There are eight top-notch seaside courses between St Annes and Liverpool and many people believe that this is the best stretch of linksland in the British Isles. It is certainly England’s links golfing Mecca and Hillside Golf Club is perhaps the best of the non-royal commoners.
Hillside is an underappreciated gem, separated only by a footpath, but hiding in the shadow of its regal next-door neighbour, Royal Birkdale. The railway line separates Hillside from Southport and Ainsdale, another quality but relatively unknown links.
Today’s layout is very different to the original Hillside that was founded in 1911. The club acquired some new land in the 1960s and Fred W. Hawtree extensively remodelled the course, making major changes to the back nine. The front nine has always been highly regarded and plays over relatively flat ground, but it’s the homeward nine that is really special and is frequently bracketed alongside Ballybunion because the holes ripple and undulate through the giant dunes.
There are many strong and individual holes but it’s the 11th is a hole that has everything going for it, a reachable par five of just over 500 yards that doglegs left; the elevated tee provides a panoramic view of the hole in play and many other holes too, not only at Hillside but also at Royal Birkdale and Southport & Ainsdale. A well-struck drive to the dune-flanked fairway will tempt the big hitters to go for the raised green in two, but watch out for that cavernous bunker lurking on the right.
Although Birkdale is a regular Open host, Hillside has staged numerous big events, both amateur and professional. In the 1982 PGA Championship, Tony Jacklin tied with Bernhard Langer. Jacklin went on to win at the first play-off hole; this was to be his last professional title and Hillside’s most significant event until 2019 when the club hosted the British Masters.
Having visited Hillside in May when the British Masters was held, I have been looking forward to returning and playing the course and yesterday I did just that, playing the course before the major Winter improvement works start on several of the holes.
And what a course this is. Right from the off you are welcomed into the excellent clubhouse and the practice facilities I thought were also excellent, with long and short game area to try and hone your game before teeing off.
The course is laid out in almost 2 distinct loops of nine. Both are of real quality, but the back nine overall stands out more for me as you head through some visually stunning holes amongst the towering dunes, many with pine trees adding greater visual attraction.
The 1st tee shot requires an accurate straight drive as the railway line tucks tightly down the left hand side and with rough out to the right. The rough throughout the entire round was penal. A good drive though sets up a par or birdie chance. The 2nd is a strong par 5, early in the round. Again an accurate tee shot is required as you have a water ditch and oob down the left and bunkers strategically placed to catch a wayward drive down the right.
The 3rd is a shorter par 4, dog legging to the right and surrounded by a brook to the front and pond to the right for any over ambitious 2nd shots in.
You follow this with a straightforward par 3 and then another excellent par 5 with the 2nd shot played through huger dunes to left and right. The wind was blowing towards the sea yesterday so the 6th was a tough par 4 back into the breeze, before you play what I think is a delightful par 3, surrounded by dunes and pine trees to the left and rear of the hole. And then you head back towards the clubhouse and half way hut with 2 par 4’s of shorter length before you enter the stunning back 9.
The 10th is a gem of a par 3, around 140 yards with again superb bunkering and run off areas. A feature throughout is the quality of the bunkering which are so cleverly placed to catch even the best amateur shots.
The 11th is the best hole in my opinion. It like most of the holes on the course is laid out in front of you and you get breath taking view of it from the high tee position. It reminds me on some of the hole styles at Hollinwell (perhaps the 17th, with pine trees surrounding the green) and it is a standout hole. You then follow it with a gentle dogleg right short par 4. I loved the 13th, again from an elevated tee with a 2nd shot back up towards an elevated green. The greens were a little bobbly but we are in mid October and they otherwise ran true and still quick.
The 15th starts a great little stretch, a severe dogleg left where accuracy off the tee is essential to avoid the bunkers placed across the fairway. A safer shot to the right leaves a long 2nd into the green however. The 16th is a tough par 3, even off the winter yellow tees with the wind blowing hard from the left and then the 17th, which we played off the back tees, is simply stunning as you look down the full 550 yards of the hole towards the clubhouse, with Royal Birkdale clubhouse also in view. A truly wonderful hole.
And then back to the clubhouse on the 18th which gives you a chance to finish your round with a par.
We long debated the ranking of Hillside after the round and compared with Ganton, Birkdale etc. We all felt that it could easily deserve a higher ranking as we all felt that this course stands up with the best of the quality links/inland links courses we played. Highly recommend
Hillside Golf Club is in the middle of the famous trio of golf courses in Southport (S&A and Birkdale). It really is a fantastic traditional club and a great test of links golf. I believe it is a course of 2 nines with the front nine being a lot flatter and plain, but the back nine is outrageously good and arguably one of the greatest nine holes of golf I've played. The condition of the fairways and greens were great and the bunkers were challenging, just as you would expect for links golf.
