British Open 2017: Royal Birkdale, hole by hole

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British Open 2017: Royal Birkdale, hole by hole

PGA Tour

British Open 2017: Royal Birkdale, hole by hole

It’s all about the wind along the Irish Sea in northwest England. If it howls at the British Open at Royal Birkdale Golf Club – just 18 miles north of Liverpool in Southport – things could get wild.

Royal Birkdale is a 7,156-yard, par-70 layout that makes ideal use of towering dunesland. Yet the fairways unfold across the quietest ground of any links on the British Open rota. At nowhere else in championship golf is it more imperative to hit the short grass off the tee, even if it means sacrificing distance and using a fairway metal or long iron.

The par-4 first (Getty Images)

No. 1

Par 4, 448 yards

Birkdale starts with a northward-running hole that sports one of only two out-of-bounds in play on the entire site, just to the right of the first fairway landing area for drives. A tiny pot bunker, 235 yards to carry at the inside left corner of the dogleg and at the base of a hill, would seem to be easily carried by these contestants, except it’s relevant when confronting a prevailing headwind from the left. The desire to carry it (and the hill behind it) with a 3-wood or driver brings into play the narrowest part of the fairway and makes those OB stakes a looming threat for a drive that drifts even slightly right. The smart shot off the tee is something of a layup, which leaves an approach of 200-plus yards into that wind with the right side of the green partially obscured by a large dune. There’s a lot going on, which led to the hole playing the second hardest at the most recent British Open here in 2008, when the average score was 4.52.

No. 2

Par 4, 422 yards

It’s characteristic of Birkdale that the hole alignment here is 90-degrees or more from the previous hole, this time dead into the prevailing wind off the Irish Sea. The drive plays across partially obscured, broken ground to a fairway that suddenly bubbles up at the 260-yard mark, stretching into some of the more interesting ground on the course. Even when the hole plays into a headwind, a pair of deep pot bunkers at 300 and 312 yards on the right can gather shots that run out, and there’s little room left to avoid them. The green is well protected up front but open behind – as are all of Birkdale’s greens. This encourages bold play and leads to many players making recovery attempts from behind the greens. The average score here in 2008 was 4.37 (sixth hardest).

Hole No. 3

Par 4, 451 yards

Another flip in direction, this one a complete reversal so the hole plays straight downwind on the prevailing breeze. From an elevated tee set into the dunes, the hole bends slightly right, creating something of an off angle on the tee shot. Three bunkers at 307 to 327 yards out mark the point at which the fairway funnels down into a narrow landing zone. Many players will use less than driver off the tee and hope to reach or run through this gauntlet on the ground rather than risk flying a drive into one of the hazards. Four more pot bunkers frame the opening to the green to narrow the ideal approach line. The putting surface is slightly turtle-backed and rejects shots on the perimeter or long. For tour-quality players, downwind approaches are more troubling than those played upwind. Here the players must gauge the landing spot and run-out. This goes against their much-practiced preference to rely upon launch angle, spin and the backstop provided by a headwind. The average score in 2008 was 4.15 (tied for 14th hardest).

No. 4

Par 3, 199 yards

The course momentarily opens up at this north-facing par 3, played into a crosswind from the left. It seems that a dune that used to cut across the hole and obscure the view from the tee was at some point removed, leading to something of a clean, modernist sensibility that’s out of place at Birkdale. The main challenge comes from four deep, revetted bunkers that squeeze the green, with the one on the right creating one of the few tucked hole locations at Birkdale thanks to a corner of putting surface wrapping behind it. The tough idea on the tee shot is to start an approach over the bunkers on the left and let the ball ride the wind to the green. Not surprisingly, many shots end up long and right.  The average score in 2008 was 3.25 (ninth hardest)

No. 5

Par 4, 346 yards

It may be reachable off the tee, but the opening to the green is daunting. It’s usually not worth the risk, given the combination of headwind, the sharp angle of the dogleg over an intervening pond short right and the seven bunkers blocking virtually the entire approach line. It’s “only” 291 yards to a front cross bunker, though 40-yard sand shots are not ideal for anyone, especially when laying back and hitting a lob wedge would provide so much more control. But never underestimate the nerve of today’s elite golfers. If the wind lies down, players will have a go for it with a big left-to-right drive over trees to a landing area they can’t see around the bend. This would be in line with the theory that greenside sand gives them fair odds of making an up-and-down birdie. Should be an interesting hole to watch for potential trouble. The average score in 2008 was 4.15 (tied for 14th hardest).

