- Neil White
“If you look in that direction, you can see the Three Graces and Liverpool Football Club and the other way, there are Blackpool Tower and the Big One.”
The 11th tee at Hillside must offer one of the finest views in the North-West and, on a sunny May evening, we could literally see for miles out to the Irish Sea and towards the Lake District as well as spotting the famous attractions.
The land upon which we were standing lures people from all over the world too.
Hillside will be hosting some of golf’s greats in the DP World Tour next month as it emerges as a top venue from the shadow of its very near neighbour, Royal Birkdale.
When we played at the latter last year, one of my pals reckoned that Hillside was better and I was eager to find out if he was correct after an invitation from a fellow golf traveller.
My verdict is that they are both superb but surprisingly different. Indeed, it wasn’t until I was looking down on the 17th did I see a hole which I could have mistaken for one from next door.
The green surrounds were the biggest shock because they often have cloying rough rather than the steep and smooth run-offs I had witnessed at Royal Birkdale and West Lancs. Meanwhile, the sand scrapes are more of a feature.
I can testify that errant approaches will not be forgiven and I’m told the pros can expect the rough to be even tougher.
But, while it can be punishing on the wayward, it will yield good scores to those who stay straight and have a better short game than me.
The opening hole reflects this. A straight hole with trees and the railway line to the left and a bunker to the right, an accurate drive and pinpoint approach will be rewarded. However, I thinned my shot into the green and found myself tucked up in tangly stuff.
The third left a big impression – a dogleg par-four with an approach over a brook and pond to the right of a sloping green. The heinous start to my round saw the ball inevitably slide into the water.
Man-made dunes in the front nine and along the right of the 18th have added a new dimension at Hillside.
The fourth has been remodelled and the heightened drama unfolds at the par-five fifth on which excavated sand for the new dunes has left a unique wetland area where wildlife is thriving like never before. From the white tee, the view has a particular wow factor.
Natural sand scrapes are a common hazard at Hillside – nowhere more evident than at the short seventh where there is akin to a beach alongside the links’ original clubhouse. Fortunately, my game had begun to re-emerge by this point and I was chipper to nail a three.
The plaudits for Hillside’s back nine from Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman hang proudly in its halfway house and the holes certainly match the anticipation.
The tenth sets the bar– an uphill par-three between towering trees and bunkers. I can vouch that more club is needed than initially appears.
The photo opportunity comes on the 11th and no surprise this features among the famous 1,001 golf holes which must be played before you die.
Once the vista has been enjoyed, there is the serious business of a par-five dogleg through bunkers. I was wide with my approach to well-protected green and thrilled with an up and down for par.
“Danger deep water,” warns the sign on the newly established water feature on the 12th which is another handsome hole requiring keen placement.
The hits keep coming thereafter with the 13th a belter between grassed dunes to a high plateaued green and the 14th an even more thrilling par-four through the natural landscape with the East Lancashire fells in the background.
The 16th is a superb par-three amid the grassy mounds while the 17th is a dazzling par-five from an elevated tee and a fairway woven between bunkers, bushes and dunes.
More sand scrapes pop up again on the curving 18th, a classic long home hole. Oh, how I would have loved it had my par putt not run around the edge of the cup.
Hillside prides itself on its welcome and I was very lucky in having a brilliant guide who espoused its history and plans with great gusto as he led me around the course.
He ensured first experience of Hillside was terrific – and the cherry on top came in the impressive clubhouse when we witnessed former Match of The Day pundit Alan Hansen and his wife being awarded a prize for an earlier competition.
On a Monday night it was packed and supported the notion that, despite its growing reputation, Hillside remains a community club.
Long may its standing, internationally and locally, continue.