When talking about great Open golf courses, Royal Birkdale rarely springs to mind, writes John McHenry.
Dwarfed by its more imposing Scottish cousins, it simply cannot compete with St Andrews’ status or indeed the calibre of test provided by the likes of Carnoustie.
But behind the course’s uncharacteristically flat fairways and easy front nine holes lies a brutal spine — the unpredictable dunes that are both shaggy and tall and a relentlessly difficult back nine, where pars are your friend.
That said, don’t expect to hear the pros to be complaining too much this week. Despite playing a links course, they will be largely playing the same target golf that they play week in and week out and for that they will be grateful.
With no funky bounces of the ball or unpredictable lies and no tricky greens, the decision-making should be reasonably straightforward.
Hit the fairways. Avoid the bunkers. Find the middle of the greens. And hope that the putter is on form.
Royal Birkdale’s course strategy is to score heavily on the front nine and to try and hang onto that good score on the back nine — so expect a flurry of fireworks from the shorter players more used to using laser-like accuracy and stellar putting for their currency over the opening holes but as with all links courses, the weather conditions will ultimately determine who will be competitive once the tournament starts.
With weather conditions set to be cool, mainly dry and calm, Royal Birkdale will once again offer the opportunity for the emergence or re-emergence of stars from the pack.
In 1976, it was the great Severiano Ballesteros who used the Open platform to imprint his name into the public consciousness — by reducing the tricky double dog-leg first hole to nothing more than a drive and a short iron second but more famously for his conversion of a seemingly impossible chip and putt on the final green of the tournament to tie Jack Nicklaus for a second place finish.
Last time round, that charge came from the re-emergence of Australian legend Greg Norman, who was gamely defeated by our own two-time champion Pádraig Harrington who is showing good form in recent weeks.
Is Harrington capable of delivering another moment of magic at the tail end of his remarkable career? Absolutely.
Never one to stick to the script, Harrington’s sheer unpredictability makes him a threat and while he still struggles for consistency, his improved putting gives cause for optimism and no one in the field will rest easy if they find a two-time champion, who has no fear and all the shots in the bag
their neck, come Sunday afternoon.
The likelihood, however, is that a victory this week is going to come from one of the more in-form players, like Jon Rahm, who rolled the dice and took his chances when winning so impressively at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart.
ahm seems to be one of the current crop of players who only have one strategy: that of trying to overpower the course with 300-yard plus drives.
It’s a case of “grip it and rip it” and if you find trouble then you either power your way back out of it or take your punishment but you don’t flinch and you never back down. Relying on his immaculate short game to save par on wayward holes, he certainly is no Nick Faldo or Nick Price who spent their careers beating their opposition by meticulously strategising their way around courses.
On the outside looking in, I wonder about the merits of this all-or-nothing approach by the power players these days.
While absolutely dominant when on their game, their regular spikes in form have meant that we are no longer to relate their performances to the far more consistent careers of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and that’s a pity because the likes of Rahm and indeed our own Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry have all the shots but no longer the mindset to consistently grind out results.
This week, Royal Birkdale’s back-nine holes will exact revenge on those players who either haven’t got the skills or are unprepared to use their arsenal of shots where required — as they cannot avoid the swept shots like the second at the 10th to a tightly-tucked green in a treacherous dell of marram-covered dunes or the prodigiously long shots required to be hit into 15 and 17, much like the one Harrington most famously hit when winning the Open in 2008.
And what about the brutishly long and narrow par-4 18th, which will play about 490 yards, to a green fronted by two of the deepest pot bunkers on the course?
Harrington’s winning score of 283 (+3) in 2008 tells you all you need to know about Royal Birkdale. The players might be delighted with a course that lacks X factor more visible in most of the links courses on the Open Rota but given a chance Royal Birkdale, will be equally dramatic in exacting revenge.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved