News & Opinion

Birkdale comes by its British stature naturally

The forecast for this week's British Open calls for howling winds, quirky bounces, and a major where par again will be a desirable score.

Regarded as one of golf's premier seaside courses, Royal Birkdale, site of the 146th Open, can turn nasty when the wind blows from the Irish Sea and the sun gives way to rain. Overlooking Birkdale is a lighthouse of which is said: "When you can't see the lighthouse, it is raining; when you can see it, it's going to rain."

An elite field will descend on jolly old England and Southport, the staid holiday resort town on the Lancashire coast and home to Royal Birkdale.

The club moved to its current site in 1897 on a strip of western England's largest and most dramatic sand dunes, the type typically found on the west coast of Ireland. Bernard Darwin once wrote of Royal Birkdale that it was laid out in such heaven-sent country that it was impossible to make a bad hole anywhere.

"It's nature's first TPC," said Australian Geoff Ogilvy, noting that Birkdale was a natural stadium course long before former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman had the idea of building them.

Everyone trashes the clubhouse, which ranks as one of the ugliest in golf. One publication described the white Art Deco structure as resembling an air-traffic-control building of a small provincial airport.

The front nine is short but not necessarily easy. Brandt Snedeker calls the first hole, a dogleg left, "probably the hardest opening hole in major championship golf." Tom Watson, who won at Birkdale in 1983, says it is a risk-reward hole in which players have to choose how far to hit to take advantage of an easier second shot. In the 1976 Open, Watson drove into the left fairway bunker and made triple bogey. "That ruined the tournament for me," he said. At the two most recent Opens at Birkdale, in 1998 and 2008, the first has played as the second-toughest hole.

The only hole more punishing is the 499-yard, par-4 sixth, a mirror image of the first, a dogleg right with a bunker eating into the angle of the dogleg and an uphill approach. It played to an average of 4.768 in 2008, and yielded just 10 birdies all week. Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who won the Claret Jug in ’08 at Birkdale, calls it a par 4½.

It isn't until the 15th hole that a player faces a par 5. At the par-5 17th in ’08, Harrington cemented his victory with a 5-wood that stopped 3 feet beyond the hole and set up an eagle.

Birkdale is hardly the graybeard that St. Andrews is, but its 18th has been the site of much history. It is where Jack Nicklaus conceded a 2-foot putt to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup to square the match and earn a much-needed tie for Great Britain and Ireland.

"I didn't think you would miss the putt," Nicklaus said, "but I wasn't going to give you the chance."

It is where a 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros made an audacious bump-and-run shot between two bunkers to finish in a tie for second with Nicklaus in 1976, behind Johnny Miller, and where Tom Watson struck a 2-iron into the wind in 1983 to clinch a one-stroke victory. "I'll take that shot to the grave," Watson said. 

And then-17-year-old Justin Rose holed a 45-yard pitch shot to finish as low amateur, tying for fourth at the 1998 British Open.

"Birkdale lacks nothing," said Australian Peter Thomson, who won two of his five Claret Jugs there, in 1954 and ’65. "It is a man-size course but not a monster. It is testingly narrow but not absurd, and certainly not artificial." 

It also has a history of producing worthy champions, with eight of its nine winners celebrated in the World Golf Hall of Fame (Miller, Trevino, Watson among them) or destined for the honor someday (Harrington).

"There are great clubs, there are great courses, and then there is Royal Birkdale – the combination of both," wrote Scott Macpherson, author of Golf's Royal Clubs.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email:; Twitter: @adamschupak