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Real championship material - Golf in Lancashire

The trip has been twenty-odd years in the planning, but when the opportunity at last came to visit Lancashire to play a collection of some of the finest courses in the world - literally within minutes of each other - Tom Cox was a man on a serious mission.

I was late arriving at Formby. I can't really offer any excuses for this, other than "I am me" and "I was about to play golf", but I suppose it didn't help that, just before I arrived, I stopped the car to look at a shop called Formby Models And Hobbies. How could I not have? It's twenty five years since I last showed any proper interest in having a tiny railway running through my bedroom, but when you're driving down a leafy residential street in 2009 and you see a shop - a shop miles from any other shops - as quaint as that, it seems somehow worth celebrating, whether or not you know your Airfix from your Revell. The credit crunch and the Internet have laid waste to secondhand bookshops, junk shops, delis and record shops on busy shopping streets the country over, but it seems that, if you build a shop in the middle of nowhere selling small aeroplanes and cars, They will still come. And here was me thinking people didn't even have hobbies any more.

They didn't sell miniature model golf courses at Formby Models And Hobbies - possibly because the 18 hole layout a mile down the road sort of serves as one in itself. Founded in 1884, Formby Golf Club totals a not inconsiderable 7,028 yards when you play it from the championship tees, yet it has a feeling of smallness. Even when you're playing one of its longest par fours, you can't quite shake the feeling that you are really not a human at all, but a small, carefully constructed wooden figurine who at any point might be picked up and moved somewhere terrifying by a giant hand. That's the impression I got, anyway, although it's entirely possible that this is just a reflection of the general lack of control I feel regarding my destiny when I'm on a golf course.

Formby Golf Club calls itself a "traditional links" but it's not, really. That is to say: it's incredibly traditional, but, in the height of summer, the only glimpse of the sea you get is from the tee of the par three 10th, and, although it has plenty of linksish elements, it's full of trees, and actually feels like seven different great golf courses rolled into one. I would describe it as a Frankenstein's Monster of a course, if that didn't make it sound jumbled and ugly. It's not. It's very, very pretty, and is possibly my new favourite golfing Valhalla.

Venue for the 2009 Amateur Championship, Formby mixes up
linksy elements with trees and – on a couple of holes – a heathland feel

I'd been wanting to come to south Lancashire to play golf since I was sixteen, when I watched the greatest day of Open golf of my life in the sun at Royal Birkdale, five miles up the coast from Formby Golf Club. People rarely cite the 1991 Open as one of the great majors and even at the time Peter Alliss described the tournament as "a quiet Open", but for me, the Saturday, when the sun finally came out after two days of rain and wind, will forever live in the memory - not just because I was there, in the flesh, at the height of my teenage golf obsession, but because I somehow managed to be in all the places I wanted to be at the same time (no mean feat, as any Open spectator will tell you). While my dad nestled down for a three hour kip beside the fourteenth tee (I'm sure it would have been more like five hours, had not Ian Woosnam's army of followers trampled him), I zigzagged across the course, soaking up the rhythm of a charging Fred Couples, seeing a birdie barrage from champ-to-be Ian Baker-Finch on his way to a 64, even standing just up the ninth fairway and hearing the terrible snap as Richard Boxall broke his leg just by taking a normal swing with his driver.

It's obvious that from that day on, Royal Birkdale was going to be one of my favourite championship golf courses. But, in a way, I'm happy with it remaining just that, and failing to get more intimate with it. Last year, I played Royal St Georges for the first time, and I didn't feel I quite belonged there. It felt giant and gaping and cruel - a bit like the first full-length golf course I ever played, when I was 13, and had convinced myself that because I could reach every hole at my local pitch'n'putt I was ready to lock horns with Sandy Lyle. I feel a similar way about Royal Birkdale. Also, I've met a few of my heroes in my time, and the experience is rarely all it's cracked up to be. Mostly, it just saps the mystery from their art and makes you want to stop consuming it.

Your heroes' friends, however, can be kind of fun to hang around with, and this is my philosophy in visiting Lancashire's golfing coast and missing out on Royal Birkdale itself. I've instead chosen to visit three of its nearest neighbours: Southport & Ainsdale, Hillside and Formby Golf Club. Of the three, Southport & Ainsdale, which borders Royal Birkdale to the south, it perhaps the best known. It's also perhaps the most socially-orientated club of the three. In the 1930s, the committee were notorious enough to have their caricatures drawn in Punch magazine. I'd actually recommend that those of a nervous disposition refrain from visiting the clubhouse before their round, since the packed trophy cabinets and ghostly, disapproving faces on its walls will only add to a sense of being athletically judged. A macabre photograph of the old version of the eighteenth hole, named "The Grave", from the early 1900s hardly settles the stomach, either. Whatever the players in it are putting on, it looks a lot darker and more Satanic than grass. The picture is accompanied by a letter, written in 1968, from a resident of one of the houses bordering the course. "I thought these might be of interest," it reads. "If not, please convey them to the waste paper basket.

