North by Northwest: Lancashire Coast Home to England’s Finest Links

Shortly after the Royal & Ancient acquired 10 acres of land adjacent to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in 2002, the clinking of glasses could be heard wherever traditional links courses are cherished. The parcel of land, to be used for the all-important tented village required to host a major event these days, is all that had stood in the way of the R&A awarding the club the Open Championship. For the members of the club, a.k.a. Hoylake for the lovely town in which it is located, the 39-year hiatus had been interminable.

Founded in 1869 on what was then the racecourse of the Liverpool Hunt Club, Hoylake is the second oldest English seaside course, after Royal North Devon (Westward Ho!). The original links was laid out by George Morris, Old Tom’s brother, but many alterations have been made since, most recently by Donald Steel in preparation for the 2006 Open. A “sympathetic refreshment,” the club has called it, though in truth this searching test of golf was more than ready to cope with the world’s finest players.

The sense of history at Royal Liverpool, set on the shores of the River Dee, is palpable. The British Amateur was inaugurated at the club in 1885. It has returned 16 times. Members have fared well. John Ball was an eight-time Amateur champion and also won the 1890 Open. How good was he? This from Bernard Darwin, who watched him extricate his ball from a particularly nasty lie one day at Hoylake: “He stood on top of the (turf) wall, far out of reach of the ball, then leaped down into the ditch, hitting as he jumped, and out came the ball most gallantly; it needs something more than local knowledge to play such a shot as this.” Yes, indeed.

John Ball was an early Hoylake champion

Harold Hilton, another Hoylake member, was nearly Ball’s equal: Four times Amateur champion, twice Open champion, and once winner of the U.S. Amateur. In 1921, Hoylake hosted the first international match between the U.S. and Britain. The competition is now known as the Walker Cup.

Among the winners of the Open held at Royal Liverpool was J.H. Taylor, the last man standing in gale-like conditions in 1913; Walter Hagen, who snatched victory with his fantastic recoveries and clutch putting in 1924; and Bobby Jones, who captured the second leg of his historic Grand Slam at Hoylake in 1930. The ball Jones played and his four signed cards hang in a place of honor within the red-brick clubhouse, a repository of British golf history. Portraits of Ball, Hilton and other champions are hung along the stairwell leading to the upstairs dining room. Here a glass case with baroque trophies and silver medals from the 19th century; there the saddling bell, a reminder of the club’s original function as a racetrack. It is rung to summon club members to dinner.

At first glance, Royal Liverpool offers little in the way of visual appeal. Many of the holes are dead flat. A few appear a trifle dull. Depth perception is difficult. The ground is hard and never helping. The revetted bunkers, like flared nostrils rising in echelon, are menacing. There is interior out of bounds at three holes, marked by a “cops,” or a low turf embankment that looks like the tunnel work of a large burrowing animal. Can there be anything more maddening than hitting an inferior but playable shot—and finding it OB? No tree on the course grows higher than six feet, which means there is nothing to stop the wind as it sweeps across the links from the River Dee to the Irish Sea.

In sum, Hoylake is bleak. But like a lot of antiques, it is burnished with intrigue. Relentless in its demands and consistent in its punishment, it requires a subtle approach, a golfing wit, to master it. The world’s premier shotmaker, Tiger Woods, tacked his way around the links by using irons off nearly every tee, sacrificing distance for position. He alone managed the wind along with his emotions to claim his third Claret Jug a few months after his father’s death.

While the opening holes are pancake-flat and seemingly benign, Hoylake’s middle section enters classic linksland, the holes curving through sand hills covered in trouser-ripping whins and wild roses. From the tee of the par-four ninth, called Punch Bowl, the sand flats and shining waters of the Dee Estuary give way to the Welsh hills on the far shore. There are few more attractive panoramas anywhere in British golf. The hole itself has a punchbowl fairway, the slippery, lozenge-shaped green sloped from front to back and pinched by bunkers. As is true throughout the course, sound tactics and a touch of luck are required to score.

It should be noted that the R&A reconfigured the routing for the Open, and for the better. The 17th and 18th became the first and second holes for the championship, with the dangerous 16th, a par five that asks players going for the green in two to bite off a chunk of the out-of-bounds practice ground along the right, serving as the final hole.

Royal Liverpool Golf Club clubhouse

The only drawback to the Open routing? The pros, unlike members and visitors, had a few swings under their belt before they tackled the par-four first hole, to my mind the most intimidating opening hole in England. Dead flat, the hole occupies a section of the former race course. A sharp left-to-right dogleg, it has the dreaded cops and out-of-bounds to the right, tall grasses on the left. Accuracy and courage are needed on both the drive and approach.

British scribe Patric Dickinson’s appraisal of Royal Liverpool written in 1951 still rings true today: “It is at Hoylake that all golfing dentists should be forced to take their holidays. Hoylake probes relentlessly, finds the soft spot, and reaches for the drill.”

While Royal Liverpool was rediscovered as one of the great English links during the 2006 Open Championship and will welcome the 2012 Ricoh Women’s British Open, the region’s supporting cast is first-rate. In fact, a case could be made that the string of courses running from Liverpool to Southport along the Lancashire coast is unmatched anywhere in the U.K. for quality and interest. Because the clubs are not promoted to the American market, they remain the exclusive domain of the English. Of course, visitors are welcome on selected weekdays. Count on receiving a welcome as warm as any in Britain.

