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.
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.
The ‘geek’ golf fan amongst you may know that Hillside Golf Club is the final qualifying venue for the Open for all those who have won regional Open qualifying tournaments (n.b. it has in fact been the final qualifying venue for the past 5 years). This gives the course a certain amount of ‘pedigree’ and kudos, and demonstrates itself as a true test of ‘Links Golf’ in the eyes of the R&A and the players themselves.
It is a par 72 course measuring at 6849 from the White tees, which on the face of it might not seem too long, but as with all Links golf, its defences are not its length but in the natural elements that complement the course. What immediately becomes apparent when you play Links golf for the first time is the way you have to think differently and strategise in completing a hole. It is not as simple as taking Driver off every Par 4/5 because where ever your ball pitches (and ultimately rolls to) there will be some kind of danger left or right, in the form of a devilish pothole bunker, thick fescue rough, or on occasions the odd brook - Hillside has all of these waiting for any errant shots. The other thing you have to take into consideration is that it is so difficult to fly your approach shot onto the green and make it stop, even with a Wedge in hand. I had a couple of instances during the first 3 holes, where I flushed a Pitching Wedge aiming to land it 10-15 yards short of the flag with a bit of bite and roll out be pin high, only to watch both balls career through the back of the green into the rough ... it can be a cruel game.
The front 9 plays relatively flat, with the first two holes playing away from the clubhouse towards the Irish Sea with the Mersey railway track immediately to the left of both holes (an intimidating sight for anyone partial to drawing / hooking the ball with Driver). If the railway was in your head after the first hole, then on on the second tee box, with the railway still on the left, you also have the added pressure of a little brook and pond on the right to really help you make sure you hit the fairway. The green complex on the second hole really sets up the theme for the greens throughout the rest of the course: green sloping away on all sides, with bunkers predominantly protecting front left and right ready to receive any slightly errant approach shots.
The third and fourth holes are great thinking holes. The third tee shot is a choice between a long-iron off the tee to come short of the bunkers or taking on the dog leg right with Driver and hoping that you will: a) make it over the rough, and b) if you make it over the rough, then hoping your ball does not run into the brook at 300 yards. The fourth is Par 3 just shy of 200 yards completely surrounded by bunkers. Flying the green almost means invariably flying over the back into rough, yet pitching short and running up brings the bunkers into play. Then comes the long par 5, which plays into the prevailing wind but thankfully on this day was more across the hole than against you, yet it is the second shot that commands the attention here. After your drive you are presented with a daunting 2nd shot where the fairway narrows between two large dunes, again presenting you with the option of trying to hit 3 Wood to try and get past the dunes (but probably short of the green) or being very precise with a mid iron to land it on the fairway between the dunes and leave yourself a Wedge yardage to the green. Just a really clever hole.
Next comes the Stroke Index 1 6th hole which begins the journey back inland towards the clubhouse. It is a long dog leg par 4, with a fair amount of undulation and leaves you with an uphill approach shot onto a green where it seems all you can see is sand from the fairway. Quite an intimidating shot, but also the scene of this writer’s best shot of the round which led to the sole birdie ... #humblebrag. Hole 7 is a short par 3 again surrounded by bunkers, which with a forward pin can seem quite ominous. The 8th hole is somewhat reminiscent of the 3rd hole, albeit without the threat of water; a slight dog leg right par 4 which requires a strategically placed tee shot and a well executed approach. The final hole on the front 9 is another testing 2nd shot hole. A relatively straight forward looking tee shot is then followed by a precarious approach shot with the green protected by 5 bunkers. Again, strategically a really good golf hole that rewards a well-thought out plan.
The back 9 holes at Hillside has some of the most ruggedly picturesque holes that I have ever seen - notably the 11th and 15th. They are just wonderful looking golf holes that feel like the natural landscape always had a golf course there. At times it feels like you have entered a different golf course as the topography of the second 9 holes at Hillside is much more dominated by the large sand dunes, and a number of the holes are lined and framed by wonderful pine trees. As many much better golfers than I have said, including Greg Norman, it is amongst the very best 9 holes of golf in the UK.
The 10th hole is a short uphill par 3 with a sloping back to front green, with 4 bunkers protecting any tee shot short. Go long towards the back of this green leaves a treacherously fast downhill putt; short leads to a devilishly difficult bunker shot. Following the 10th and a short, steep stroll up the hill is the 11th tee box. This is the highest point of the course and gives you a wonderful view of Irish Sea in the distance. Another excellent hole and one that can be played numerous different ways. Taking driver brings means you are driving into the narrowest part of the fairway; stray left and a pot hole bunker lies and go too far right there is a pond. If you are conservative and take a long iron or hybrid off the tee, you again bring into play bunkers with your second lay up shot. The green is relatively welcoming, in part because you will have probably had some trials and tribulations just getting there, and is only protected by the one bunker. Again, a really well designed hole that is a lot of fun to think about.
You walk through the calming and serene pine forest to get to the 12th hole tee box, where a dog-leg right par 4 awaits. Another decision needs to be made about what club to take on this tee box, taking into consideration your approach shot. This was the most fun green on the whole course for me, with some really interesting slopes. You have to be deadly accurate with your approach shot just to even make a par here. The 13th hole takes you out to the farthest part of the course. An uphill, relatively straight par 4 with a severely uphill approach shot where you need to ensure you take an extra club. This is then followed by another par 4 almost taking you back the way you have just come. Whilst on the face of it not an intimidating hole, I will say that on the day I played it, the hole was playing at least 100 yards longer into the wind.
15th hole is a great hole. As you stand on the tee box you can see the 90 degrees dog leg left shape of the hole, however stopping you from taking on that dog leg is an impressively looking dune which happens to have half a dozen large pine trees on it! By this stage in the course, you will have noticed that the fescue grass on the back 9 holes is massively more penal than on the front 9 so it puts a premium on keeping the ball in the fairway. So you have to park your ego and just play a safe long iron or hybrid down the fairway to keep in play. This course time and time again rewards you for playing good, sensible golf. No one is going to ‘tear up’ this course because it consistently requires you to play good golf - this is evident when you look at the winning Scratch competition scores in the clubhouse.
Just in case you were getting ahead of yourself, the last three holes really keep you focused. The 16th is a 220 yard par 3 from the white tees onto a two-tiered green. Get on the wrong tier and you will struggle to two-putt. The 17th is a long par 5 that mirrors the 11th hole; again strategically placed bunkers throughout the hole putting a premium on keeping it on the fairway. The key difference to the 11th hole is that the 17th green is uphill so similarly to the 13th hole, you have to ensure you club up to make sure you reach the green.
The final hole is a long par 4 with a huge green to hit onto. The tee shot requires you to be deadly accurate with a driver as there are 4 bunkers protecting the centre and right of the fairway. It underlies the theme of the whole course - making you think as the golfer to play the right shot at the right time.
If you have come this far in the article, I know I have rambled on a bit here. That is in part because whilst it was 2 weeks ago since I played Hillside, I can still remember vividly every shot. It is a wonderfully rugged Links Golf experience, which make you think every step of the way - not in a begrudging way, but in a creative way. For me, it was my first proper Links experience and one I will cherish and look back on fondly. A really welcoming club, from the bar staff to the pro shop, to the starter and halfway house, also helped contribute to the experience.
Should you be looking at playing golf in the Liverpool area, I implore you to get Hillside Golf course on your radar - you will not regret it.