The par-4 sixth (Getty Images)

No. 6

Par 4, 499 yards

This is an iconic hole in scale and drama, not only for Birkdale but for all of British Open golf. The breeze prevails from the right, playing as a crosswind from the tee and, as the hole bends to the right, more as a headwind on the approach shot. The key is fighting the reverse camber of a hole that bends steadily right while the ground is sloping to the left, propelling drives outward and off the fairway. There’s a crucial bunker 274 yards out on the right; carrying it against the back of the hill and fighting the wind requires hitting a landing area no more than 5 yards wide. Anything else lands in deep rough or kicks way left, to a bunker at 301 yards on the left side or past it into punitive rough ground. Many competitors will play conservatively off the tee and hit a long-iron or fairway metal toward that left-side bunker, then face an approach of 200-plus yards into a headwind to an elevated green bunkered short right and left. The ideal angle is from the left, though there isn’t much room on the left side of the narrow fairway to work with. Small wonder the field made only 10 birdies here in 2008, the fewest of any hole, on its way to an average score of 4.77 (the most difficult hole on the course).

No. 7

Par 3, 177 yards

By now a golfer would be excused for wondering if all the bunkers at Birkdale look exactly alike. Well, here at the exposed, windswept seventh is at least one variant of sand in the form of a donut – along with six other bunkers of the same size and scale as all the others on the course. Here’s the most tightly squeezed green at Birkdale. With just enough of a convex surface and approached with a helping wind over the right shoulder, the problem isn’t hitting the green but staying on it.  The average score in 2008 was 3.24 (11th hardest).

No. 8

Par 4, 458 yards

This hole heads straight east with a helping wind over the left shoulder that considerably shortens the effective playing length. Fairway bunkers at 246 yards (right) and 267 yards (left) will see little action, but bunkers farther up on the right at 308 and 321 will see their share of the rake. There’s a ditch down the far-right side in the rough that will see some action, though most players will try to steer their tee shots safely down the left side with a long-iron or fairway metal and use the run out on the level fairway to pass those two early bunkers. Here as elsewhere at Birkdale, there will be birdies made from the fairway and a lot of bogeys made from the rough. This played as the easiest par 4 in 2008 with an average score of 4.13 (16th hardest).

No. 9

Par 4, 416 yards

An awkward tee shot – arguably the most disorienting on the course – is the only one at Birkdale to an unbunkered landing area. The hole bends steadily to the right, over a knoll with heavy mounding and dense grasses. The landing area can’t be seen from the tee. The helping wind from the right is actually not all that helpful, because the driving zone narrows considerably, and it’s easy to hit through to the far rough. The approach is a short iron to a distinctly elevated platform green with Birkdale’s characteristic bunkering – front right and front left. Despite all these cautionary notes, don’t be surprised if, under the right conditions of wind and ground firmness, someone drives this green. It’s only marginally riskier trying to hit the fairway with a driver than with a long iron, and it’s not a hole unduly fraught with danger. The average score in 2008 was 4.18 (13th hardest).

No. 10

Par 4, 402 yards

This hole heads out on a banana-hook, right-to-left curve into the prevailing wind with a notoriously well-bunkered fairway that’s hard to find. It starts with a tee tucked slightly left amidst mounds, obscuring the left-side landing area and offering a sight line only into the fairway well to the right. Bunkers are tucked on the inside of the sharp dogleg at 230 and 242 yards straight into the prevailing wind. Another bunker waits on the right at 240, with two more at 280 and 296 yards out – all conspiring to squeeze the landing area short, long and to the right. The sole greenside bunker is front right, which chokes the approach from that side and creates incentive back at the tee to cut the dogleg short to the left. The putting surface sits low in something of a hollow and provides temporary relief from the winds. In 2008, third-round leader Greg Norman had settled down after four early bogeys Sunday and was still in contention at the turn until he failed to carry the corner here and ended up making a costly bogey from the left rough. The average score that week was 4.42 (fourth hardest).

No. 11

Par 4, 436 yards

This tough hole plays from an elevated tee straight into a headwind. Ideally, players would opt for a low drive, but that’s a tough ask when starting from an exposed platform. The landing zone is squeezed in stutter-step formation on both sides, and just to be sure the hole doesn’t play a pushover if the wind abates or switches completely, there’s a cross bunker 340 yards out to keep the long hitters in check. When the wind is up, it’s a full-bore second shot with a long iron into this green, which offers something of tabletop that falls off sharply on the right. The average score in 2008 was 4.44 (third hardest).

