Nestled among the imposing dunes at Southport, one of Britain’s great golfing meccas, Birkdale is one the finest links anywhere, with an extremely demanding opening hole made more difficult when the wind blows in off the Irish Sea. With few consecutive holes playing in the same direction it is a true test of links golf, rewarding accurate ball-striking and Shane Lowry was an instant convert to its charms when he played here for the first time in practice this week.
“It’s a proper golf course. It’s as good as it gets really,” Lowry said. “Possibly one of the best courses I’ve ever played.
“There’s certain spots you can take bunkers out of play, but there’s a lot of holes that you have to take them on. There’s 2-iron down the fairway, to leave yourself a 6-iron in, but 5 or 6-iron into these greens isn’t going to leave you many places, so you have to just take the golf course on a little bit. It’s good.
“If you’ve a one-shot lead with five or six to play you can’t just nob it in in pars, you really have to play golf. It’s a proper golf course, a really good examination.” Justin Rose has good reason to enjoy returning to Birkdale given he won the Silver Medal as low amateur here at the 1998 Open, when he finished in fourth place as a 17-year-old.
“I think it’s the fairest links golf course we play, it rewards great golf,” Rose said. “The bounce, the vagaries of the bounces are slightly less in play here than at some other golf courses we play, some other ones in the rotation.
“But we really haven’t played this course in good weather, virtually everybody here hasn’t played it in good weather. ‘98 wasn’t great. ‘08 wasn’t great.
“This week might not be great. Because it’s a fair golf course, I think it plays well in tough conditions, too. I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”
There is no greater test at Birkdale than at the par-four sixth hole, which has been the hardest hole on the course in both of The Open’s previous two visits, the par-four playing at 4.765 strokes in 2008, when Pádraig Harrington became Champion Golfer.
This 499-yard left-to-right dog leg, with bunkers on both sides of a tight fairway, leads to a raised green protected at the front by three sand traps and Lowry enjoys the challenge it poses.
“I hit a three wood, three iron in there (in practice on Monday). There is a bunker 270 on the right to reach and another to carry at 250. It’s a tough hole.
“There are a few holes there where you just want to make pars. There’s 18 of them actually.
”I am sure if you made 72 pars you wouldn’t be too far away. I didn’t realise we don’t have a par five until we get to 15. So you really have to play the first 14 holes well. It’s good. It’s tough.