Birkdale expects a bit of tribulation
Power hitters might not have it all their own way on a links that has been kind to Irish competitors
Smash the ball miles, we're told, and putt like a demon and the big trophies will come rolling in. This may be fine for predictable parkland, but such thinking will require radical revision when the 146th Open Championship gets under way on the much-admired linksland of Royal Birkdale on Thursday.
On the evidence of Pádraig Harrington's triumph there in 2008, victory is more likely to go to a player with no significant weakness, rather than obvious strengths. As it happened, the Dubliner was a moderate 45th in driving distance; 35th in fairways hit and 30th in greens in regulation when finishing four strokes clear of Ian Poulter.
Significantly, however, he had a parsimonious 116 putts for the 72 holes, to be placed a productive seventh in that particular category. And typical of his impact on the Majors, mental strength ultimately won the day.
Meanwhile, having gone from Portstewart as the newly-crowned Irish Open champion to a well-earned Basque break last week, Jon Rahm will return to these islands, much fancied to become only the third player to complete an Irish-British open double, achieved by Nick Faldo in 1992 and Harrington in 2007.
Four eagles from the 22-year-old Spaniard at Portstewart were last registered in Europe by Rory McIlroy when winning the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth three years ago. More importantly, Rahm displayed the sort of short-game skills we have come to associate with Harrington at the peak of his powers.
Which is really something, when you consider that in capturing the Portugal Masters last October, Harrington missed 25 greens in regulation yet required only 51 strokes to complete those particular holes. In other words, he got up and down in two strokes every time, bar one.
Rivals would certainly have found no comfort in Rahm's post-victory comment: "I haven't played my best and I shoot 24 under . . . it's something completely unreal." His hero, Seve Ballesteros, could scarcely have been more intimidating.
Birkdale represents a huge challenge for McIlroy. Wild notions which gifted players might entertain of actually mastering golf, would have been soundly crushed by the sight of his struggle in missing the cut in both the Irish and Scottish Opens.
In the wake of some appalling short-iron play on Dundonald Links, his observation of the previous week at Portstewart remained painfully valid. "Not being efficient with your scoring makes it really tough, no matter who you are," he said. "You can't keep giving yourself chances by hitting quality golf shots all the time. You have to get it up-and-down. You have to be able to hole putts to keep momentum going."
McIlroy has failed to qualify for the Open only once, in 2008; his other absence, in 2015, was down to a damaged ankle. Yet his record for eight appearances remains curious, ranging from first, third, tied fifth (last year) to 25th or worse. And consistency has been similarly elusive of late, with injury and short-game problems blighting his progress since a marvellous triumph in the FedEx Cup last September.
Though Birkdale was a latecomer to The Open rota in 1954, it has since gained an enviable reputation for the fairness of its challenge. Essentially, it accords with the modern belief that solidly-struck drives landing on the fairway should not be deflected into trouble by freak bounces off quaint mounding.
What we see is essentially the redesign from the partnership of Fred Hawtree and five-time Open champion, JH Taylor, in 1935, when a new clubhouse built in the Art Deco style was meant to replicate a land-locked ship sailing among the dunes. The layout involved holes running in a variety of directions between dramatic dunes, rather than over or through them. "If there's just one tiny part of your game that is not quite right, this great course will find it out, no matter how hard you try and hide it," said Peter Thomson, twice a winner there in 1954 and 1965.
That latter win by the celebrated Australian was also when Christy O'Connor Snr, tied second with Brian Huggett, had his best Open finish. Describing the performances of this pair as "beyond praise", The Guardian's Pat Ward-Thomas wrote: "O'Connor has by far the finest record of any home golfer in the last 10 years, and he scored throughout with a consistency which hitherto has escaped him this year."
It is interesting to note the modest lengthening of the course over more than six decades. From 6,867 yards (par 73) in 1954, it broke through a long-time barrier to become 7,001 yards (par 72) when Johnny Miller won in 1976, then went back to 6,940 (par 70) in 1991, Ian Baker-Finch's year. In was 7,173 for Harrington's triumph in 2008 (below) and is now reduced marginally to 7,156 for this, its 10th Open staging.
