Royal Birkdale emulates the ageless test of golf's oldest major
This week, a well known and formidable test awaits The Open field at Royal Birkdale.
This is the tenth time the event has been held on these historic Southport links since its initial staging in 1954, won by Australia's Peter Thomson. In more Opens held here than not, the course has yielded few, if any, total scores below par.
When Mark O'Meara won here in 1998, he did so with an even-par score of 280. In 2008, Padraig Harrington's winning score of 3-over-par in breezy conditions was the highest score since Paul Lawrie's 7-over total at Carnoustie. Nine-over-par made the cut and in the third round, the windiest round of the week, no one broke par. No winning total at The Open has been over par since. Suffice to say, Birkdale didn't need to be further-fortified prior to 2017.
In fact, in an age of lengthening tournament venues and 350-yard tee shots, the posted yardage this week at curvy and narrow Birkdale is 7,156 – 17 yards shorter than in 2008. Many players in the field have no doubt been sullied by a lie in a fairway pot bunker somewhere on these links But it's nevertheless a course that has crowned legendary winners over the years (including Thomson and Arnold Palmer) and has demanded universal respect over the years, from big and short-hitters alike.
"I'd definitely rate it among the top three in The Open rotation, if not the best course that we play out of the rotation." said Rory McIlory, who competed here in the 2005 Amateur Championship. "It tests all aspects of your game. You have to drive it well. You have to be smart."
"It's a very tough but fair test," said Jordan Spieth, seeking his first Claret Jug. "It's about controlling your ball off the tee in these crosswinds to give yourself the opportunity to hit the center of the green."
Opens have a knack for crowning an experienced champion. Since Harrington repeated in 2008 at the age of 36, only Louis Oosthuizen and Rory McIlroy were under 30 when they won the Claret Jug. The savvy required to navigate the likely crosswinds and many bunkers of Birkdale may be a supreme example of this. Back in 2008, two-time Champion Golf of the Year Greg Norman, 53, was in contention until the waning holes of the back nine on Sunday.
"Course management is one of the most important things about links golf," said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A. "Certainly the conversations I've had with players is that they are really enjoying the challenge of trying to work at how to get the ball in the right place."
Another reason why Royal Birkdale has been such a regular selection in the rota is it's very spectator-friendly. The estimated 220,000-plus fans would put attendance fourth all-time. The town of Southport's status as a golf mecca, with scores of historic clubs along the northwest coast, is among the U.K.'s finest.
"Southport in itself is up there with, say, St. Andrews as a golfing town," said Tommy Fleetwood, who grew up here.
Fleetwood, 26, no doubt brings a little more experience than his fellow twenty-somethings to the first tee this week. It's amazing to recall that it's been 20 years since Justin Rose placed T-4 here as a 17-year-old amateur. Now a major and Olympic champion, he is still without his first Open crown, but has grown to love the intricacies of hitting links golf shots.
"If someone learns how to control their ball flight, they have just as much distance off the tee as a long hitter who hits it up in the air," said Rose. "So for me, creativity around the greens, but strategy as well, avoiding bunkers, great course management is incredibly important in an Open Championship."
This week, the ground is plenty firm and and a little brown, causing some players to suggest hitting driver may not be wise on many tees. While the skies have been calm and blue in the early practice rounds, a front coming on Wednesday is bringing rain and winds projected in the range of 12-20 miles per hour. The layout of the links, in concert with often uncertain breezes, is what makes The Open the most timeless of the major tests. How much it blows will ultimately dictate whether the winner is closer to par or Henrik Stenson's 2016 record of 20 under. What we do know, however, is all signs point to smart play and not sheer power prevailing at Birkdale.
"Everybody can compete, short and long hitters," Harrington said. "It's not one dimensional, The Open Championship."