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British Open Preview: 'Hi, My name is Royal Birkdale and I'm in the Rota'

By: Jay Flemma


In 1961 a storm out of the pages of the Apocalypse swept through Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, reducing the tented village to wreckage and wreaking havoc on golf shots. Battling for the lead on the final day of the Open Championship, Arnold Palmer's drive on the 15th hole sliced wildly in the maelstrom, finally settling in the deep rough at the base of a vertical grassy bank about 150 yards from the green. With the gallery watching in stunned disbelief, he slashed a 6-iron from a lie that called for a sand wedge. Slicing through like a scythe felling wheat, his hosel wrapped in grass, Palmer muscled the ball onto the green, saved par, and went on to win the Open. Astounded, Open Championship officials embedded a plaque at the site of the historic shot.

Palmer repeated as Open champion the next year at Royal Troon. Returning to Troon many years later during a practice round for the 1989 Open, a newspaper photographer asked Palmer to pose beside the plaque. After flailing around in the rough on the side of the 15th hole for several minutes, Palmer asked his caddie, the venerable Alfie Fyles, "Hey Alfie, where's that plaque?" In dry humor typical of the British, Fyles responded, "About 600 miles away. You're on the wrong course."

Such is the lot of Royal Birkdale. So much grand history has been made here, but because the name doesn't roll off the tongue, invoke the name of a Saint, or have a massive resort to shill for it, it's the course Americans sometimes overlook, even "The King," who won there. Nicklaus also must share some blame. He once said British Open venues get worse the farther south you go.

That's unfair, because except for St. Andrews, no course has hosted more Open Championships, eight in all, beginning in 1954 when Peter Thomson won the first of his five titles. Thomson's Open career has "Birkdale Bookends" - the last of his five wins happened here in 1965.

Indeed, for many years, Birkdale was blessed with well-decorated champions. In 1971, Lee Trevino completed a trifecta that even Tiger Woods has never accomplished - he won the Canadian Open, British Open and U.S. Open all in the same year. His one-shot victory over Liang Huan Lu - who the tabloids dubbed simply "Mr. Lu" - was one of the epic battles ever fought at a British Open as the Taiwanese player, even obscure in his homeland, never wilted in the crucible of the grandest stage in competitive golf.

In 1976, Johnny Miller, in the midst of a torrid run where he won seemingly at will, held off a valiant charge by a young and exuberant teenager from Spain, Severiano Ballesteros. Then in 1983, Tom Watson won his fifth and final Open, at Birkdale, tying Thomson's mark of five wins and leaving him one behind the legendary Harry Vardon, still the only man to claim six Opens. You may remember that Open for Hale Irwin's costly whiff of a tap-in putt during the third round. He lost by one shot.

Lately, Birkdale has seen some off-brand winners as well. After numerous high finishes in the Open, Australia's Ian Baker-Finch finally broke through with his only major victory in 1991. He carded a blistering 29 on the front nine on Sunday. 1998 saw Masters champion Mark O'Meara hold off Bryan Watts and also claim the Open in a campaign where he ultimately won Player of the Year honors.

Yet 1998 may better known across the pond for the emergence of an affable British teenager who captured the hearts and minds of the entire United Kingdom with a mixture of pluck, grace, youthful vitality and scintillating golf shots. Justin Rose, then still an unknown amateur, came of age in Southport that week, hanging in contention until the bitter end and giving the crowd a thrill that still echoes.

Rose was about 50 yards short of the final green and in a thick, clingy patch of marram grass left of the green. From the deck of that sinking ship, he pitched in and all England rejoiced. "The whole place shook when he holed that shot," recalled sportscaster Joel Blumberg. "It was an incredible moment. You felt the whole place just lift off the ground and then come back down."

"It was amazing," echoed David Clarke, editor-in-chief of Golf Magazine. "Everyone jumped in the air at once when the ball disappeared. The entire grandstand reverberated and the place rang with the cheering. I've never seen the like to match it in golf; football, perhaps. The stands just shook and shook with the joy of it all."

Indeed, all Merseyside rocks every 10 years or so, as though the Beatles have returned to prominence, every time professional golfers return to Birkdale. The patrons are duly rewarded for their fervor with outstanding views of the golf: Birkdale was a stadium course long before Pete Dye built Sawgrass on a similar principle - the flattish fairways are set amid high dunes, some of the highest in all Britain. Patrons ring the dunes and look down on the action.

"Birkdale is an outstanding links, one of my favorite venues of all, and one of the best to watch a tournament," replied a positively glowing Karl McGinty, a popular golf writer for the Irish Independent. "The spectators can stand in rings atop the dunes and see the action well, sometimes on two or three holes."

