SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND. For the 10th time Royal Birkdale Golf Club will host the 146th Open Championship — the 3rd Grand Slam event of 2017. The awarding of the famed Claret Jug as “Champion Golfer of the Year,” will be stake. In order to better appreciate the stature of the event and the design of Royal Birkdale — a number of golf course architects have been asked to weigh in with their thoughts.
Is links golf the ultimate examination in championship golf?
TOM DOAK: For me, the two most underrated aspects of golf are the ability to play shots off an uneven lie, and the ability to control one’s trajectory to take advantage of the wind, or to neutralize it. Those aspects are tested much more at The Open than at any other event on the Tour calendar.
JAMES EDWARDS: Not sure about the ‘ultimate examination’ as US Open has always held that label, but certainly links golf will always be the ultimate test of golf strategy. The width, endless variety of golf shot and mastering the psychology of the uneven bounce is critical to winning any links event.
GREG NORMAN: Yes. On a few different fronts compared to parkland golf or golf played in the US. For starters – weather. In America when bad weather rolls in during tournaments it is usually accompanied by lightning, stopping play. Hence players rarely play in adverse weather such as high winds and rain. There’s also the fact the ball is round therefore the roll factor on links must be calculated. Bunkers are also a far more severe hazard. Their design characteristics are by far the best by using gravity to attack the ball. Links golf challenges all 14 clubs in your bag. You cannot hide any weakness in your game.
MARTIN EBERT: Most definitely. The game should be played along the ground as well as through the air. Given true links conditions golf requires far more imagination, precision and patience than any other form of course over which championships are played.
GARETH WILLIAMS: It really is. There is such a variety of factors that come into play in links golf that rarely do in other forms of the game to the same degree. Humans are fixated on control but the unpredictability of nature demands the creativity in shot-making that sets links golf apart.
On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the very best what number would you give the R&A on its annual setting-up of venues for The Open Championship?
NORMAN: This number varies from venue to venue. But I would give them a consistent 8 and occasionally a 9.
WILLIAMS: 9 or 10 – they rarely get it wrong, particularly since all the Open courses are inherently packed with strategy. Set-up is often a matter of opinion; from an architectural point of view the players don’t compete against each other but against the course and so I see playability being far more important than fairness – they all have to complete the same 72 holes and the one that does it best, wins.
DOAK: I’d give it an 8 or 9, depending on the venue. The best part is that they realize that golf is an outdoor game, so they roll with the punches: if it’s a dry year, you get a hard and fast golf course with light rough, and if it’s a wet year, you get a softer course with nasty rough. But it’s sad that they can’t seem to have an event without making changes to the course somehow, even when they are starting with the best golf courses in the world!
EBERT: 10, but I have to say as I am a member of The R&A! Seriously though, the R&A’s emphasis on course set up is on firm playing conditions if the weather is conducive, not narrowing fairways and keeping the green speeds under control in case the wind becomes excessive. There is no worry about low scores as the Stenson / Mickelson battle showed last year.
EDWARDS: The R&A certainly deserve a high number — a solid 9 — for allowing the courses year-on-year to be set up almost exactly as they are on a weekly basis for the club member. Links golf setup in general has to allow width for the elements, particularly, the breeze which creates multiple strategies and options of attack. Thoughtful, intelligent golfers win the Open and makes this week special as it is the only chance to out-strategize their opponent.
The most underrated and overrated links courses used for The Open Championship are what?
EBERT: As far as the underrated category is concerned I would go for Royal Troon which really came to the fore in people’s minds after last year’s wonderful championship. Prior to that it was certainly not given due credit for its test of golf — there can be no tougher back nine on The Open rota — the scenery and, of course, having one of the best par 3s in the world with the Postage Stamp. With the overrated category, I am a little limited as 7 of the 10 are clients of ours! No comment on the other three.
EDWARDS: To argue that Turnberry is overrated at No.1 or Troon is underrated at 20 is like arguing which shade of green you prefer. These are our finest golf courses and deserve to sit on a level together. I’ve played and walked each multiple times and enjoyed them all for their individual uniqueness and nuisances. My personal favorite will always be Sandwich (Royal St. George’s) because I’m a Kent lad and learned my links golf on its vast terrain.
DOAK: For me, Royal St. George’s is the most underrated of the Open venues, because it provides more of the uneven stances than the other English venues, and for the rest of us, it is by far the most beautiful of the bunch. The most overrated might be this year’s venue, Royal Birkdale.
NORMAN: Royal Birkdale is underrated and St Andrews overrated. Unfortunately for St Andrews technology/power have weakened it’s defenses.
