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Royal Birkdale and The Open Championship

By John Fischer III, president of the Golf Collectors Society:

The Open Championship returns to Royal Birkdale GC this week for the 10th time, making it one of the most visited sites on The Open rota, even though The Open wasn't played there until 1954. Birkdale is located in northwest England overlooking the Irish Sea, and is near two other courses on The Open rota, Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) just to the south across the River Mersey (for you Beatles fans) and Royal Lytham-St. Annes to the north.

Birkdale has produced a remarkable cast of Open champions, Peter Thomson (twice, his first in 1954 and his last of five Open titles in 1965), Arnold Palmer (the first of his back-to-back Open titles in 1961), Lee Trevino (1971), Johnny Miller (1976) who will lead the US TV broadcast of the Open this year, Tom Watson (1983), Ian Baker-Finch (1991), Mark O’Meara (1998), and Padraig Harrington (2008, the second of his back-to-back Open titles).

Palmer next to the plaque that was placed in honor of his 1961 miracle shot.

Palmer next to the plaque that was placed in honor of his 1961 miracle shot.

Birkdale GC dates to 1889 and started with a nine-hole course, which was soon deemed inadequate. In 1897 Birkdale moved to its current site, a massive set of rolling sandhills reaching down to the sea. It was a location much admired by Bernard Darwin, golf correspondent of The Times, who wrote, “I never quite realized before how engaging sandhills can be....’Hills’ is an inadequate word at Birkdale: there are mountains and whole ranges of them. They would, of course, be useless, if Nature had not been kind and Man brave. Nature planted, between the mountains, valleys and gorges and hollows, and Man was brave enough to see that they could and must be used.”

From its early days, Birkdale GC was a leader in golf. Women were admitted as members of the club from the beginning, and in 1909 the club hosted the Ladies’ Championship, and would go on to host a Curtis Cup and five Ladies’ Open Championships. The membership was also concerned about the welfare of the boys who served as caddies, establishing The Birkdale Golf Club Caddie Boys’ Association, which provided a room with books and games and also food, clothing or money for caddies who were in need. The Association also tried to find employment for boys old enough to commence work. Unfortunately, the Association dissolved in 1916 with World War I when a reduced membership made it impractical to continue the Association.

In the 1930s, the club decided to revise the course in order to make it a championship venue. The club engaged the services of Frederick George Hawtree, a prominent British golf course architect, and J.H. Taylor, the five time Open Champion, for the redesign. Hawtree and Taylor elected to lay out the holes in valleys between the towering sandhills rather than over them. Each hole would be self contained, avoiding blind shots for the most part. The fairways would be flatter and less undulating than one might associate with a links course. But the design produced a tough course that favored a straight shot to avoid bunkers or having the ball be swallowed up in the surrounding buckthorn, star grass and dwarf willow scrub. It is said Birkdale was not designed by Hawtree and Taylor, but fashioned by the best course architect in the world – the wind.

The routing selected by Hawtree and Taylor also produced a canyon-like effect where players are in a corridor surrounded by the sandhills and unable to easily gauge the wind above. The design also produced, perhaps inadvertently, an excellent viewing area for spectators from the tops of the sandhills, an early stadium-style setting.

The revamped course opened to critical acclaim in 1935 and was selected to host The Open Championship in 1940, which had to be cancelled due to the start of World War II. Birkdale did host the British Amateur in 1946, the Curtis Cup in 1948 and the 1951 Walker Cup and finally its first Open Championship in 1954.

At the time of its first Open in 1954, the course played to a par of 73 at 6,867 yards. After several improvements to the course over the years, this year the course will measure 7,173 yards with a par of 70. Length and par are almost meaningless on a links course with accompanying winds measuring from a wee zephyr to gale strength.

Just as the course was redesigned, the club also decided to replace the old clubhouse, which stood behind the 18th green, which is now the fourth green in the new course routing. The old clubhouse was a in pavilion style with broad porches overlooking the links. The new design could only be described as radical, nothing like the Victorian or Edwardian style one brings to mind when thinking of the clubhouse at a British golf club. The new clubhouse was two-story, painted entirely in white, with elegant lounges and dining room perched above the new 18th green in a rectilinear Art Deco style, aggressively modern for the time. The views from the large bay windows extended over the course and the dunes to the Irish Sea, and required little imagination to feel that one was on a cruise, and, indeed, the clubhouse did have the look of an ocean liner.

