Birkdale or Royal Birkdale to give it its full name, holds a very special position in those links courses that I have played, in that it was the very first Open Championship course on the modern rota that I was to experience. That was back on August 22nd 1989 – my 30th birthday. The day had started well as I had treated myself to a nice Gucci dress watch and then I was off to Southport with my mate, Sunderland for the special birthday treat. I had discovered links golf a couple of months earlier when Sunderland had taken me to my first Open at Royal Troon. We’d stopped off at Turnberry on the way and played the then second course, the Arran - more whins than dunes but an interesting starter to my links golf journey. Those who have followed these blogs will know that I have played over 100 coastal courses with over 80 being classed as true links.
I think the Open at Birkdale in 1971 was the first Open I had really watched on TV – I was eleven years old – I sort of remember Doug Sanders missing his putt on the 18th at St. Andrews the year before to lose to Jack Nicklaus but I don’t recall much about that Open. But in 1971 it was all about ‘Supermex’ Lee Trevino and Tony Jacklin with the sideshow of Lu Liang Huan – ‘Mr Lu’ – in his pork-pie hat. That Open, with the prominent involvement of Englishman Jacklin, was probably the first inspiration that sent me out with a hired Bullseye putter onto the putting ‘green’ in the park at the bottom of my road. It was the start of my golfing career and one in which I’ve always putted left handed.
The Opens at Birkdale have some special memories. The tall bond American Johnny Miller with his flamboyant style winning in 1976 pursued by a 19 year old Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros who had the vision and audacity to chip between the bunkers at the last hole and finish runner up. Hale Irwin’s air shot on a one inch putt that would eventually allow Tom Watson, to win his fifth and final Open in 1983 striking a magnificent 213 yard two iron into the heart of the final green. (It would probably be an easy seven iron for many of today’s Pros!). I don’t remember much about my round at Birkdale but I do remember hitting a two iron too at the final hole to emulate Watson and record a regulation par. Whatever distance I had left that day it was always going to be a two iron – yes I had one and it was the only decent shot I ever hit with it. In 1991 I watched Ian Baker-Finch redeem his Open record after being blown away in 85 at St. Andrews.
All through those years in the late eighties and early nineties, one of the features I enjoyed at The Open was the ‘Open Golf Show’ – an exhibition tent packed with stalls of golf equipment, memorabilia, tourist destinations and all sorts of golf related goods. It was far from the corporate lock down and sanitised affair we now experience. Then innovation was welcomed and aspiring golf innovators had the biggest tournament in the world to show their ideas and products.
One stand I discovered was that of ‘Baxter Prints’ – a business owned by golf artist Graeme Baxter of his paintings and prints. Each year I would admire his work and the increasing range of famous golf courses in his collection all created with amazing detail. I vowed that one day one of those prints would hang prominently in my very own Butler cabin. In 1998 when the Open again returned to Birkdale I once again entered the Golf Show and found myself admiring two of Graeme’s framed prints – one entitled ‘The Old Course, St.Andrews’ and the other entitled ‘10th Hole, Alisa Course, Turnberry’. Unable to decide which one to buy I left to watch the golf vowing that whichever one was still there at the end of the day I would buy it – on returning I ended up buying both! It was something of a challenge carrying two large framed pictures, a back pack and a small set of viewing steps (they were allowed in back then) whilst wearing metal spikes, back to the car park a couple of miles from the course.
In 1998, the last open I saw at Birkdale (I didn’t attend the Open there in 2008 won by Padraig Harrington as, rather appropriately, I was in Ireland with Sunderland on another links golf pilgrimage) the golfing duel was once again between known and unknown. Mark O’Meara who had already won the Masters earlier in the year, and played in the final pairing in 1991, prevailed in the four hole play-off against Brian Watts, who had qualified by being in the top three of the Japan Tour in 1997! But undoubtedly the story of 1998 was that of 17 year old qualifier Justin Rose. The Hampshire youngster was headline news and I remember Sunderland and myself interrupting our Thursday viewing plan so that we could venture back to the first tee to witness the opening tee shot of the new wonderboy. It started to rain as the moment approached and when he appeared in his waterproof top he looked more like a lad who would be walking the fairways carrying the scoreboard than the boy carrying the dreams of becoming the youngest ever Open Champion since Tom Morris Jr. Everyone knows how he finished at the 18th when he holed out from deep rough 45 yards short of the green, throwing arms, club and hat aloft in glorious celebration to the wild roars of the amassed crowd.
So to this year. It’s 25 years since an Englishman, Nick Faldo, won the Open at Muirfield in 1992 and I have a feeling that it would be quite timely for another Englishman to create their own story and lift the famous claret jug. Could it be Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnson following on from his splendid entertaining efforts last year? The prodigal Paul Casey returning from the US to win? On form Ian Poulter doing a Darren Clarke to win at a stage in his career when most have thought that his moment had passed? Local boy Tommy Fleetwood sealing victory on a links course he knows so well? Lots of stories there with potential but the one I’d personally really like to see is the boy Rose returning to the course where his amateur career ended and his professional declaration really started it all for him. No doubt we'll see and witness another piece of Open history.
Ps If you wondered whatever happened to ‘Baxter Prints’ , Graeme is now based in the US and you can view and order his fine artworks online at www.graemebaxter.com
Here’s one of Royal Birkdale from his collection …