WILLIAMS: Personally I found Royal Liverpool less of a gem than any of the others, simply from an aesthetic point of view; it is a proper test of golf though. The Old Course is certainly underrated because at first glance it appears to all be there in front of you; but its intricacies only really become evident to those who’ve played it a few times.
What one course not used for The Open Championship now would you liked to see host the event at some future time?
NORMAN: Having not played many courses that have not been on the Open rota, it is tough for me to answer with certainty which one is best to host an Open.
EDWARDS: I’d love to see The Open visit all four countries of the UK more regularly and Ireland also. For ones that haven’t been featured — Royal County Down is a clear favorite, Dornoch, Ballybunion (Old), Royal Porthcawl and Saunton (East) are all long overdue to hold our sports greatest event and all would be sensational additions to the Rota.
WILLIAMS: Royal Cinque Ports in Deal would top that list. It is the most amazing piece of links land that offers enormous interest and variety, and the course has a closing stretch that would certainly be the most challenging on the Open Rota.
DOAK: There are dozens of great links courses where it would be exciting to see the pros play, but I would hate to see places like Dornoch or Ballybunion changed to accommodate the professionals, and it’s not realistic that they would play in such remote locations, anyway. The course that makes the most sense is Royal County Down.
EBERT: Askernish in the Outer Hebrides. That would take The Open back to Old Tom Morris roots and the most natural course in the world. Spectator numbers might be a bit limited but TV images would be amazing! I would also like to see Royal Porthcawl host the event but the course would need some work to make it a suitable test of the world’s best.
If you could make one key design change at a course already used on the unofficial rota — what hole would it be and why?
WILLIAMS: One thing that bugs me is when par on particular holes is altered for championships. The 4th at Royal St George’s was played as a par 4 at the 2011 Open – at 497 yards it is normally played as a par 5 that has a wonderfully extreme green to protect it. Par should really be an irrelevant number, certainly for championships, as the best players in the world will play each hole as they see fit. Ultimately it is the number of strokes played that counts.
DOAK: My radical suggestion would be just to leave one of them alone for a year! The idea great courses need to be changed to remain relevant, is completely at odds with everything the governing bodies tell us about equipment regulation. In the end, the winning score is unimportant; these are all great courses and they will all produce a worthy champion without any “management” from above.
NORMAN: Not a course or hole, but in general, I have noticed over the past few years in the USA, fairways in majors are getting wider and wider. In doing so the art of driving the golf ball has been diminished. I would like to see all majors be a test for every aspect of the game, starting with driving the golf ball.
EBERT: It would not be a design change but instead a restoration of a wonderful old feature. This would be to restore Halket’s Bunker between the 1st and 18th holes on the Old Course. Research suggests that until sometime between 1842 and 1853, this large bunker lay in the middle of the fairway on the Swilcan Burn side of the path that later became Granny Clark’s Wynd. Imagine the additional 1st tee pressure of ending up in that bunker and then having to try to clear the burn!
EDWARDS: The 12th on the old course. The course plays in the opposite direction along its double fairway corridors from its original concept but comes a little unstuck at the 12th. The drivable par 4 simply does not work for me especially with blind bunkering to the center of the fairway and no discernible strategy from the tee other than to hit and hope. Why not remove the penal cross-fairway bunker strategy to promote the ground game which links golf is based upon?
The best links player post World War II in the Open Championship is who?
EDWARDS: Tom Watson, hands down with 5 wins. His links knowledge, mentality and spirit for playing links golf is unmatched and was cemented at Turnberry in 2009. The greatest exponent of the firm, ground-game ever? Yes. But, special mention here to Peter Thomson — also 5 wins and pre-WWII Harry Vardon with 6 wins.
EBERT: I would have to go with Seve — returning to Birkdale, where his chip and run between the bunkers announced his tremendous imagination, daring and shotmaking to the world. Wonderful memories of 1979 and 1988 at Royal Lytham and the best ever, matador like celebration at the Home of Golf at The Old Course in 1984!
WILLAIMS: It’s difficult for me to look past Sir Nick Faldo on this one! With a less biased view I would say that to master the changeable course conditions, those players who shaped the ball and were creative in their shot-making have tended to be the best links players – Seve and Tiger were brilliant at that, and of course Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus’ records speak for themselves.
DOAK: If you’re going by trophies, then it has to be Tom Watson — with Peter Thomson second, to the utter confusion of Americans. But Watson managed to win that often because of his piercing ball flight, instead of the bump and run game more commonly associated with links golf. If you’re asking me which player I’d want as my teammate for a match on a links course, it’s Seve Ballesteros. He had all the shots.
Royal Birkdale is hosting The Open this year — what’s your assessment of the course and which player has the best shot in claiming the Claret Jug at the end?
