England’s North West coast – blessed by a royal trilogy of Open Championship venues and a supporting cast of courses difficult to equal…
- Which is King of the Royal Open venues?
- Murder Mile and a monument to the game at Royal Lytham
- A love affair with the great Bobby Jones
- Perfect neighbours – Hillside and Birkdale
- The birth of the Stableford scoring system
- Liverpool – city of culture, football, The Beatles and Albert Docks
The North West of England has three of the finest Open Championship venues in Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham and Royal Liverpool (Hoylake).
Royal lineage for England’s Golf Coast
This triple crown of golfing royalty is enough for the area to deserve the title of “England’s Golf Coast” – given to it by tourism bosses in 2005.
Head off the beaten track and you’ll also discover a supporting cast of links and inland courses of the highest quality.
I chose the Lancashire village of Ormskirk, and the West Tower Country House Hotel, as a base from which to explore “England’s Golf Coast.”
Dating back to 1785, it used to be a country residence for shipping magnate Lord Alfred Holt and its ten-bedroom West Tower is an impressive piece of architecture.
The splendid greystone exterior is adorned by turrets and towers.
The West Tower is well situated for a trip to the ideal starting point for your tour of “England’s Golf Coast,” the lively and upbeat town of Southport.
Spoiled for choice in Southport
Head straight on from Lord’s Street, the commercial and entertainment hub of Southport and the road opens to reveal the first of the Royal courses – Royal Birkdale – arguably England’s finest golf course.
Architectural critics are as interested in this great club as golfers for its white art deco clubhouse with its huge bay windows is a sight to behold.
Birkdale is longer than Royal Lytham but shorter than Royal Liverpool, and arguably has greater subtlety of challenge for the visiting player.
It’s not impossible to score well.
With three par-fives in the last four holes – going by the yellow ‘ tee of the day ‘ card – redemption awaits anyone who’s made a hash of the early part of their round.
Puzzling winds from the Irish Sea
No two holes play in the same direction, so judging the effects of wind off the Irish Sea is a constant puzzle during the round.
You’ll toy between a four-wood and a long iron for your approach more often than you would care to but long is what you’d expect of a course that has tested the greatest players ever to walk the planet.
The 183-yard par-three 12th best captures Birkdale’s charm.
A tiny plateau green narrowed by gaping bunkers either side, and tower-like sand hills to left, right and rear.
Anything short melts away down the slope and is swallowed by two bunkers that appear ornamental from the tee.
Good neighbours: Hillside and Formby
Royal Birkdale is Southport’s golfing monarch, but right next-door and a little further down the coast, are the links of Hillside and Formby, which many argue are comparable in quality.
Hillside is literally only a ridge of sand dunes from Birkdale and its opening holes run along the Southport railway line.
Flush with history and pedigree, this fine club has drawn distinguished praise for the quality of its inward nine holes.
Australian Greg Norman took it upon himself to write to the club and compliment the back-nine holes as being “the best in Britain.”
“Best back nine holes in Britain.” Mr. Greg Norman
This generous paper tribute remains under lock and key in the secretary’s office.
The par-three tenth no doubt caught Norman’s attention, and from the clubhouse seems a lone flag surrounded by dense pines away in the distance.
The 147-yard hole is soothing on the eye and has a green that appears to slope forward at the front, between two deep riveted bunkers.
A third sand-trap awaits, short and central, in the form of a pot bunker only five-feet in diameter but a dangerous hidden pitfall.
Testing tee shots among the pines at Formby
Formby Golf Club is situated on aptly named Golf Road, further down coast near Formby Point.
Like Hillside, here the fate of your score rests in your own hands, as the fairways and greens are always good.
Formby dates back to 1884 and is unique among seaside courses for the sweet smelling pine trees that fuse links and parkland surrounds, and create an eerie stillness in the air.
Staying on the fairway is the key to playing Formby well.
From the opening tee-shot where a railway track beckons a slice, to the 390-yard 18th that features five fairway bunkers and six greenside, the course never wavers.
Heather guards the rough and snags both club and ball, and the greens are firm and fast enough to invite three-putting.
Your round finishes on the sunken 18th green, in front of Formby’s stylish red brick clubhouse and signature clock tower.
It would be remiss to forget the fine links at Southport and Ainsdale, or S&A, as it’s often referred to.
This course held the Ryder Cup matches back in 1933 and 1937.
What about the Wirral?
The Southport coastline really is the golf capital of the North West coast, but Lancashire’s Fylde coast and Liverpool’s Wirral run it a close race and each have an Open Championship course as their talisman.
A visit to Royal Lytham St Anne’s in the leafy suburbs that share its name, combines a tough test of Championship golf with an elegant clubhouse that is a museum to the game’s finest moments.
A portrait of Bobby Jones hangs upstairs next to the club he used to play one of the two greatest shots in Championship golf, from a bunker at Lytham’s 17th hole on his way to victory in the 1926 Open.
Seve Ballesteros furthered Lytham’s legend when he made a birdie from an overflow car-park at the 16th en route to taking the 1979 Open.
Walking the hallowed corridors of this majestic clubhouse, it’s difficult not to feel the supernatural presence of the golfing greats who’ve passed before you.
