SOUTHPORT, England – Royal Birkdale gave us another Grade 1 British Open winner, another week of starry leaderboards and further validation that, at least as far as English venues go, this continues to be a player and fan favorite.
The 2017 Open produced a thoroughbred headed to the Hall of Fame, whose talent and depth of preparation was heightened by the challenges of Birkdale.
Even before Jordan Spieth captured the Claret Jug, the course was validated by the previous list of winners. Even after 36 holes of the 146th Open, 18 of the top-20 players in the world made the cut. In the discombobulated terrain that is modern golf, where elite players seem streakier than their predecessors, such a strong showing from the world’s elite proved to be a minor miracle. But Birkdale has done this before.
So why does the most modern and meddled with of Open rota courses produce such affection from modern golfers who typically have lukewarm relationships with even the most lovable links?
“It has everything, you’ve got to hit it high, you have to hit it left, right, low, you’ve got to hit everything,” 2015 champion Zach Johnson said. “It just requires everything. Short game, obviously, too.”
Matt Kuchar, whose dissection of Birkdale with patient shotmaking and phenomenal touch around the greens endeared him to the Brits, adores the place despite the 123 pot bunkers.
“I think you have a lot of bunkering, and I think the more pot bunkers you have, the harder,” he said. “There’s certainly plenty out here, but they stagger them well. You can figure out if the left or right side of the fairway is the place to avoid them.
“I think it’s just a well designed, very fair test of golf.”
Links purists groan when players cite the fairness of Birkdale as a defining trait. Indeed, it presents less in the way of irregular bounces and chances for random misfortune than other links. But its appeal makes sense, as the course rewards ballstriking, demands touch and offers distinctive aesthetics throughout the round. The club also features a warmer atmosphere with reverence for its history, leaving everyone with strong memories of the architectural and golf experience.
Birkdale could have taken a reputational hit after Branden Grace’s third-round 62 broke the almost unfathomable string of 63s in majors. But a number of factors on Birkdale’s side suggest the course only gained standing.
The links were meticulously groomed, perhaps as perfectly as any British Open links, according to several players. With no bad lies on fairways and players armed with advanced technology and Trackman number-checks before the round, even an ancient links needs gusting gales to legitimately push back.
Rains also took some of the bite out of what was a nice firm test early in the week. According to the “Clegg Hammer Test” consisting of dropping a golf ball from shoulder height on the fairway, Birkdale measured about 130 at the start of Open week, Clegged around 115 after Wednesday evening downpours and registered even lower after Friday’s rain. The moisture turned the powdery bunkers into easier places for recovery shots.
NBC golf commentator Johnny Miller was right that the conditions and setup seemed pretty easy, including a very un-R&A-like 287-yard, par-4 No. 5 that gave up four eagles Saturday. But players and caddies pointed out that Grace’s round came with several of Birkdale’s sneaky-tough hole locations. The historic 62 was further vindicated by Grace besting the day’s scoring average (69.02) by seven strokes.
Still there was a sense that Birkdale has been left unfairly vulnerable by technology gains on all fronts—agronomic, equipment, launch-monitoring. Some even speculated that Saturday’s setup indicated an R&A desire to point out how skill in the modern game is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. R&A chief Martin Slumbers opened the door to potential action after his Wednesday press conference, suggesting a spike in this year’s driving distance averages has drawn his organization’s notice.
No doubt Slumbers will notice that in posting the historic 62, Grace only hit one long iron into a par 4 and easily reached both par 5s with irons. But even as it’s obvious the players have plenty of tools at their disposal, Birkdale still keeps them on guard. The 10-time Open course encourages the player to plan – or in the case of Spieth – to study the early morning telecasts for local knowledge and then rewards the execution. In the end, it was Spieth’s level-headed handling of an unplayable lie and the ensuing shotmaking display over the magnificent closing holes that will be remembered. Birkdale worked its magic yet again.