After playing Royal Birkdale I summed up the course by saying, “some holes are too easy from the forward tees which reduce the difficulty and any possible strategy of the hole, but it is a brute from the championship tees.” Perhaps that is why professionals playing here refer to it as the “fairest” golf course they play since their tee shots from the back tees likely still go farther than mine from the member’s tees.
As someone who has a bias towards links courses, I consider it to be the second-best course in England behind Royal St George’s. But I certainly understand those who would place some of the fabulous courses surrounding London ahead of it. It very much depends on what one wants from an experience on the golf course. Certainly, the great courses around London offer many wonderful holes and sited greens due to the terrifically undulating and hilly terrain. Royal Birkdale is essentially a flat course nestled between sand dunes that serve as corridors to the lines of play.
I played it too long ago to give it a current hole-by-hole review, but the memory of the course lingers. I plan on making a trip back to the area at which point I will do a more thorough overview of each hole. I did a write-up of each hole when I played it, but it is likely out-of-date and I would want to have a more recent look at the green surfaces. I assume some changes have been made to the green surfaces, which I thought to be the only real weakness to the course. The green surrounds are very good. Obviously, the course has been lengthened and changed since my visit since that seems to happen to nearly every course that hosts an Open, even if the essence of the course remains.
Royal Birkdale relocated from a nine-hole course at Shaw Hills, before moving to Birkdale Hills in 1897 with a course designed by George Lowe. In 1922, a seven-year plan was put in place to create a championship course. F. W. Hawtree and J.H. Taylor laid out the holes in the valleys between the dunes. As I played the course I glanced several times at areas where I thought it would have been interesting to bring some of the dunes more into play, even if it meant creating a blind shot such as at Rye Old or Prestwick. I saw more interesting sites for a few greens and its surrounds. I questioned why the designers did not put a green on a hill behind the location of a current green, which would have created a dramatic false front or worrisome bounces down the side of a green. Or why didn’t the architects route the fairways closer to some of the higher hills. Why didn’t they place a fairway that would incorporate some of the higher ground, thereby creating a split/tilted fairway in height. The ground is so good that it would have offered some interesting holes over or across the sand dunes, even if it would have meant moving a bit of earth.
Instead, Mr. Hawtree and Mr. Taylor routed the course through the dunes which increased the definition of the holes. Tom Doak wrote that “...it’s closer in keeping with the American concept of target golf, with well-defined fairways and greens in the valleys between impressive dunes….there isn’t a great variety of holes because the dunes are consistently attacked in the same way, and you don’t have to deal with odd stances.” Mr. Doak and his colleagues did not give Royal Birkdale a high rating, averaging a 7, and placed Royal Liverpool slightly higher. I very much disagree with their conclusion.
While I can agree that the fairways here do not often lead to uneven stances, I have found the same at other courses such as Muirfield, Silloth-on-Solway, and particularly the newer public courses such as Castle Stuart and Kingsbarns. I think having an even lie is a minor criticism. Even at Royal St. George’s or Trump Turnberry I did not find stances that were over-the-top. However, uneven terrain can result in a good shot being penalized with an unfair kick/bounce. Whether that results in a better links course is debatable. As for target golf, it is true that many greens are easily visible here. Many of the tees, particularly the championship tees, are elevated to provide an even better view of the hole. There is not much mystery at Royal Birkdale which is somewhat surprising for a superb links course. At Lahinch Old, Ballybunion Old and several others, there is more uncertainty with the tee shot. With uncertainty comes the need for strategy as well as precision. Yet the counter-argument to a feeling of reduced strategy due to the defined playing corridors at Royal Birkdale is that many of its holes are doglegs which require a preferred side or the avoidance of somewhat hidden bunkers. For longer hitters, there is often more risk-reward in their tee shot in terms of trying to cut a corner rather than simply hit a drive as far as they can.
After playing the course, I had three “criticisms: combined with relatively simpler putting surfaces, one’s putting usually occurs in a “shelter” of sorts due to the surrounding sand dunes. Even if the wind is up, when putting you are likely to be able to take a comfortable stance and rarely have to consider the effect of the wind as much as one would have to on other more exposed links courses. The greens are generally easy to read. Second, there is a lack of variety in the holes by not routing any of them atop or incorporating more of the dunes. Third, there are no “charming/subtle” holes here: what you see is what you get. So, to a degree I agree with Mr. Doak as well as the comments from other reviewers. Given the design of the course, without a major change to the routing which is unlikely, I would only want to see the putting surfaces have more inner contours to create more movement.
Another criticism I have that is unrelated to the golf course is that several of the member tees are too far forward and provide too much of an advantage/break versus the championship tees. This occurs at three, ten, eleven, thirteen and sixteen, although thirteen remains difficult.
There is no question playing at the bottom of the dunes creates both a great place for fans to watch tournaments as well as feeling a sense of peace and solitude. One feels very connected to the land and the game of golf on this course as you walk between those high dunes. I loved the feeling of walking between the dunes at Royal Birkdale and seeing the holes reveal themselves on some of the doglegs.
Even with the above criticisms, there is a beauty to Royal Birkdale which lies in its simplicity. There are two simple challenges that Royal Birkdale has which are to hit the ball straight and to find the green. After all, those are the two fundamentals to achieving a good score. The bunkering is superb, with several holes such as fifteen having the bunkers placed seemingly haphazardly near or even in the fairway. Due to the doglegs it is imperative one finds the fairway. There are many doglegs on the course which does add to its strategy as finding the wrong side of the fairway can find one with a blocked view of the green due to a high sand dune. Perhaps only Royal Liverpool seems to have as many doglegs. The green surrounds are very good with lots of humps and bumps as well as the close proximity of the greenside bunkers. Near many of the greens are tall grasses and bushes. On most holes you cannot miss the green by much or it is a certain dropped shot or more.
As part of Royal Birkdale’s defense, the rough seems to be closer to the edge of the fairway here than at other link’s courses. However, the fairways are generally wide with a few exceptions.
I do like how the course moves in all directions. It is rare that two consecutive holes go in the same directions. I also like the out-and-back routings of both nines. I think people under-appreciate the variety of the holes as there are many short and long par 4’s, and the doglegs create different angles.
The start of the round is superb with three longish par 4’s going in opposite directions. The fourth is a longer par 4 with a nice elevated tee to a green set well below. Six is perhaps the best hole on the front nine, both long and offering some strategy, yet the short par 4 fifth hole is the most fun due to the greenside bunkering. My favorite hole on the front nine is the eighth which is beautiful designed, located, and defended. On the back nine, the thirteenth and fifteenth are my favorite holes. My favorite par 3 is the twelfth. Just as the start is very good, the final three holes are also of high quality, although for the sixteenth that is from the championship tee. There are no “weak” or forgettable holes at Royal Birkdale as even the shorter holes have a well-defended green.
We played tees set at about 6300 yards when we played it.
Royal Birkdale is certainly one of the finest golf courses in the world and in my opinion, the fourth best course for the Open championship behind Muirfield, Royal Portrush, and Royal St. George’s. It is a course one could play over and over and never tire of it. Everyone should try to play it. One will be rewarded with an excellent routing and well-defended golf course in a serene setting between the dunes.
Date: July 08, 2020