Greg Norman once described the back nine at Hillside as “the greatest nine holes in the world.” This is a view from behind the green at the par four 12th

I don't hit my ball into any graves at Southport & Ainsdale, but I do see plenty. "There are a lot of golfers in there," says Bobby Kaye, a member who asks me to join him and his grandson on the third hole, pointing towards Ainsdale Cemetery. If you had a medium-sized bomb and a lasting vendetta against golfers, you probably couldn't drop it in many more logical places than this stretch of coast. You'd have to go to St Andrews to find a place more entrenched in the game. A roundabout between Southport & Ainsdale and Hillside even has its own giant golf ball. "Are you here for the golf?" asks a waiter at my Southport hotel: a question I'm not used to being asked when I'm dressed in jeans, reading a book about the Rolling Stones, and haven't had a haircut for three months.

Kaye, it turns out, makes his living as a comedian, which perhaps isn't surprising, as you need an extreme sense of humour to negotiate Southport & Ainsdale's clinging rough three times a week. What is surprising is that his stage act is renowned for being clean. I bite my profanity tongue on the par four third when what I thought was a perfect drive is gradually, inexorably sucked into a pot bunker roughly the size of my foot, but were I to do this every week, I'm not sure I'd find it so easy. Kaye never uses more than a seven wood off the tee, and smiles tuttingly, but sort of proudly, at his grandson, who lashes drive after drive into gorse and brillo pad undergrowth, getting ever more red faced in the process. When I arrive, a story is circulating about a bunch of imposters setting fire to a gorse bush in the further reaches of the course. The general consensus is that they were teen hooligans, but I'm personally not discounting the possibility that they were long drive champions who'd reached the end of their tether.

Separated by a railway line, Southport & Ainsdale shares the same raw
ingredients as Hillside, but has its own distinct character.

Actually, I don't find Southport & Ainsdale too trying overall, and I'm not sure that Henry Cotton's 1938 statement about it being "the hardest course in England" still holds true. But perhaps this is mainly because, the previous day, I have played at Hillside.

Some of Hillside's holes almost share their rough with Southport & Ainsdale's but the difference between the two courses is a testament to the diversity that can be found in links golf, if a person looks hard enough. Ostensibly, Hillside is more polite, less desertish, than Southport & Ainsdale. It's also less boastful about its devilishness. When I arrive, I feel like I've walked not just into the 1950s, but a Sunday 1950s where everyone's having their afternoon nap. The par four first and par five second run parallel with the railway line and it's only the dynamic shape and automatic doors of the trains that rattle past that half-break my reverie. The third is perhaps the course's first great hole: a short par four where the drive looks far more intimidating than it is, being played at an angle over an ocean of rough, and must be judged to perfection, leaving an approach shot to an almost Ponte Vedran water-guarded green.

A tumbling par-fivefrom an elevated tee, the 17th
at Hillside is a 548-yard belter

Playing these opening holes, I feel like I've been offered a lift in a Morris Oxford by a nice old man in driving gloves. It's all terribly well-to-do, with lots of subtle details to the upholstery - there are some wonderfully tricksy banks around the greens and the surfaces themselves, despite being windswept, hold a good iron shot like glue. It's only as I get towards the back nine that I realise that the car has no seat belts, and the nice old man is in fact the 1950s answer to The Stig. Hillside is a course that will hoodwink you with its back nine, where the realisation will suddenly dawn on you, as you strain your wrists thrashing your ball out of thick rough to the long uphill 13th, that, without noticing, you have turned off the B road and onto the motorway. By the time I'd lost my ball in knee length spinach to the left of the par three sixteenth, I was double-checking the course planner: had I taken a wrong turn somewhere, onto Royal Birkdale itself?

Perhaps this is why I love Formby Golf Club so much. It is another polite handshake of a course, but this time there is no joke electric buzzer concealed inside its palm. The main, men's course is shaped around the outside of the shorter ladies course, which is sort of archaic as a concept, but topographically delightful. I'm particularly taken with the drives on the par four fourteenth - an elevated, snaking hole which, downwind in summer, with the right bounce, can kid a mortal into believing they can drive the ball 380 yards - and the par five eighth, whose dogleg right shape seems to demand a draw, yet whose steep bank to the left of the fairway will coax a fade (I decide to split the difference by hitting a dead straight half-top). The place has such a lovely Camberwick Green Of The North ambience, I still maintain an entirely sweetened view of it after a snotty member refuses to accept my apology for danger of said 380 yard drive. Normally, I'd be out of the place in a flash after an incident like that, but I find that as I play the last few holes I'm lingering, taking mental pictures of these hillocky architectural masterworks, which somehow seem to cover more shades of green than any other course. When I get home, I will be putting them in the same box that I keep those from Woodhall Spa and Hollinwell, my two other favourite British courses. As for the scorecard, sadly that will have no such honour. I will be conveying it, with haste, to the waste paper basket.

If you get a chance to play a fourth, make it West Lancs – you won’t regret it

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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