Apart from Harrington's win, one of my favourite Birkdale memories is of 1983, the occasion of Tom Watson's fifth and last Open victory. Though 1984 at St Andrews marked Michael Bonallack's first involvement as secretary of the Royal and Ancient, he had quite a humorous rehearsal the previous year.
On joining the R and A in June 1983, he was effectively thrown in at the deep end. With Open preparations in full swing, he stayed at the Lancashire venue for the duration of the championship before heading back to St Andrews. "That was when I was understudy to Keith Mackenzie in a very skilled team," he recalled.
"Keith had a new plan at Birkdale for the prize presentation, involving a mobile stage which could be dismantled in sections. Rising to about two or three feet off the ground, there were steps onto it."
Bonallack went on: "It was an enormous thing, very heavy, and the idea was that it would be erected quickly on the fairway, 50 yards short of the 18th green after the last putt had dropped. Given its prime position out there on the course, everybody in the stand would be able to see the presentation.
"So, four little dots were placed on the fairway to mark exactly where it had to go and we rehearsed with people rushing out from the side of the stage and putting it up there. Which was fine, of course, when there was nobody else around.
"When the big moment arrived, however, and Keith had taken me out to the back of the 18th green to watch his plan go smoothly into action, he hadn't bargained for one of the most traditional happenings on the final day of the Open. Horrified, he saw the crowd do their usual breakthrough before coming straight down the middle of the fairway, where the stage was meant to be. Whereupon he grabbed me by the shoulder and said 'They can't do that. Go and stop them.' With that, he turned round and went straight back into his site office.
"Well, there was clearly nothing that I or any of the marshals could do in the face of a formidable charge of 3,000 spectators. And the people who were waiting by the sides of the 18th, ready with the sections of Keith's stage, were fully aware of this. Still, out of a sense of duty I suppose, they eventually struggled to assemble it as best they could, out where it was originally planned to go.
"With that, a section of the crowd went and stood on it to get a better view.
While all this was going on, the actual presentation was set up at the back of the green, in front of the clubhouse window."
When the usual post-Open press conference was held the following morning, one particularly observant scribe asked Mackenzie what the odd-looking platform erected on the 18th fairway was for. Without batting an eyelid, the soon-to-retire secretary explained he was concerned that spectators coming down the final hole wouldn't really get a proper view of the presentation ceremony.
So, with this easily-assembled platform, the problem would be overcome. Which left Bonallack thinking that Mackenzie got out of it very well. Two months later, he had retired and nobody was any the wiser about his special plans for the Birkdale victory ceremony.
According to Chris Whittle, course manager for the past 22 years, this year's links set-up will be very much the same as in 2008. A few recent changes to the John Deere course maintenance equipment fleet, however, include eight new 180SL walk-behind greens mowers, along with two new A-Series machines, an 8000AE hybrid electric five-gang cylinder mower for the surrounds and an 8800A rough mower. "The narrower working width of the 180SL walk-behinds means we get very accurate contours following on our undulating greens," said Whittle. "At John Deere's suggestion, we've also had them fitted with groomers, which we've never used before. These help to maintain the quality of cut and finish that we're looking for."
Four years ago, Brooks Koepka was a European Challenge Tour player who earned his place in the The Open by winning the International Final Qualifying at Sunningdale. This time around, the 27-year-old will be at Birkdale as the newly-crowned US Open champion in a rapidly-changing tournament scene.
From a game based originally on prodigious driving, Tiger Woods captured his third Open at Hoylake in 2006 through the surgical precision of his iron play. Now, the challenge for big-hitters such as McIlroy, Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama is to rein in their power, as defending champion Henrik Stenson did so effectively at Royal Troon last year.
For Harrington, the prospect of a return to the scene of a glorious triumph, will be less of a sentimental journey and more one of thrilling expectancy. "People will insist it's not really fair when you get a bad bounce or the rough end of the draw, but golf is an outdoor game and everything can't be ordered," he said as an old hand. "Parkland golf is too ordered for my liking. That's what I love about the Open; being ready to expect a little bit of trepidation. The excitement of it all."
Birkdale has had a special place in Irish hearts since Jimmy Bruen captured the British Amateur there in 1946. Seventy-one years on, we look to this latest experience, thinking of Harrington and the joy he brought a nation.
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