The first hole is a fairly short par 4, but is littered with bunkers all the way down the fairway so if you walk away with a par then you are doing well. 3 is a great par 4 with a ditch running about 290 yards up across the fairway, when the wind is behind you it definitely comes into play there. After that there aren't any notable holes on the front nine other than the 7th which is a fantastic 150 yard par 3 with the trees in the back and beautifully designed bunkers around the green.
After the 9th hole it gets very fun. 10 is a great par 3 playing about 140 yards to a narrow undulating green. 11 is one of the best par 5s that you may play in Lancashire with a fantastic view greeting you when you hit your tee shot and a large number of trees behind the green making it a beautiful approach shot. The 13th and 14th are 2 tough but marvellous par 4s playing amongst the sand dunes, both fantastic holes. The 17th and 18th holes are a great way to finish your round as well. The 17th is a long par 5 with a difficult drive as you will find a ditch on your right and lots of bunkers down the start of the fairway. The approach shot is again pleasing to the eye as you hit towards the green which is surrounded by the dunes. The 18th is a great hole to end with, an elevated tee shot with the clubhouse in the background and many fairway bunkers to contend with, probably best not to hit driver off the tee as I learnt this the hard way!
As you can tell by the review, there is an awful lot more to talk about on the back 9 than the front nine but nonetheless the course in general was fantastic and definitely a great inks experience. Well worth it to play there if you get the chance. I feel harsh giving it 5 balls, but I gave Silloth-On-Solway a 5 1/2 rating and in my opinion I think Silloth was better. Regardless, Hillside was a quality course and I definitely will aim to play there again in the future.
I’ve played all three courses on this adjoining tract of linksland multiple times and I’m still undecided which is my favourite. You could also throw in Formby, located just down the road, and even stretch to Hoylake on the Wirral up to Lytham on the Fylde Coast, and all that lies in-between. Hillside keeps fine company and holds its own.
In the not so distant past I have played at Hillside at its sternest, from the tips on a brutal day in the Pines Trophy, but my most recent visit was on a benign late-June morning with a brilliant blue sky overhead and just the slightest of breezes not even capable of stirring the flags. Hillside plays magnificently in all conditions.
Routed in two returning loops of nine, the front side wends initially its way out alongside the train line, which slices the links of Hillside and S&A, out to the fifth green before turning back to the clubhouse. We momentarily switch back on ourselves at the third and also play perpendicular to the other holes at the short seventh but otherwise we are mostly moving out and back. There is a noticeable tightness to the turf on the more open outward half which requires plotting as opposed to brute force.
The inward half, for which I’m sure Greg Norman must still be claiming the royalties from his famous line, “The back nine holes are the Best in Britain”, transitions from modest sandhills to monumental dunes as we are continually moved towards different points of the compass. At times the hills must run close some of the dunes on the Irish coast in terms of size but here we almost exclusively play through the valleys; from elevated tees, to flattish fairways, up to raised greens. We rarely, if ever, have to go cross-country and traverse the sandhills which means each hole is perfectly framed.
I must admit I really enjoy the subtleties of the first nine where we find some excellently sited green complexes with clever greenside bunkering. The second, third, sixth and ninth are all particularly noteworthy amongst a strong collection.
There is no denying that the back-nine is dramatic with the two par-fives (the 11th and 17th) both visually stunning; the former is a truly sensational hole which curves around the dunes before rising gradually to the green which is very similar to the 9th at Formby.
A grandstand and entertaining finish is guaranteed over the final three holes with a brute of a par-three, played to a massive two-tiered green, followed by the visually impressive 17th and a tough finisher back down to the clubhouse. Into the wind a par-par-par finish over these closing three holes is some accomplishment.
As you would expect from a championship links the fairway bunkering is just about spot on throughout. There is at least one trap for every club in the back from Driver to 3-iron so you must really be on your game off the tee or alternatively lay well back and leave yourself a long approach. A number of the fairways also kink, bend or in some cases significantly turn which also adds to the difficulty. Whatever strategy you choose Hillside is a solid test of golf.
There are many similarities to bordering Birkdale in so much that you get what you deserve on this very fair links whilst it lacks the quirk of neighbouring S&A. Regardless of personal preference Hillside does its job very efficiently.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.
Underrated course that competes with Birkdale and runs rings around some of the open tracks. Perhaps if the railway wasn't around and it had a bit more land it could have been an open track. Highly recommended and not being an open track does not come with the same hefty green fees.
Hillside was probably the highlight of my group's four-day tour in the area recently, besides staying in the Dormy at RLSA of course. My three playing companions had their cameras out on many occasions on the back nine, especially on the last two elevated (blue) tees.
