England's real crown jewels of golf

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July 29, 2008
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

If you were inspired by this year's British Open, held at England's Royal Birkdale Golf Club, you were not alone. The mere thought of Greg Norman possibly winning golf's most important championship at the ripe old age of 53, gave hope to many of us in the, "Over 50 and then some" category. Rocco Mediate looked to have a chance in the early rounds and he's a 46 year old. Apparently youth has not quite taken control of the world, at least not yet. But maybe the old-timer with the most inspiring performance at the 2008 Open was Royal Birkdale itself -- a 111 year old that impressed everyone.

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Royal Birkdale, England's top ranked layout, gained new respect at this year's British Open
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Royal Lytham & St. Annes will host The Open again in 2012
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Royal Liverpool came back as an 11-time Open venue in 2006
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Formby is a links classic with trees as an added attraction
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Southport & Ainsdale is a two-time Ryder Cup venue
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Hillside is Royal Birkdale's neighbor and of a similar high caliber
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West Lancashire Golf Club keeps a low profile for such a high quality links course
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Brutal weather conditions gave even more bite to this monster than normal and we all got to see one of the world's premiere links courses taking full advantage with heartless relish. There were many who liked what they saw on television from the comfort of their armchairs and they can hardly wait to test themselves on a course with a name unfamiliar to most. It's something akin to the mountaineer who dreams of climbing Mount Everest -- we all want to test our skills on the very toughest and Royal Birkdale, a name now familiar, will be at the top of every visiting golfers must play list for some time to come.

The English have never been very good at blowing their own trumpet and when it comes to touting their excellent golf courses, they have again been far too modest. English golf is among the best on the planet and the ranking of the Top 100 Courses in Britain and Ireland shows it - more than half of the layouts listed are in England and Royal Birkdale is at the epicenter.

In a space of just 40 miles, running from the city of Liverpool to the seaside resort of Blackpool, you have England's Golf Coast and the cream of country's links courses led by the great Royal Birkdale, England's top links, bar none.

Over 20 top-class layouts, most of them links, call this windswept shoreline home. They have shared the same incessant pounding from Mother Nature and her elements for centuries, resulting in the most unique stretch of pure linksland known to exist. Though Royal Birkdale reigns as King of this Golf Coast, the Royal Court is just as impressive. Nowhere else in the entire British Isles provides the opportunity to play not just one Open venue, but three of them and all conveniently located, close together.

Fully one third of the entire Open Rota is situated along this brief coast -- they are England's top three links and all are neighbors, sitting within less than a short hour's drive of each other. This is England's Royal Family of golf. Royal Birkdale is joined by Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which hosts The Open for the 11th occasion in 2012 and Royal Liverpool which hosted it's 11th Open in 2006. It's not yet known when Royal Liverpool will be called to center stage next, but it could be as early as 2013 or 2014.

There is a wise old golf adage that says, wherever you find one good links, there will be others close by, so with three excellent links courses, all members of the elite, Open Venue Club, it's no surprise to find there are many more in this golf-rich neighborhood.

Formby dates from 1895 and was originally designed by Willie Park Jr., who twice won The Open in the late 19th century. Improvements have been made over the years by H.S. Colt, Frank Pennink and more recently by Donald Steel, giving this exhilarating layout an impressive pedigree. This is pure links golf with a difference due to the profusion of pine trees it sports, offering some protection from the wind, but don't expect any walk in the park. Formby calls for strategy from beginning to end with bunkering as penal as you will ever encounter. A good course to include in the middle of your stay on England's Golf Coast and a pleasant, though still testing break from the buffeting winds provided by most other links.

Southport & Ainsdale is a gem from the great James Braid that hosted The Ryder Cup Matches in 1933 and 1937. At first glance this may seem to be shorter than low handicappers might prefer, but the degree of challenge and variety contained within its 6,600 yards will surprise, if not shock the rest of us. The narrow fairways demand pinpoint accuracy throughout with the sand dunes adding another set of complications, compounded even further by the fickle winds that have a knack of incessantly changing direction and velocity on a whim. The S&A, as its affectionately known to locals, presents a solid links test for all.

Hillside is Royal Birkdale's immediate neighbor and shares some similar attributes - massive sand dunes and fairways running along rolling valleys being only the beginning of the likeness. But Hillside still retains a character entirely of its own and delivers thrills galore, with plenty of elevated tees and greens, doglegs; blind holes and all of the other oddities links connoisseurs thrive on. Greg Norman has described the course as having the best back nine of any British links and this is where the most gigantic dunes of all take over, creating havoc with every players scorecard. It's a dramatic, almost lunaresque landscape that comes across as totally surreal. Miss playing Hillside and you will have missed one of the best.

West Lancashire is another one of the great links layouts of this Lancashire coastline that has somehow managed to escape the attention of visitors, overshadowed by its Royal neighbors. A real classic links and completely natural, hazards are almost always in full view making strategy very elementary. The trick is to judge the wind and use it to your advantage rather than trying to fight it. The layout is uncommon offering two loops of 9 holes, so wind directions are constantly changing, only adding to the never-ending variety of challenges -- one of the great attractions of this under-rated champion. Cunning bunkering and some of the best greens in the region round out a true quality links layout.

This small sampling of just a few of the gems that inhabit England's Golf Coast should be temptation enough for anyone with an appreciation for fine links golf, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. You could spend a month here and from a single base hotel, still not have time enough to play all the courses that call out to be played.

For more ideas and suggestions on how to get the most out of your stay on the Lancashire coast, or by combining a stay here with some of the best golf in either Scotland or Wales, click here.

©2008 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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