The contractor for the clubhouse, paid homage to the architect, George Tonge, stating, “this building is a tribute to the skill of an artist as well as an architect. Some of the older schoolboys are rather opposed to these new ideas, but this is the first clubhouse in Great Britain which has been built on these lines, and, I think it will be a credit to the architect and the Club in the years to come.” The opening of the new clubhouse in 1935 was met with enthusiasm by the membership.

In later years, problems with leaks in the flat roof occurred ,raising maintenance questions, and some of the members became disenchanted with a building not in concert with the weather. It was said that members had many names for the clubhouse but not the money to replace it. Regardless, the Birkdale clubhouse remains unique and immediately recognizable.

Of all the Open Championships at Birkdale, one has a special place, Arnold Palmer’s first of two consecutive Open titles in 1961. Arnold’s victory brought the Open into a special place, just at the time that air travel was making it easier for international golfers to make the journey to Great Britain. Walter Hagen and Bob Jones had seven Open titles between them from 1922 to 1930, but two weeks of ocean travel cut most American players out. Ben Hogan made the crossing by ship in his 1953 trip to Carnoustie and the Claret Jug, but few followed until Arnold came along. After Arnold won he set a pattern by which other world-class Americans, who wished to stand in comparison, had to follow. After Palmer, they all went.

The 1961 Open was also the site of one of Palmer’s greatest shots. At the 15th (now 16th) hole on the final day of play, Palmer hit a wayward drive into the rough. His ball was under a bush in heavy grass. It was one of those situations where golfers are taught to just knock the ball back in the fairway to avoid a possible disaster, and that was the advice “Tip” Anderson, the astute Scottish caddie who had carried Palmer’s bag the year before at St. Andrews, gave his man. But Palmer pulled out a seven iron and looked to be going for the green. Then Palmer put the club back in the bag, but instead of pulling out his wedge for a “safety” shot, he grabbed his six iron. Palmer was going for the green.

In his book, Great Moments in Sports: Golf, Michael McDonnell, the Daily Mail golf correspondent, beautifully described the shot, and also captured the essence of Palmer, the man and the golfer: “Palmer returned to the bush and his enormous hands, the fingers bunched like bananas, wrapped around the club. The stare was frozen into concentration and the mouth turned down at the edge as he prepared himself for the most audacious stroke of his life.

“This was the essential Palmer – a hopeless situation in which only the near-impossible would suffice. The stroke itself was awesome enough but its implications were crippling. Palmer had to defy the laws of good sense, probability and physics, and endure the pressure and strain upon him to produce an unrepeatable stroke – because no other would do.

“Even as he stood there, knees flexed, feet splayed, there was a compelling sense of power about the man; an inexplicable sense of force, even though he was motionless. His manner and presence gave clear warning of the savage swipe that would descend upon the ball within a few seconds.

"Then suddenly he was in action. There is no hint when Palmer begins to swing. [Kel] Nagle waggles, Nicklaus begins to turn his head away from the ball, Player rocks into action. But not Palmer. Suddenly he is at maximum speed. The club flashed away and the shoulder came round viciously hard and obscured his chin. And then he was powering back at the ball with irresistible force..

“The steel blurred into the bushes and there were noises. The swish of scythed grass, snapping twigs, the crack, a solid crack. Even as the spectators heard it, the pleasing shudder in Palmer’s arms told him he had made contact. Then it was not the sound – but the sight. A bush airborne. Grass scattering around him. And somewhere the ball. But where?

“Suddenly the air cleared and there it was, a black speck far away in the sky on its course to the green. Its height told Palmer that it would reach its target. But some of the people did not see the ball, because they were still staring in wonder at the hole in the ground where once a bush had stood. Not even a tornado could have wrenched it free so cleanly. Some would swear afterwards that the ground shook beneath them as Palmer’s club cleaved that bush from his path. Or maybe it was just the gods groaning their surrender, because Palmer was free of them at last and could proceed to his first British Open title.”

The offending bush was replaced, not by another bush, but by a brass plaque commemorating Palmer’s shot for all golfers to see as they go down the 16th fairway.

Interested in golf history? Go to golfcollectors.com, print out a membership application and join the Golf Collectors Society, an international group of golfers interested in golf history and the memorabilia of the game. You will be made welcome.

 

Cliff Schrock