the 18th playing to the grand, red brick clubhouse looming over the final green. It’s hard not to think of all the great golfers who have putted out to claim Open championships on that green when you get there. Jones, Jacklin and Ballesteros. Gary Player and Peter Thomson. Bob Charles and Bobby Locke. Tom Lehman and David Duval. And it is interesting to consider who might prevail next summer, when the Open is again played at Lytham.
Royal Birkdale is routed in and among the dunes outside Southport, with gaping pot bunkers and ample greens that break ever so gently. The wind can blow there as well, right off the Irish Sea that first comes into view on No. 6. Though there are more changes of elevation than at Lytham, the fairways at Birkdale are fairly flat, as are the lies off of them. Swathes of gorse create good cover for the regal ring-necked pheasants that occasionally strut across the grounds – and create misery for golfers who dump shots into them.
Though it hosted its first Open in 1954, Birkdale has been a regular part of the Rota ever since, most recently in 2008, when Padraig Harrington came out on top. Its formidable roster of Open winners attests to the very high quality of the golf course, and so does the way Birkdale finishes, with three par 5s in the last four holes (for mere mortal golfers, that is, as the pros play 18 as a par 4).
Fair Formby is a gem, too. Less well known than the three Open venues in Lancashire, to be sure, but just as compelling a golf experience. Though most definitely a links, Formby features stands of pines that also give it a parklands feel, and a number of the holes boast elevated tees that make the mere act of driving a ball down the middle of the fairway from them as pleasurable a moment as there is in golf. Especially on Nos. 8 and 9. The Irish Sea is visible for the first time off the tee of the par-3 10th, and a number of holes run among grassy dunes in that portion of the course. Matteo Manassero won the 2009 British Amateur at Formby, and I do not know of a better place in Great Britain to lounge after a game than the room on the second floor of the magnificent clubhouse, gazing out windows that provide sweeping views of the verdant course.
Finally, there is hallowed Hoylake, which is what Royal Liverpool is often called because that’s the name of the village in which it is actually located. Hoylake is where Walter Hagen and Jones won Open championships, and Thomson, Roberto De Vicenzo and Tiger Woods, too. Built on what then was the race course of the Liverpool Hunt Club, it is a classic links flanked on the west side by the River Dee, with much of the flatness of Lytham and a bit of the dunes found at Formby and Birkdale. Holes 9, 10, 11 and 12 run along the Dee, and Hoylake is one of those places where the wind must blow to keep the great golfers honest.
Tiger famously kept driver in his bag for most of the 2006 Open Championship, playing his 2-iron off the tee with great precision time and time again. That very club is displayed in the splendid Royal Liverpool clubhouse, as is a silver bowl Young Tom Morris won in an 1872 tournament there. It’s the past and present of golf all in one place, and that fact is driven even harder home by the thought that Royal Liverpool hosted the first British Amateur ever played, in 1885, and will be the venue of the Open Championship once again, in 2014.
That’s the beauty of these places. Museum pieces one and all, yet still very much alive. For the best pros and amateurs, and for the recreational golfer looking to take a big taste of golf history as he plays some of the best courses in the game.