News & Opinion

Birkdale holds its own against Scottish kin

A couple of weeks ago, after a round of golf, I was asked where this year’s British Open was taking place.

“Royal Birkdale,” I replied.

“Where’s that?”

“England.”

“England? They have links courses there?”

(Keep in mind, our post-golf gathering in no way resembles an ad-hoc Mensa meeting. Or an AA meeting, for that matter. The two may be connected.)

For the most part, the guys around the table don’t know the difference between a Birkdale and a Birkenstock, can’t distinguish Liverpool from liverwurst and think Lytham is a vital component of batteries.

Truth be told, you could drop most folks in the middle of the four British Open venues in England – Royal Birkdale, Royal Liverpool, Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal St. George’s – and unless told otherwise, they would think they were in Scotland.

So why the deflated attitude around the table when told the championship was in England?

Isn’t it true, as noted golf writer Gertrude Stein once wrote, that “a links is a links is a links is a links”? Although, come to think of it, she might not have been a golf writer and she might have been talking about roses. 

Like it or not, this week’s British Open will take place at Royal Birkdale in the town of Southport on England’s northwest coast. 

For links lovers, it comes in the midst of five weeks of coastal golf, splitting the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Northern Ireland’s Portstewart and the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Scotland’s Dundonald Links with the upcoming Ladies Scottish Open (with the same sponsor and venue as the men’s event) and the Ricoh Women’s’ British Open at Kingsbarns in Scotland.

Royal Birkdale has legitimate credentials. The first of the nine Opens at Royal Birkdale, the last course to be added to the Open rota, was played in 1954 and won by Peter Thomson. In the 1969 Ryder Cup, Jack Nicklaus conceded a putt on the final hole to Tony Jacklin to halve the matches.

This is the place, inarguably, where the British Open first caught the attention of American golf fans. In 1961, Arnold Palmer won in only his second attempt, and that not only got headlines but started a U.S. onslaught. Ten years later, Lee Trevino claimed the Claret Jug there, followed by Johnny Miller in 1976 and Tom Watson in 1983.

Although mildly criticized for moving toward more of a target-style course with fewer heaving fairways and mind-boggling greens (purists shudder when they see mower lines, much less cross-hatched patterns, on links fairways), Birkdale remains a true links experience. 

Having said that, there are differences, perhaps more perceptions, when the Open is played in Scotland as opposed to England. Some are geographical – the topography and the weather are more extreme – and some are cultural.

And, from the reaction around the table after that round of golf that I mentioned, there persists a sense that anything south of Hadrian’s Wall is somewhat lacking. Or, as comedian Mike Myers famously said in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!”

We’re not talking “Braveheart” William Wallace versus Mr. Bean, but the Scottish venues – St. Andrews, Turnberry, Carnoustie, Muirfield and Royal Troon – are located in the country that gave birth to the game itself. In general, they are more demanding and memorable than their stable mates south of the border. More rough and tumble, more true to the origins of golf where the lie of the land and the temper of the elements dictate the player’s fate.

In any case, those guys at the table will be pleased to hear that Carnoustie will play host to the Open next year. God knows what their reaction will be when they find out that the 2019 version will be at Royal County Down. 

“Northern Ireland? They have links courses there?”

Maybe we could ask American pro Daniel Berger to chair our next not-Mensa meeting.

Leading up to this week’s championship, he recalled his first experience at the Open.

“When I came out my rookie year [2015], I got into the British Open and I went to Scotland and played the Scottish Open, and that was just too much time in England.”

Meeting adjourned.

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com;  Twitter: @gordongolf