The only Open venue to start with a par-three, Lytham, though classed as links is not bordered by beach and sea but housing and a railway line.
The start is unrelenting and the golfer must face the first three holes with out-of-bounds looming to the right over the railway tracks. Rest assured, four bogeys is an acceptable start.
There are birdie opportunities at the par-five 6th and 7th, but the 8th hole ,a fearsome par-four reverts to Lytham’s cast-iron mould.
The second shot is played uphill to a lofted green fronted by a steep incline and deep set bunkers.
Take enough club or risk not returning a score lost in the callous reveted face of Lytham’s pot bunkers.
Lytham is punishing, but it’s also unquestionably fair.
Good shots receive rewards and poor play usually ends in disaster.
The greens are also a joy to putt on, with less slope than most links courses, and reliably true.
The course has a sting in the tail at the final six-holes.
‘Murder mile,’ spanning over 2’000 yards is the name for the six par-fours that close Royal Lytham, including the difficult 15th and the 17th, scene of Jones’ remarkable shot.
A commemorative plaque sits at the edge of one of the bunkers, left of the 17th fairway, at this 467-yard right to left dogleg.
The 18th is a classic finishing hole also, where a drive must clear clusters of cross bunkers before the approach is hit against the backdrop of the magnificent clubhouse.
St Anne’s Old Links and the Big One
A five minute drive down the road brings you to St Anne’s Old Links Golf Club, where you can enjoy an easier test of links golf in view of Blackpool Tower and “The Big One” rollercoaster.
Its signature par-three 9th hole is its finest challenge. The green is 47-yards long, sunken between high sand banks and overlooked by a broody grey clubhouse.
Hoylake, or Royal Liverpool Golf Club, as it’s officially known was the venue for the 2006 Open Championship and was added to the championship rota for the first time since Roberto de Vicenzo pipped Jack Nicklaus back in 1967.
To reach Hoylake on the tip of the Wirral Peninsula, overlooking the Dee estuary and the North Wales hills, you’ll need to take either the Wallasey or Birkenhead Tunnels from Liverpool city centre.
The clubhouse is a fine cultured red-brick structure that is home to a splendid collection of historic golf memorabilia, including a portrait of and scorecards belonging to Bobby Jones, the famous American amateur who completed the “Grandslam” by winning the British Open at Hoylake in 1930.
Inside, it’s cultured and elegant. Outside, the Hoylake course is tough, unrelenting but crucially fair.
Formerly the site of the Liverpool Hunt Club racecourse, and built in 1869, Hoylake is no sprint but a championship steeplechase.
Long and uncompromising links
Be sure to practice with your longer irons before arriving.
If you jitter at the thought of a 2-iron shot from a tight crusty lie into a raised up-turned saucer green hidden by dunes and bunkers, then head back to the nearby municipal course.
The stretch of holes from the 9th “Punchbowl,” through to the short 13th, is perhaps the finest, with the 10th and 12th outstanding in both difficulty and design.
Architect Donald Steel has added several punishing shaved run-offs making it difficult to hold the green.
Birth of Stableford at Wallasey
If a bruising encounter with the 7,228 yard Royal Liverpool links leaves you feeling in need of a gentler challenge to repair your golfing self-esteem, stay on the Wirral Peninsula, and head to Wallasey Golf Club; where the compassionate Stableford scoring system was invented.
Dr Frank Stableford, a past Captain at Wallasey had such trouble with the 458-yard dogleg second hole played into westerly winds, he created the now popular points scoring system in 1931.
The Wallasey Tunnel takes you back to Liverpool where there is so much to see and do.
The city itself boasts some of Britain’s finest architecture, the emerging cosmopolitan Albert Docks, all things Beatles and two English Premier League football teams which could be playing on any given night.
Alternatively, the tranquil and idyllic Lake District is less than an hour and a half away, as is the gritty metropolis of Manchester, the Historic Roman city of Chester and the vibrance and voyeurism of Blackpool.
This really is ‘The Coast with the Most.’
WHERE TO PLAY
Hillside Golf Club
Formby Golf Club
Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club
Royal Lytham St Anne’s
St Anne’s Old Links Golf Club
Wallasey Golf Club
WHERE TO STAY
The West Tower Country House Hotel
A centre of maritime, cultural and sporting excellence, Liverpool was European Capital of Culture 2008. Its unrivalled architecture and heritage includes its world-famous waterfront, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Liverpool is arguably best known for The Beatles and their unique legacy can be seen, and heard, all over the city. Places like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields are established on a popular tourist trail which attracts thousands of fans from around the world every year.
The city has a unique claim to fame as home to more national museums and galleries than any other UK city outside London. Attractions include Tate Liverpool, located at the beautifully restored Albert Dock on the waterfront, which is one of the UK’s largest galleries of modern art.
For a flavour of Liverpool’s sporting heritage, tour the famous ground at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, and take a look around the museum. Everton also do tours of their home ground, Goodison Park.
As well as golf and football, this region is home to the world’s greatest horse race – the John Smith’s Grand National at Aintree. Tour the famous stables, weighing room and museum.
In nearby St Helens you’ll also find Haydock Park Racecourse and St Helens Rugby League Club.
British weather is unpredictable and can vary in Summer from warm to wet and mild.
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