Ten things you should know about Royal Birkdale
July 17, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
What exactly goes in the Claret Jug?The Claret Jug has been presented to every Open Championship victor since 1873. First awarded to Tom Kidd, the Claret Jug has been raised by some of golf’s greatest champions.
SOUTHPORT, England -- It’s been nearly a decade since Royal Birkdale hosted The Open Championship. That means you may need a primer before settling in to watch the 10th Open Championship at these links on the coast of the Irish Sea. Here’s what you need to know to get up to speed on Royal Birkdale.
1. CREAM RISES
Nine Open Championships have been conducted at Royal Birkdale. Seven were won by members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, and another one was claimed by a surefire inductee, three-time major winner Padraig Harrington.
Eight of the nine Opens at Birkdale were won by players who own multiple majors, and six were won by a player who hoisted the Claret Jug on more than one occasion, including two of the best links players in the history of the game.
Both Tom Watson (1983) and Peter Thomson (1965) claimed their fifth and final Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
Thomson finished no worse than second in seven consecutive Opens from 1952-58 (four wins, three runners-up). Watson’s win at Royal Birkdale was his third Open victory in four years (1980, ’82, ’83).
The list of winners at Royal Birkdale:
1954: Peter Thomson
1961: Arnold Palmer
1965: Peter Thomson
1971: Lee Trevino
1976: Johnny Miller
1983: Tom Watson
1991: Ian Baker-Finch
1998: Mark O’Meara
2008: Padraig Harrington
2. FAIREST OF THEM ALL
Why has Royal Birkdale produced such a strong roster of champions? Perhaps because many players consider Birkdale the “fairest” of the courses on the Open rota. While there’s an infinite amount of opinions about what constitutes a “fair” test, Royal Birkdale’s flat fairways are one reason that many players give the course this assessment. Links courses are known for rolling fairways that were shaped centuries ago. These rolls and swales can lead to unpredictable bounces that can send straight shots bounding into pot bunkers or fescue. Players have less reason for anxiety when their ball lands at Royal Birkdale, though.
“You get much more consistent bounces, so the well-struck shots are rewarded and typically end up about where you would anticipate,” said Phil Mickelson, who made his Open debut at Royal Birkdale in 1991 (T73) while still an amateur.
Why are Royal Birkdale’s fairways flatter than its fellow Open venues? It dates back to the course’s renovation in the first half of the 20th century. Architect Frederick G. Hawtree and five-time Open champion J.H. Taylor, the first English pro to win The Open Championship, routed Royal Birkdale’s holes in the valleys between the property’s sand hills, rather than routing holes over the dunes. This eliminated many of the blind shots and undulating fairways that are commonplace on other links.
Another explanation for the strong list of champions here? It is rare to find two consecutive holes at Royal Birkdale that face in the same directions, requiring players to cope with a variety of wind directions.
3. FOREIGN COMMAND
Those flat fairways are cited as a potential reason for the success of players from two foreign countries, the United States of America and Australia, at Royal Birkdale. Players from those two countries claimed the course’s first eight Open Championships – five for the Yanks, three for the Aussies.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington finally broke that streak when he won the 2008 Open Championship. Yet the 54-hole leader that year was an Aussie, as 53-year-old Greg Norman tried to win one for the senior set a year before Tom Watson’s thrilling performance at Turnberry.
Adam Scott, for one, thinks the success of foreign players at Royal Birkdale is nothing more than coincidence, though he did concede in 2008 that, “some of the links golf courses are a little quirky because they're so old.
“This is certainly a golf course that's a little more defined than a typical links course because it's set in amongst the sand dunes and the holes play in between the dunes.”
4. TIGHT SQUEEZE
While the fairways at Royal Birkdale are fairly flat, they’re also tight.
The dunes that line each hole can stand as high as 40 feet tall. They help give spectators unobstructed views but penalize players who stray from the fairway (a plaque on the 16th hole commemorates where Palmer extracted his ball from blackberry bushes en route to his win in 1961). Royal Birkdale’s fairways have an average width of 28 yards, according to Golfweek magazine.
“It's almost as good a driving test as a U.S. Open,” said Justin Rose, who was 17 years old when he finished fourth in the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale. He, of course, went on to win the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion.
In addition to narrow fairways, the course features more than 120 bunkers, including approximately 50 that come into play on tee shots. The emphasis this week will be on driving accuracy, over distance.
“It’s pretty darned tough, you know,” Miller told PGATOUR.COM. “You have to stay out of those pot bunkers and then those tough pot bunkers and then those mounds that line the fairway with a lot of heather and fescue. If you hit it wild there, it’s pretty tough.”
Miller said he used a 1-iron on 12 of 14 tee shots per day (on par-4s and par-5s) in his victory in 1976, and he expects the winner to use a similar strategy this year. Many holes feature doglegs that will require players to drive into similar places, so iron play will be the skill that separates players this week.
5. IN THE BLACK
A variety of factors determine the winning score in any tournament, but that’s especially true at the Open Championship, where the weather can be as fickle as it is extreme. Links courses have little defense against modern technology when the weather is calm, but high wind and rain are always a possibility.
