Playing Through (Spring 2022)

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Course Spotlight

England's Magical History Tour

Roll up. Roll up for the history tour.
Roll up. That’s an invitation . . .

In the middle of a golf trip to England’s mid-western coast, I am standing on the Albert Dock in Liverpool, once a symbol of the greatness of Edwardian England. A century ago this waterfront area was one of the world’s great ports and ship building areas. Now the dock and the neighboring city center are a symbol of the past and the future – cobblestone pedestrian-only streets lined by upscale restaurants and shops. It’s sort of a Charles Dickens meets Armani in 21st-century England. I came to England for the golf – to play the ancient courses, some of which date to the presidency of Andrew Johnson – in the 40-mile stretch of linksland from Liverpool to Lytham; courses where six Ryder Cup matches and 32 Open Championships have been waged. While I have always been enamored with Scotland and Ireland (and recently Wales), it is England’s midwestern coast – what they call the golf coast – that has the greatest and most historic courses in the most compact area. You can play them all with less driving than it takes to get from Myrtle Beach to Calabash. But I also came to brush up on my Beatles history, and, more educationally, the history of the dock on which I’m standing. The Albert Dock and Liverpool are intimately entwined with the three greatest commercial maritime tragedies ever – the Titanic, the Lusitania and the less-known but most tragic Empress of Ireland.

You may remember in the Hollywood interpretation of the sinking of the Titanic that Liverpool is written across the stern of the distressed ship as it plummets to the bottom of the Atlantic. The ship was built largely by Liverpudlians who worked for the White Star Shipping Company then headquartered at the Albert Dock. The Lusitania, the fastest ship crossing the Atlantic at the time, sailed from Liverpool to New York and on one of its return voyages was torpedoed by the Germans during World War I. Empress of Ireland, a Liverpool-to-Canada liner, sunk in the St. Lawrence River after being broadsided in a thick fog by a huge coal ship. More than 1,000 died less than four miles from shore, including 172 crew members from Liverpool. More passengers were lost on the Empress (840) than the Titanic (817) or the Lusitania (791).

The Merseyside Maritime Museum recounts the history of each tragedy, all of which occurred within three years of each other. History tells us that these three tragedies sent Liverpool into an economic tailspin.

No one I think is really in my tree . . .
Less than 30 years later, John, Paul, George and Ringo were born in Liverpool, and their history is immortalized on the Albert Dock with The Beatles Experience. But I prefer to get out and see the real thing. You can walk down Penny Lane and find there still is a bank, a barbershop and a shelter in the middle of the roundabout. You can stand at the red iron gate to Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army house where John played in the yard as a child. You can still have a pint at the Cavern Club, where The Beatles began to gain fame and where thousands of major rock ’n roll acts have played on their way up.

Still, it is the golf history I’m most interested in. The stretch of linksland from Liverpool to Lytham is less than 40 miles as the Srixon flies, but it is packed not only with great courses but great golf history. Three of the world’s top 100 courses and seven of the 100 best in the U.K. and Ireland reside in this stretch.

Help. I need somebody. Help. Not just anybody . . .
I have successfully avoided the front bunker on the par-3 opening hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. “Well done,” says my caddie, John Fishwick. “Only 205 more to keep out of.”

John tells me he knows all the bunkers. “I should,” he says. “I’ve been caddying here for 66 years.” He tells me he’s 85 years old, which means he was a year old when Bobby Jones won the 1926 Open Championship with a 175-yard shot out of a pot bunker over nothing but heather, hills and gorse. A plaque commemorates the shot, and if you stand next to the plaque and size up the shot you would question whether Tiger or Phil could pull it off today.

John says he can still do two loops a day, and I’m not going to argue since I’m having trouble keeping up with him, even though he keeps falling behind to rake the bunkers I keep finding.

On the 17th tee, the fairway finally looks open; just one bunker out there. I hit it good; a little draw.
“Looks boon-kerish to me,” John drawls. I protest, saying I only see one bunker and my ball is nowhere near it. “Yes,” he says. “But there’s 22 of them out there.”

My ball finds the bunker next to the Bobby Jones Bunker. I play out sideways and take my lumps; more lumps. Lytham & St. Annes deals nothing but lumps.

If you finish your round here and you’re not physically exhausted from playing out of the bunkers and mentally exhausted from worrying about going in the bunkers, then you’ve probably played well.

There, beneath the blue suburban skies I sit . . .
The story of how Royal Liverpool came to existence 12 miles outside the city in the town of Hoylake isn’t really much of a story, even though it is highly unusual in the British Isles for a course not to be in the town for which it is named. The linksland where the Irish Sea washes up against England was the race course of the Liverpool Hunt Club, where well-heeled Liverpudlians spent much of their leisure time. So when the idea of building a golf course on the land came about shortly after our Civil War ended, it naturally became known as Royal Liverpool.