EBERT: A much loved course as a result of the visual impact of its towering dunes lining the relatively flat fairways. Hence it is a great looking course and I look forward to walking it during The Open to gain a greater appreciation of its merits. Local man and in form Tommy Fleetwood would make a fairy tale story winner.
DOAK: I’m on record that it’s probably my least favorite course on the Open rota. The holes are routed through the valleys between magnificent dunes — so you are playing off relatively flat fairways, and the dunes seldom come into play. The one thing that makes the course really difficult is that many of the longer holes are crosswind; when the wind really blows, it takes nerve to aim out into the rough and let the wind bring it back to the fairway. That’s how Greg Norman almost won there a few years ago, and why veterans like Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia should not be discounted here.
EDWARDS: Birkdale has always been regarded as England’s number one links which I cannot disagree with although the tag of being the ‘fairest open test’ needs more defining in our view. The routing is brilliant – despite the anti-clockwise rotation – with regular change of direction but most of all, the huge dunes provide the natural amphitheater not seen on many open courses. Spectators have the chance to enjoy the golf without periscope device and the golfer the opportunity to gain perspective and see the depth of their audience. Having either Justin Rose or Paul Casey winning his first major would be a dream by my heart is going for a guy who is playing really well of late, and, of course, a home grown winner — Ian Poulter.
WILLIAMS: I loved the course when I visited a few years ago – the sense of seclusion really struck me, and aesthetically I found it breathtaking. Most of the Open courses are relatively open but at Birkdale you often feel completely isolated from the rest of the course; the dunes enclose the holes make it a special experience for spectators as well. Strategically it’s very strong and whoever can find the right balance between scoring and managing the hard and fast conditions will do well. I always thing Adam Scott has a chance and it will be interesting to see how local boy Tommy Fleetwood goes.
NORMAN: As mentioned above, Royal Birkdale is very much underrated. Picking a player without knowing the playability of the course , the setup, what changes have been made by the R&A and the pending weather conditions is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you will get.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS —
TOM DOAK / Renaissance Golf Design
Widely recognized as a leading voice for “minimalist” golf course design. His firm, Renaissance Golf Design, is based in Traverse City, Michigan, and their work includes two of the four courses at Bandon Dunes Resort — Pacific Dunes and Old Macdonald — plus Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand and Barnbougle Dunes in Australia, ranked among the world’s top 50 courses. Their most recent designs are Tara Iti in New Zealand and the reversible 18-hole course, The Loop, at Forest Dunes in northern Michigan. A prodigious writer, and his latest, The Little Red Book of Golf Course Architecture, is available via www.renaissancegolf.com.
The “Great White Shark” won more than 90 tournaments worldwide, including two Open Championships, and holds the distinction of defending his No. 1 position in the world golf rankings for 331 weeks. Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001 with a higher percentage of votes than any other inductee in history. Transcends the game of golf, with over a dozen companies around the world bearing his name and the iconic shark logo as part of the Greg Norman Company, which he leads at Chairman & CEO. His internationally recognized brand boasts more than 100 golf course designs across six continents, a global real estate collection, award-winning wine, golf-inspired lifestyle apparel and a diverse investment division.
GARETH WILLIAMS / Director of Design & Operations, Faldo Design
With a background in landscape architecture, was elected as an EIGCA Associate Member in 2017. A key member of the Faldo Design team for eleven years, his golf architectural knowledge and experience has been shaped by Sir Nick Faldo’s passion for strategic design. Also a strong advocate of sustainable development, his influence has seen the firm further develop its design philosophy to embrace the natural environment in its work.
MARTIN EBERT / Mackenzie & Ebert
A golfing career became my goal following the organization of the Cambridge University’s US tour in 1989 where we played Pine Valley Merion, Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links of America, The Country Club and Baltusrol among others. Career in golf course design began in 1990 with Donald Steel & Company leading to working experiences in over 20 countries. Mackenzie & Ebert was formed in 2005 with seven of the ten Open venues being advised by the company along with many new course projects around the world. This includes the changes to the recently reopened Ailsa Course at Turnberry and the changes, including two new holes, at Royal Portrush for The Open Championship of 2019.
JAMES EDWARDS / Principle of EDI Golf Ltd.
In 2009 started EDI-Golf Ltd, an EIGCA qualified business based in Kingshill, London. Specializing in golf course renovations, academies and short courses across Europe since 2001. Degree qualified in Architecture with an FAU golf scholarship in 1999, flagship projects to date includes 18-hole short course and academy area at Cumberwell Park, England and bunker renovations at Canterbury (Colt), Orsett (Braid) and Sundridge Park (Willie Park) to name but a few. Has worked on more than 250 projects in over 20 countries.