Birkdale was originally laid out in 1889 by George Low, but was completely rerouted and redesigned by Fred G. Hawtree of the venerable British golf architecture firm of Hawtree and Taylor, a proper rejoinder to America's Jones boys. Fred's son, Fred W. Hawtree, created a new par-3 12th hole and rebuilt many greens in 1991, added some contour, most notably at the fifth and 17th. Before those changes the playing corridors were as flat as a West Texas highway (even though set in a lunar dunescape), giving Birkdale a reputation for flatness and fairness.

You won't hear the pros complaining. They love the flattish fairways: there's none of the capricious bounces found at St. George's or St. Andrews or Carnoustie. In that respect, Brikdale is unique among Open rota courses. You don't get uneven lies in the fairway. If you leave the fairway, watch out because the dunes are shaggy, bumpy and tall. But Birkdale is the rota course most akin to target golf. Even in a one- to two-club breeze, the playing corridors are reasonably easy to hit and hold. That's one reason why Americans have had so much success there over the years. Hit the fairway, then hit the middle of the green and have a run at birdie.

Reigning British Open champion Padraig Harrington agrees. Speaking with McGinty and Brian Keogh of the Irish Sun, Padraig explained, "I can understand why a lot of players would rate this very highly. It's not a tricky course, there's nothing funky about it. Everything is there in front of you . . . The greens themselves are not severe and if there's some slopes off them, there's not too many . . . The decision-making should be reasonably straightforward on this golf course. Avoid the bunkers off the tee. Hit it in the middle of the greens because it looks reasonably inviting from there."

Addtionally, among the rota courses Birkdale and St. George's share one common strategy: score on the front nine and hang on for dear life on the back. Birkdale's front is much shorter. Players may drive the green on the par-4 fifth hole, but in cutting the dogleg over hair-raising dunes they bring a pond placed 40 yards short of the green into play. Seven pot bunkers ring the green. The 480-yard par-4 sixth may be the toughest hole on the course. The hole sweeps to the right, but the knee of the dogleg is guarded by a deep bunker at the base of a massive dune. The long, tight par-4 eighth saw Lee Trevino "bless" the green after sinking a twisting 35-foot birdie putt on Sunday in 1971.

While players will skyrocket up the leaderboard on the front like fireworks, the longer and tougher back nine will be equally dramatic in exacting revenge. The 10th is a sharply curving dogleg-left; a tall dune and heather guard the inside of the knee, a deep bunker guards the outside. The green is tightly tucked in a treacherous dell of marram-covered dunes where the wind swirls. The relatively new par-3 12th is equally defended further by the fickle winds ebbing and flowing off the coast and around the property. Thirteen, 15, and 17 are prodigiously long holes and 16, though short, is a tough fairway to hit into a prevailing crosswind. It also features a plateau green more akin to the upside-down saucers of Donald Ross.

The finish is one of the most demanding and colorful in golf. "Scylla and Charybdis" - two monster dunes that take their name from the Greek legend of Odysseus - frame the plateau fairway and must be traversed with a long, straight tee shot to even get started in the right direction when playing this hole. But a birdie can be claimed as the green accepts long approaches well. Tony Jacklin sank a 60-foot putt for eagle here in 1969 to draw even with Nicklaus in their famous singles Ryder Cup skirmish that ended in a draw with Nicklaus's grand concession of a miss-able putt on 18. Finally, the brutishly long and narrow par-4 closer, featuring a wishbone-shaped fairway, will play about 490 yards this year and its green is fronted by two of the deepest pot bunkers on the course.

With Tiger injured and the course having a welcome familiarity for an Open venue, everyone will feel like they have a shot. Moreover, the last five winners here: Watson, Mark O'Meara, Ian Baker-Finch, Trevino, and Miller were not the longest hitters, but were laser-accurate with their irons and were stellar putters. With tennis rackets and super-balls for modern equipment, maybe a long bomber - perhaps an American - will surprise everyone and claim the Claret Jug if there is no wind. But if we finally get some wind in July at the Open - finally - look for a shotmaker to emerge, possibly a European Tour player.

On that note, don't count out Padraig, even though he still has burdensome demands on his time as a newly-minted major winner. He won at Carnoustie, so he can win at any rota course. Still he's not counting his eggs before they're in the pudding. "There might be a lot of players coming here and liking it, which is not what I want," he said candidly. "I'd be happier if everybody turns up and hates the place, that's a good thing for me."



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.