Not far from Hoylake on the tip of the Wirral Peninsula is Wallasey, a first-rate club and Open qualifying course set in sand hills near Liverpool Bay. Founded in 1891, the original course is attributed to Old Tom Morris, but the present layout is the work of James Braid. A round of golf here is a fascinating journey through mountainous dunes, some of the tallest in England. The holes change direction constantly and invite the wind from all quarters. The view from the topmost tee at the par-five fourth is truly grand: broad tidal flats spliced by rivulets, flocks of plovers working the sands, the hills of Wales rising in the west beyond the estuary. The finish at Wallasey, strong and memorable, reaches a climax at the 18th, a daunting par four that rambles over heaving terrain to a dell-like green set below the club’s impressive clubhouse.

The dramatic third hole at Wallasey climbs into duneland

There are two oils worth contemplating within the clubhouse. The first is of former captain Dr. Frank Stableford, who in 1932 established a method of scoring that provided a less rigorous examination than traditional medal play. The doctor’s “crazy new system” proved to be an instantaneous success. The Stableford scoring system is even more popular today than when it was introduced.

The second portrait of note is that of Bobby Jones. He sat for it prior to the start of the 1930 Open at Hoylake. The painting, done by a club member, captures perfectly the intense and handsome young golfer on the eve of his momentous victory. Jones liked the painting so much he later had it reproduced to hang in the clubhouse at Augusta National.

On the far side of the River Mersey north of Liverpool is a noble string of links fronting the Irish Sea. On the city’s outskirts is West Lancashire, a.k.a. “West Lancs,” a classic links sheltered by a long dune ridge. What the layout may lack in charm, it more than compensates in character, especially from the white tees at 6,772 yards. It’s easy walking, too.

Farther up the coast is Formby, a sanctuary of golf unique to itself. Established in 1884, Formby is a genuine links enclosed on three sides by pine trees. It has all the advantages of a links—firm springy turf, open-entry greens, a salty sea breeze—and all the benefits of a parkland course, namely a sense of containment. Its beauty is wild. Brambles and buckthorn choke the sandy hollows. On the flatter holes, heather blankets the rough, the flowers turning a brilliant shade of iridescent purple in fall. Grouse and pheasant forage beneath the firs and pines. Formby has an elegance all its own, a fact not lost on the many R&A members who belong to the club.

The first three holes parallel a railway, but then the course commences its journey through the dunes, the holes tumbling through the silent forest. Among the many outstanding holes is the seventh, a dramatic uphill par four that doglegs sharply to the right to a long, slippery green set atop a sand hill. The hole would fit in nicely at Pine Valley. Only at the ninth does the sea loom into view, but that is enough. The club has hosted many important competitions. It was here that Jose-Maria Olazabal defeated Colin Montgomerie in the final match to win the 1984 British Amateur. Purists can book accommodations in the club’s dormy house.

Tucked among sand hills on the outskirts of Southport, a lively seaside resort town, are three exceptional clubs a short drive from Formby: Southport & Ainsdale, Hillside and Royal Birkdale.

The first club to stage two Ryder Cups (1933 and 1937), Southport & Ainsdale, affectionately known as the “S & A,” occupies a special place on the Lancashire coast. Quirky and endearing, this compact links, seemingly innocuous from the regular tees at 6,319 yards (par 71), quickly separates players from pretenders. The first hole, a long par three, plays to a tilted green defended by thick rough and nearly a dozen bunkers. The links cavorts across an open landscape of broken dunes and sand hills, with thickets of gorse and other clotted vegetation jutting into the landing areas. A minefield of bunkers awaits the unwary. The most memorable of the blind shots, and there are several, comes at the par-five 16th, called Gumbleys, where timbers pressed into the face of a towering dune must be carried on the second shot. Or else. According to my friend Jim Finegan, an expert witness to the quirks of British golf, the function of the wall of railroad ties glowering down from the face of the pyramidal grass-covered dune is “to prevent erosion and, at the same time, to dispatch a thinly hit shot to the perdition of the pits below.” The design of the course, by James Braid (1923), is decidedly old-fashioned in places but will make a lasting impression–especially if you stray badly or foozle a shot.

A typical well-defended green site at Royal Birkdale

While often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, Hillside came of age in the late 1960s, when adjacent duneland was acquired and Fred W. Hawtree, the British designer whose father shaped Royal Birkdale, set to work. There are two distinct looks at Hillside. The front nine, routed over relatively flat terrain, offers good but unspectacular golf. The back nine, its holes woven through brawny dunes a stone’s throw from Birkdale, has elicited praise from Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, two of its ardent admirers. The stakes are raised to the maximum on the glorious incoming holes, each of which calls for brave play and big hitting. The par-five 11th, which overlooks an endless stretch of linksland, is tunneled through a dune-framed valley, while the 17th, massive at 548 yards, is a turbulent hole with more dips and rises than a roller-coaster. These are two of the best par fives anywhere.

The final stop on the Lancashire coast is Royal Birkdale, a venerable test and a perfect bookend to Royal Liverpool. Where Hoylake is nearly indecipherable the first time around, Birkdale, splayed out among gargantuan sand hills, is very straightforward. The task at hand is in plain view, but that doesn’t make this championship links, arguably the finest in England, any easier. The club, which welcomed back the Open in 2008, is entirely self-contained, the holes circulating players among valleys between the dunes. There are no blind shots. The fairways are generally flat. Awkward stances and canted lies are rare. There is, however, plenty of adventure at hand on this magnificent links. Happily, much of the willow scrub that once devoured stray shots has been removed to improve course agronomy. In advance of the 1998 Open, the greens were redone and now feature more “difficult borrows,” in the club’s lingo. The bright white art-deco clubhouse was designed to resemble an ocean liner sailing through a mountainous sea of dunes. The effect is enchanting. The members are unusually proud of their club, and the welcome accorded visitors is second to none. It is, to be sure, a must-play links.

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