Also naturally, Royal Liverpool, which has become one of the world’s great courses, is interchangeably referred to as Hoylake. Again, that doesn’t make a very interesting story except when you consider there is a municipal course called Hoylake across the railroad tracks from Royal Liverpool. So when traveling golfers incorrectly navigate themselves to Hoylake municipal, they arrive with a quizzical look, expecting the grandiose clubhouse and rolling linksland of an Open Championship venue only to find a featureless city golf course.

Pull into the internationally famous Hoylake and you’re greeted by an opulent clubhouse, aged and kept to perfection. Inside, as you might expect, the walls are lined with memorabilia from the 11 Open Championships held there, including Tiger Woods’ famous wood-less victory in 2006 and more famously Bobby Jones’ win in 1930 as the second leg of the Grand Slam. A corner of one of the main rooms is referred to as the Bobby Jones Corner and includes, among other things, the scorecards from each of his four rounds.

The greatness of the course is in the subtleness of the design. Other links achieve greatness because of the drama of the linksland they are built on. Royal Liverpool doesn’t have that advantage. Its flat and uneventful ground won’t win any awards, but the intricacy of the design and the masterful bunkering does. On a windless day it offers a very pleasant round but, with the fan turned up, it is a monster of an entirely different color.

Tell me, tell me, tell me; Come on, tell me the answer . . .
Nowhere is there a greater dichotomy between the greatness of the course and the monstrosity of the clubhouse than at Royal Birkdale. To be fair, the inside of the clubhouse is comfortable, elegant and contains as much ‘if-these-walls-could-talk’ history as most other clubs on the Open Championship rota. But it’s basically a concrete ship’s bridge overlooking the wavy links from which England’s greatest course has been carved out over the years.

But then the clubhouse has always been a bone of contention at Birkdale. The first one, built on the other side of the property and opened in 1897, was razed in 1903, having been built across the line of the property belonging to the club. A properly-aligned clubhouse was quickly erected and opened in 1904 but lasted only 30 years until the current misplaced aircraft carrier design opened.

The coolest clubhouse on the property is the original pro shop, which stood beside the original clubhouse and is now used by 32 artisan members who trade their skills for free memberships to the club. They provide painting, plumbing, carpentry, landscaping and what not in return for being allowed to play the course before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m. and to hang out in their own clubhouse of a few hundred square feet. On the walls are pictures of visitors the little clubhouse has entertained over the years. Some of the names you might recognize – Nicklaus, Palmer, Watson and Trevino.

If you get the opportunity to play Royal Birkdale, do so. It is as good – and maybe better – than the best courses in Ireland and Scotland. The pure, raw links character of the course oozes from behind every towering dune, and every modification to Birkdale over the last 100 years keeps that character in mind. Well, except one. The rebuilding of the 17th green several years ago to add length to the par 5 for the 2008 Open is entirely out of character. While it provided the theater for Padraig Harrington’s great 5-wood shot to clinch the title, it has never been well received by the members and it is going to be rebuilt again before the next Open at Birkdale, which, oddly enough, has not yet been scheduled.

We’ve got everything you need; Satisfaction guaranteed . . .
How good is the linksland around the city of Southport? Royal Birkdale’s 18th hole abuts a wonderful but little-known (at least among Americans) course called Hillside, which abuts Southport & Ainsdale, the first course to host the Ryder Cup more than once.

Just south of S&A, West Lancashire is as pure of a links course as you will find and an Open qualifying site, and Formby, like Hillside, marries linksland with parkland to form a course considered among the best in the British Isles.

The difference you will find on some of the linksland here is that there are trees. At courses like Hillside, Formby and Hesketh, holes often begin either as parkland holes set among evergreen trees and end in the dunes characteristic of links courses. Sometimes it’s the opposite. And it’s not unusual to play a links hole followed by a parkland hole.

Everybody’s got something to hide . . .
During the Ryder Cup matches at Southport & Ainsdale in 1933, the U.S. team was captained by Walter Hagen. In the last singles match, Denny Shute needed only to two-putt for the U.S. to win. But Hagen was in the clubhouse enjoying a drink with the Prince of Wales and Shute thought he needed to hole his putt, which missed and ran six feet past. He missed the come-backer to give Great Britain and Ireland the Cup.

One sweet dream came true today . . .
You can play three of the Open Championship courses, three of the world’s best courses, seven of the best in the U.K. on one tank of gas and without changing hotels.

By Jeff Thoreson  

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