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Fergal O'Leary's English exploration

25 July, 2013

Fergal O’Leary’s English Exploration

Founded in 1884, the original 9 holes were expanded to 18 holes by Willie Park circa 1904. James Braid, H.S. Colt, Martin Hawtree, James Taylor and Donald Steel all advised on further course improvements making the course the wonderful test it is today. The original clubhouse was re-built in 1901 after an unfortunate fire, with modern renovations to locker rooms and house extension done over the past decade. Unlike other golf clubs in the area, Formby has a Dormy house inside the clubhouse where they can accommodate travelling golfers and contribute to the truly memorable experience. Walking into the snooker room takes you further back in time with history filling your imagination. The old championship boards, photographs of all past Captains in the red jackets and the old fashioned touches make you aware that you are somewhere very special. The formalities and etiquettes that the club exudes and deserves are wonderful to be involved with. A trip to England wouldn’t be complete without tea and sandwiches!

Formby has both a men’s golf club and a ladies golf club. The men’s 18 holes are mostly wrapped around the perimeter of the ladies course. They operate independently, but both take advantage of impressive terrain perfect for championship golf. The members purchased the land in the 1960s and having the Club Captain guide me around the property, I learned that the club has 600 acres of land, and only used 300 acres for the 18 holes. It puts things into perspective when you think that Merion (East) was built on 110 acres. For those with a keen eye, Formby presents all the challenges in front of the golfer and doesn’t try to fool you. A sea of bunkers is visible from the tee boxes, but as with most great courses, when you stand on the green and look back, all of the aforementioned hazards are hidden by the terrain. There are no blind shots, but the landscape offers plenty of bumpy fairways and raised greens. I found it most interesting that the course has hundreds of trees, but none of them come into play. They merely isolate each hole as you move away from the clubhouse and offer a gentle backdrop to numerous approach shots. It could be busy at Formby and you’d never know it.

The course has quietly evolved over the years. Trees planted in the 1970s now provide a screen from the railway running parallel with the first three holes. The most significant change was the total reconstruction and rerouting of holes 7, 8, 9 and 10 to ensure that sea encroachment is no longer an issue. These holes suffered in the early 1980s as the golf course moved out along the sand dunes to the Irish Sea. The investment was made to utilize the available land and re-route the golf course away from the erosion and eliminate the possibility of a repeat misfortune. The resulting holes, as with the entire golf course, fit naturally into the topology and could well be the most impressive of the bunch. The course scores very highly with design variety, long and short par 4s, doglegs into both directions, a routing that guarantees you’ll rarely face the same wind directions again and some of the best sand in England. Formby upholds the highest standards of the amateur game. With intentions to host the Walker Cup, the club prides itself on hosting multiple Amateur championships, Brabazon Trophies, numerous R&A boys’ championships, Mid-Amateur and Senior events and many county championships. From reading the winners boards, it’s clear that the greatest champions in the game throughout history have played and won at Formby.

Royal Birkdale
Although it received its “Royal” status in 1951, the legacy and global significance of “The Royal Birkdale Golf Club” long outlives the club’s history. Offering the largest sand dunes which look like waves off the sea, the clubhouse’s 1930 clever design makes it look like a ship sailing throughout the waves. It’s a beautiful sight for golfers to behold. With its lofty world ranking, Birkdale has hosted more championship and international matches than any other club in the world. The course starts with arguably the toughest opening hole in the Open Championship rotation – 450 yards slight dogleg left with dunes and thirsty bunkers. Having the great fortune of playing with the club President and Chairman of Competitions and with the preparations under way for the upcoming Senior Open Championship, I couldn’t have asked for better hosts and local knowledge.

This course is a serious test, playing hard and fast, exposing the joys of true links golf with knee-high hay lining the bumpy fairways. There are numerous back tees added to the course for tournaments, many of which you hesitate to turn around to look at for fear of heart failure amongst the endless waves of dunes. Sometimes you just have to trust your host when they tell you “there’s another tee back there which you can’t see from here”. The thought of adding length to some of these already daunting holes just makes you tremble. Martin Hawtree’s excellent creativity only adds to the magnificence of the links. The dunes frame each hole so well and the greenside sand punishment is endless. The iconic par three 12th hole sits surrounded by dunes and perched above four greenside bunkers. It’s arguably the signature hole on the property. Birkdale offers the highest ranked course in England, the “Royal” experience, punishment in every direction and is not for the faint-hearted. It’s truly in a league of its own. As with any true links, the bunkers are real hazards and should be avoided at all costs because even the best of shots can end in disaster and dash premature hopes of birdie. The gauntlet of par fours will demand perfection even on a calm day. From the medal tees, it’s a splendid par 72 (35-37), with 3 par 5s in the last 4 holes. Don’t be surprised if this course gets all the attention on your golf trip to the Northwest of England. Birkdale never fails.

The inside of Ganton’s clubhouse may only be described as a golfing museum. With tributes to Harry Vardon and the many other champions associated to the club, a visitor could get lost in history. The club is currently preparing for the Home Internationals in August 2013 (come on Ireland!) and the course is beginning to show its championship teeth once more. Throughout its legacy, Ganton has played host to many amateur and professional tournaments, at both the individual and team levels. Most recently was the 2003 Walker Cup. With Harry Vardon and Ted Ray being the first two golf professionals at Ganton, the course’s evolution is epic.

The welcome is second to none with the Caddiemaster escorting us to the first tee and offering some helpful knowledge to remember. I appreciated the personal touch before we set off. This club is where tradition and history immerse themselves into the Yorkshire countryside. An interesting fact about Ganton is that many architects have contributed to the current routing and design. In some publications, the architect is simply listed as “various”. The course is of open heathland, its principal feature being the great banks of gorse which blaze with yellow. For the longer hitters, the driver will stay in the bag all day without exception, but don’t let the shorter nature of this course fool you.

Most of the bunkers at Ganton have steps down into them, which speaks for itself. Furthermore, there are bunkers at this course where you could park multiple helicopters side by side. Although the bunkers have minimal sand and are coated with a bothersome layer of seashells, they live up to the hype of being the most cavernous and terrifying traps of any course. In my opinion, one of the standout holes includes the 4th, which was designed by Harry Colt, with its splendid second shot across a shallow valley to a green on a small ledge. The index 1 7th hole could well be the toughest hole in the county. It plays 441 yards and doglegs right uphill to a significantly contoured green. There is a dangerous bunker complex that is not visible from the tee, but it makes each shot on this hole very difficult and only the best player will make par. I thoroughly enjoyed the visual of the par three 10th hole with its deep narrow green playing at 171 yards. On certain occasions, I did comment to my playing partner that many of the approach shots felt slightly repetitive with the same visual of playing to a flat green with a bunker left and right.

The finishing stretch was a delight to play, with 15 and 16 playing as very long demanding par fours and most notably the par three 17th hole playing 247 yards uphill to a raised green. The uniqueness of the bunkering and wonderful (constant) change of direction ensures that the look of each hole remains unique, and highly memorable. The course is definitely playable for golfers of all levels and is an example of a golf course where modern day architects visit for inspiration and stimulation. Ganton is truly amongst the greatest inland courses in the world.

Article written by our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who continues his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. Images of Formby and Royal Birkdale by Kevin Murray.


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