The par-3 12th (Getty Images)

No. 12

Par 3, 183 yards

At the westernmost edge of the course and the most exposed to winds off the nearby Irish Sea, this is Birkdale’s most attractive hole for its setting in the dunes. The wind helps from the right. From elevated tee to elevated green, it’s one of the most difficult approach shots to hold on the green. The average score in 2008 was 3.27 (eighth hardest).

No. 13

Par 4, 499 yards

This hole is heavily bunkered all the way and plays downwind from over the left shoulder. The ideal drive takes aim at a pair of distant bunkers on the left at 325 and 346 yards out, then rides the wind to the right. Anything flighted a bit too far left can easily find one of the layout’s linear trenches that plays as a water hazard. The low-lying putting surface is bunkered like just about every other at Birkdale – short right and short left – though at this green the run-out leads to extremely heavy grass and choppy ground at the base of dunes. The average score in 2008 was 4.32 (seventh hardest).

No. 14

Par 3, 200 yards

The tendency is to underestimate the wind that tends to help from the right. Towering sand hills protect the tee, providing a false sense of refuge from prevailing conditions before the ball reaches its apex and gets fully buffeted. This was the least-birdied of the par 3s in 2008, yielding only 28 all week and an average score of 3.25 (10th hardest).

The par-5 15th (Getty Images)

No. 15

Par 5, 542 yards

Here is finally a par 5, though not exactly the easy birdie opportunity that world-class players expect, given the heavily bunkered path that plays into the prevailing wind from the right. The fairway landing areas for the first and second shots are heavily peppered with steep-faced bunkers that effectively serve as half-shot penalties. The ideal play is a right-to-left drive followed by a left-to-right second shot – anything else fights what’s available from the native terrain and manufactured landforms. Rare for championship golf is the short par 5 that plays over par, but headwinds will do that. The average score in 2008 was 5.09 (17th hardest).

No. 16

Par 4, 438 yards

Here’s the hole Arnold Palmer made famous … and that made Arnold Palmer famous. In the 1961 British Open he eviscerated a blackberry bush with a 6-iron from the right rough on his way to a par and a one-shot win over Dai Rees. Back then this played as the 15th hole – a following par 3 later was removed from the course to avoid congestion. Palmer’s bold play is honored with a plaque, obligatory viewing during practice rounds even for this year’s globetrotting contestants. The hole plays into a crosswind from the right that brings into play two right-side fairway bunkers 230 to 250 yards off the tee, along the ideal line of the drive. The raised green is well bunkered in the front and provides little room for a long-slung approach to reach the surface, let alone stay there. The average score in 2008 was 4.4 (fifth hardest).

No. 17

Par 5, 567 yards

A tailwind on this medium-length par 5 helped it play the easiest on the course in 2008. With 201 combined eagles and birdies, it was the only hole to play under par in that British Open. It’s easily within reach in two shots for the entire field. From a tee placed in towering dunes that narrow the flight path to the fairway, players need to avoid two bunkers on the right side that are 312 and 325 yards out. From there, the key obstacle is a semi-cross bunker 40 yards short of the green that cuts into the approach line to the narrowest, deepest green on the course. The putting surface was relieved of its most extreme contours for this year’s British Open. The average score in 2008 was 4.75 (18th hardest).

The par-4 18th (Getty Images)

No. 18

Par 4, 473 yards

The green is legendary for being the scene of Jack Nicklaus’ concession of a 3-foot putt to Tony Jacklin that ensured a halve in the 1969 Ryder Cup and with it the U.S. team retaining the cup. The hole plays on an exaggerated angle from the right that brings out-of-bounds into play on the tee shot – the only such looming threat since the opening hole. Long drives are common, as the hole tends to play with a helping wind from the left. Staggered fairway bunkering constricts the landing zone at 275 yards on the right, 306 on the left and 349 yards in the left center, making for a tight driving zone. The green, tightly bunkered at the entrance, is notoriously hard to hold with an approach. Right behind it is Birkdale’s recognizable art deco clubhouse – there’s nothing like it in classic British championship golf, though Castle Stuart’s (built in 2009) comes close. The average score in 2008 was 4.23 (12th hardest).

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