The first seven Opens at Royal Birkdale were won with sub-par scores, but no one has finished under par in the past two trips to Southport. Mark O’Meara shot even par in 1998, while Padraig Harrington’s 3-over 283 was good for a four-shot win in 2008. Winds gusted up to 50 mph that week.
Difficult weather along the coast of the Irish Sea contributed to those high scores, but so did some course changes. The greens were rebuilt after the 1991 Open to increase their firmness and contours. Some 6,000 trees were cut down prior to the 1998 Open as well, increasing the exposure to the strong wind that can blow off the Irish Sea.
6. TOUGH START
The lengthy summer days on the British Isles allow all player to begin The Open on the first hole. At Royal Birkdale, that means players better be prepared to play from the moment their name is announced.
“It hits you hard right away,” said Phil Mickelson’s former caddie, Jim Mackay, who will serve as an on-course reporter for NBC/Golf Channel this week. “The first hole is one of the tougher opening holes on The Open Championship rota.”
Royal Birkdale’s first hole was the second-hardest on the course in 2008, with the 450-yard, par-4 playing to a 4.52 scoring average. There were more scores of double-bogey or worse (40) than birdies (23) on the hole.
The first fairway curves in two directions, swinging to the left in the landing area and back to the right around the green. A large mound and pot bunker protect the left side of the fairway, while out-of-bounds is not far from the fairway’s right side. The right side of the green is protected by a large mound.
The field averaged nearly a stroke over par (+0.88) on Royal Birkdale’s first two holes in 2008, as players averaged 4.36 strokes on the 421-yard, par-4 second hole.
The outward nine features seven par-4s and two par-3s, making for the rare par-34 nine on the PGA TOUR. Also included among the outward nine’s par-4s is the 499-yard, par-4 sixth, a hole that Mackay said “has to be one of the hardest holes in all of golf.”
7. FINISHING KICK
Royal Birkdale has just two par-5s, and they both come in the final four holes, setting the stage for a late charge … or for a leader to seal his victory with a memorable shot.
That’s what happened the last time The Open visited Royal Birkdale, as Harrington secured his win with an eagle at the 17th hole, hitting a 5-wood shot 4 feet from the hole. He had a two-shot lead, but the possibility of an eagle from playing competitor Greg Norman enticed Harrington to take a chance.
Tony Jacklin also eagled the 17th to tie Jack Nicklaus in the deciding singles match of the 1969 Ryder Cup and set the stage for one of the most famous moments in the event’s history (more on that below).
The 15th hole is 542 yards but often plays into the wind, and the fairway is lined by 13 bunkers. It was among the rarest of finds on the PGA TOUR, a par-5 that played to an over-par scoring average. The field averaged 5.1 strokes in 2008, making it the fourth-hardest par 5 on TOUR that year. There were 93 birdies, compared to 108 scores of bogey or worse.
The 17th is 25 yards longer than its compatriot, but it was the easiest hole in 2008. Harrington’s eagle was one of 10 made on the hole that week, and the 17th offered up more than twice as many birdies (191) as the 15th. No. 17 was the only hole to play under par in 2008.
8. AMATEUR HOUR
Justin Rose’s hole-out on the 72nd hole of the 1998 Open Championship remains one of the indelible images from Royal Birkdale’s history. Rose, who was just 17 years old, took off his cap and gleefully looked to the sky after he holed out a lengthy pitch shot to finish in fourth place.
Amateurs have finished in the top five in the previous two Opens at Royal Birkdale. Ten years later, it was 20-year-old Chris Wood who would find his name on the leaderboards. He finished T5, albeit seven shots behind Harrington.
Wood’s T5 at Royal Birkdale in 2008 was the last top-10 by an amateur at The Open until the United States’ Jordan Niebrugge finished T6 at St. Andrews in 2015.
There are five amateurs in this year’s field, including Maverick McNealy, who is coming off a T44 finish at last week’s John Deere Classic. McNealy won the Mark H. McCormack medal as the world’s No. 1 amateur.
9. WORTH THE WAIT
Royal Birkdale didn’t host its first Open Championship until 1954, nearly a century after the championship began, but since then Royal Birkdale and Royal Liverpool have been the tournament’s most frequent venue (besides, of course, the Old Course at St. Andrews).
Royal Birkdale was scheduled to host its first Open in 1940 – four years after its distinctive clubhouse opened – but the event was cancelled because of World War II.
The course also hosted the Ryder Cup in 1965 and 1969. The latter ended in a tie after a famous illustration of Jack Nicklaus’ sportsmanship. The competition was tied as Nicklaus and Jacklin, playing in the final match, arrived at the 18th tee. Jacklin had just eagled the 17th hole to draw all square with Nicklaus. The winner of the final hole would win the Ryder Cup. Nicklaus conceded Jacklin’s two-foot putt on the final hole to halve their match, and end the competition in a tie. “"I don't think you would have missed it, but I wasn't going to give you the chance, either,” Nicklaus told Jacklin, who two months earlier had become the first British winner of The Open since 1951.
10. THE CLUBHOUSE
Royal Birkdale’s unique clubhouse will surely draw some eyes this week, as the two-story white structure with large windows sits prominently behind the 18th green. The art deco structure, which opened in 1935, is designed to look like a ship sailing through the sand dunes. It offers panoramic views of England’s Lancashire coastline and the Irish Sea.