- Neil White
In 1954, Peter Thomson’s Open win was assured with a splash-out from a greenside bunker on the 16th at Royal Birkdale.
Thomson admitted that the trap “scared” him but he lofted his shot beautifully, tapped in for a birdie and went on to lift the Claret Jug.
Sixty-seven years later, one of the mighty quartet representing my golf club went one better than the great Australian by holing out from the same bunker for his birdie.
Some might say it was a fluke if he hadn’t done exactly the same on the par-three 14th.
Of course, his photo will not accompany Thomson’s and other champions in the wonderful clubhouse at Birkdale but, as he said in the car park afterwards: “I would have driven all this way for one chip in, never mind two!”
The most obvious but pointless tip to anyone playing Birkdale is to avoid the sand.
The truth is “if you play Birkdale and haven’t gone into a bunker then you have kept your ball in your pocket.”
This was the wisdom the club professional offered to one of our fellow competitors ahead of the the excellent golf day in aid of Debra, which supports individuals and families affected by Epidermolysis Bullosa – a group of genetic skin conditions that cause the skin to blister and tear at the slightest touch.
It goes without saying that I could vouch for the sage because I had been marooned in several bunkers, often after shots which initially held much promise but were mysteriously sucked into the sand.
This is Birkdale’s greatest defence – seemingly benign fairways which filter the ball into trouble. Only the most precise placement can guarantee to keep the ball above ground.
And yet this is a course which can offer rewards. We all came away from our day having achieved unlikely successes although I still feel disappointed to have missed my birdie putts on 14 and, especially, 18.
I had watched the 2017 Open from the course but was stunned at how different the place appeared without stands, turnstiles and the bridge leading from the bus drop-offs.
The practice ground from where Jordan Spieth played his infamous shot was devoid of the television lorries but still had drama when another of our party saw the head of his three-iron fly almost as far as his ball.
By the way, anyone who has played the 13th will wonder just how Spieth could have hit his drive so wide. One of our compadres was disgusted by finding his way into rough with his drive which was nevertheless 100 yards less wild than Jordan’s.
The world’s greatest golfing commentators have dissected the wonderful holes of Birkdale so many times, that my two penn’orth is of no significance.
Suffice to say that I loved every one of them but if I were to pick my favourites they would include the short par-three seventh with its elevated tee-shot down to a green surrounded by pot bunkers. The hole is great fun and the view across the course is stunning.
I was also a fan of the par-five 17th, which requires a drive through dunes on either side of the fairway before a sharp dogleg to the left.
I can also give mid-range handicappers encouragement by saying that I finished with the same ball with which I started and only the most off-beam shots will find the deep rough.
However, I giggle a bit at the starter’s comment that the fairways are flat, aside from the 10th because… they aren’t. There are undulations everywhere but the grass is so tight that great connection is always possible.
Then there are the startling green complexes with borrows which have foxed far better players than us.
But most of all, playing at Royal Birkdale is an event. This is where Jack Nicklaus made ‘the concession’ to Tony Jacklin, where Hale Irwin fluffed with an air shot inches from the target and where Spieth decided to role play as a car park attendant an hour before winning the Open.
This is truly a place of pilgrimage. Any day spent here is one to saviour. Especially, if you can replicate the shots of champions.