Royal Birkdale is a famous links and widely recognized for its fairness. If you hit the fairways, rarely will the ball be thrown off course. The fairways are laid out in the flat-bottomed valleys between the towering dunes. These dunes, in turn, provide superb viewing platforms for spectators. Invariably in immaculate condition, Royal Birkdale is a very tough cookie to master. The greens were re-built prior to the 1998 Open and despite their youth, are extremely difficult to read.
The Birkdale (as Royal Birkdale Golf Club was originally called) was a nine-hole golf course located at Shaw Hills and it opened for play in October 1889. In 1894, the committee decided to extend the course to 18-holes and move it to its current home at Birkdale Hills. Designed by George Lowe, the course was ready in 1897. In the 1930s, the course was remodelled and upgraded to championship standard by F.G. Hawtree and J.H. Taylor.
The club was simply known as Birkdale until 1951 when King George VI bestowed the royal charter on the club. Royal Birkdale Golf Club has hosted all the important events—the Ryder Cup, Walker Cup, Curtis Cup, Ladies British Open Championship.
The British Open Championship has been hosted at Birkdale no fewer than ten times. The list of winners of the Open at the course is truly impressive and includes Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Peter Thomson (twice), Padraig Harrington, Mark O'Meara, Ian Baker-Finch, and Jordan Spieth.
The 1st Hole is a tough opening hole on a course that many of the Tour pros believe to be the fairest test of their skills on the Open Rota and arguably England’s finest course. Johnny Miller, the 1976 champion at Royal Birkdale, calls the opening tee shot “one of the most intimidating in the game”.
The hole is 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 guards the left side at around 200 yards. With its location on the inside left corner of the dogleg and at the base of a hill it would seem possible, and worthwhile, to try and carry it except it’s for the prevailing headwind from the left.
The desire to carry it (and the hill behind it) also 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.
Royal Birkdale’s first hole was the second hardest on the course in the 2008 Open Championship, with the 450-yard, par-4 playing to a 4.52 scoring average. There were more scores of double-bogey or worse (40) than birdies (23) on the hole.
BTW, for history buffs, Justin Rose’s hole-out on the 72nd hole of the 1998 Open Championship remains one of the indelible images from Royal Birkdale’s history. Rose, who was just 17 years old, took off his cap and gleefully looked to the sky after he holed out a lengthy pitch shot to finish in fourth place.