Personally, I was slightly less fond of the place. The fairways are far too flat and smooth to get that maximum links feel, especially as the terrain on the back nine promises so much. In fact, I ended up enjoying the golf on the more understated front nine more, while I spent more time admiring views on the back nine. On reflection, I realise that my taste in links golf has evolved the more of it I have played. Ten years ago I would definitely have rated Hillside higher.
All this being said, it is a very well presented championship links course of high calibre, the finish of which (at least in early June 2019) has probably been helped by hosting the British Masters.
Now, assuming you have a free choice of courses in the area, how should you prioritise? If we leave the three Open venues (Birkdale, Hoylake and RLSA) aside, I would pick Formby ahead of Hillside. Furthermore, if you already have Birkdale on your schedule, I would also pick West Lancs ahead of Hillside to get more variety.
Hillside might be the most strategic course on its island. The tee shot on the first hole asks only that the golfer keep the shot between the rail line on the left and the bunkers on the right. But each of the next seven drives presents a strategic challenge: play close to the trouble to get a better angle for the next shot or play wide for a more difficult one. Both par fives on the front give the player the same type of dilemma. The 15th—with its sharp dogleg left—and the 18th—with four bunkers stretched across the fairway at an angle—call for strategy as well. Once arriving at Hillside’s greens, thinks get a bit more mundane, though the nicely contoured 12th is a lovely exception.
The biggest curiosity at Hillside is found on the back of the scorecard where the “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY” section includes the club’s post code. I doubt anyone suffering an emergency is likely to attend to it by mail.
I have played in excess of 400 courses worldwide, many of the top 100 in GB&I and for me Hillside sits at the top of the pile. The test of a great course is how many weaker holes there are on the 18 and at Hillside there are no weak holes. I have played the course in all conditions from rain/howling wind to a flat calm sunny day but its always been an absolute privilege and a joy.
The condition has always been fabulous and it will be interesting to see following the British Masters how the ranking will be reviewed, I fully expect that the layout will be recognised as a true test that can rival any championship course.
Great Open Q course in an amazing piece of land which includes Birkdale and S & A as very near neighbours.
Played it just before qualifier and front nine was ok and we were wondering what the starter was going on about warning us to be careful.
Found out in the back nine as it felt like each hole got narrower, harder and the rough got longer to the point it felt like if you put your clubs down when looking for a ball you might lose them as well. If only I could hit a ball straight.
Great course even if you can't, but a very good test of golf for the proper golfers too.
Played Hillside and S&A on the same day 3rd August - 2 Excellent courses! The front nine on Hillside is great, nice links golf course, not much scenery other than trains, bunkers, greens etc - but an incredibly enjoyable 9 holes....after a quick cuppa at the halfway house you are then transported into a surreal wonderland of golf on the back nine!!
It was very reminiscent of Trump International (best course I have played) whereby every hole could be a postcard, and every shot is not only a challenge, but an enjoyable experience. I found the rough slightly too penal at times as literally 10 yards off the fairway it turns into thick bush like rough which is nigh on impossible to find your ball in! The back nice about the 12th is an unbelievable hole, shame I cocked it up!!!
All in all, it is worth the green fee for the backside itself, but overall it is a top notch golf course and probably deserves to be higher up in the rankings!
Second visit to Hillside in one month and this time it was way better, a sunny day with some wind and listening to the roars at The Open during Saturday 3rd round was great. My first time in June under rain almost all 18 holes left me with the will of coming back and really enjoying the course which I really did. We played short tees as there were many high handicappers in the group but in no way that made me not enjoy it. It is a different challenge, you need accuracy with tee shots and not always driver. Greens were rolling pure, even better than in June and when you get to the back 9 and start to see the Stands at Royal Birkdale it made it a great experience, of course much better than in June!
As it is well known, back 9 are great and maybe the nicest in England but there are a couple of holes in the front 9 worth to be remarked: par 5 5th hole is a great one, where once you drive the fairway the challenge to get home in 2 is extremely tough and you must avould both cross bunkers. Par 3 7th is maybe the nicest on the front 9, with those big trees on the back of the green and you need not to be distracted or you'll end with a double as I did! 8th is another really good one, a challenging dog leg right where again tee shot needs to be what the hole asks, a cut to avoid bunkers on the left.
And back 9 ... WOW! I played some great golf but not making one single putt made it a disappointing score but this cannot hide how great the course is, from start to end there is not one single weak hole!
Par 3 10th uphill is extremely nice and the first sights of Stands at Birkdale, 11th is an amazing par 5 reachable, but with a very tough green to read. 12th over the water is even drivable for the longer ones, but then the short approach is not easy. And the grand finale 17-18 gives you the chance to score but also to lose the round, maybe 17th is the best hole on the course and the closest you get to The Open.
Again we finished watching The Open at the Club House and it was a complete great day, very well organized despite the Open crews. Is it a must? YES.