2017 British Open: Conditions will be key at Royal Birkdale


The British Open this year returns to England’s northwest coast, along what’s called Merseyside on the sandy shoreline of the Irish Sea. Just two miles south of the bustling resort town center of Southport sits Royal Birkdale Golf Club. The elegant club, founded in 1889, will host the championship for the 10th time – all since 1954.

With holes that wend their way through towering sand dunes and common wind conditions of 10-20 mph, golf here is a bracing test beyond all measure of yardage. At 7,156 yards, this par-70 layout is not long for top professionals. But then no layouts on the British Open rota are. Nor need they be, given the way cool weather – prevailing mid-summer temperatures are in the mid 60s – serve as that third (or fourth) dimension of challenge to world-class players.

If conditions are calm, 16 to 20 under par wins. If conditions are tough, anything near par is a great four-round total. Nobody second-guesses the quality of the layout based upon who shot what.

The greenside bunker at the par 3, 7th hole at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, the host course for the this week’s Open Championship. (Photo by David Cannon/R&A via Getty Images)

The routing provides constantly changing hole directions. There’s no gaining a comfort level when handling the wind that prevails out of the northwest. Towering dunes, 30-40 feet high, flank the holes with fairways running between them on the quietest ground imaginable. Those sand dunes are ideal for spectator access and can easily accommodate expected crowds of 35,000-40,000 a day.

Unlike other links courses, Royal Birkdale offers virtually flat fairways. They are also on the narrow side, 28 yards on average in width at the landing area, totaling 21 acres in expanse. (By one comparison, Erin Hills offered 37 acres of fairway at the U.S. Open, with widths of 40-60 yards.)

There’s a premium on driving the ball straight, or at least winding up in the fairways, and avoiding the humpty-bumpy rough ground or any of the layout’s 123 bunkers – about 50 of them pot bunkers that are in play on drives. These are steep enough to prevent a full-bore recovery to the green. There’s a lot to be said for playing long-irons and fairway metals off the tees here and making up the lost aerial distance with ground roll.

The greens are simple by modern championship standards and not particularly large. They range from 4,500 to 5,000 square feet. Green speeds tend to be moderate by modern championship standards – no more than 10.5 to 11 on the Stimpmeter, as they must be playable in heavy winds.

All of the greenside bunkering is up front, between 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock on the face of the green. There’s only one bunker to the rear of a green – at the 177-yard, par-3 seventh. On every par-4 or par-5 green, there’s no sand deeper than midway the length of the green. That’s because the placement of bunkers was dictated by the linksland habit of running up approach shots. The pattern actually encourages bold play, as there’s no risk in going long other than recovery from light rough or the heavily grassed upslope at the foot of a dune.

Johnny Miller kisses the Claret Jug after his 6-shot win over Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros in the 1976 British Open at Royal Birkdale. (Associated Press)

Birkdale’s most iconic hole is the 499-yard, par-4 sixth. It sits at the far northwest corner of the site, closest to the sea and most exposed to the winds, which generally play sheer across from right to left. Three staggered fairway bunkers impinge on the dogleg in the landing area. The slightest variation of the wind – by just a few degrees on the compass – can make the difference between one or two of these bunkers being in play or easily passed. The fairway bends steadily to the right through dramatic dunes on both sides, to a green fronted by two tiny bunkers that do collection work out of proportion to their miniscule size.

That’s how the whole course makes itself felt – with elements that might be out of mind one day and seemingly impossible to avoid the next.

Birkdale presents a succession of tough par 4s, many of them doglegs whose curves are hard to negotiate when played in the wind. The only two par 5s come late in the round, at the 542-yard 15th (played into a headwind from the right) and the 572-yard 17th (generally played downwind and easily reachable in two).

For all of its classic virtues, Birkdale has one compelling anomaly: a modernist art deco clubhouse designed in 1935 by local architect George E. Tonge. His other local claim to fame is the Garrick Theatre in downtown Southport, now converted into Mecca Bingo Hall but otherwise untouched as period-piece art.

Birkdale’s clubhouse looks like a massive cruise ship working its way across the dunes. Think of it as an English version of a prairie schooner. It never loses its powerful effect on the senses. Nor do the holes that spill out from it.

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