PERFECT TEST OR TOO EASY?
John Huggan believes the set-up of Royal Birkdale for this year’s Championship was spot-on… well, almost.
If the mark of a truly great Open venue is the quality of the champions it produces. then Royal Birkdale ranks with the very best. With Jordan Spieth’s victory, all but one of the winners at the famous Southport links is or will be a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
At least at first glance, Birkdale also ticked another box. On a great course, a world-class player at the top of his game should be able to shoot a really low score. Day three brought that number – a historic figure in the annals of golf’s four major championships. After 31 rounds of 63 by 29 different men (Greg Norman and Vijay Singh both did it twice), South African Branden Grace shot 62, eight-under par.
It was a wonderful display, of course. But closer inspection brought with it some misgivings. En route to his record-breaking round, Grace hit 9-iron or less to 10 greens. Only once outside of the two par 5s did he need more than a 6-iron to reach a putting surface in regulation. The longest club he hit into any par 4 was a 7-iron. On the 470- yard 18th he hit his approach with a pitching wedge from 165 yards. The ball finished over the green.
Par for the course, Grace reckoned, was 67. For top professionals we’re talking not much more than pitch-and-putt difficulty. Still, none of the above should detract from the notion that Birkdale is the best of the four Open venues in England. The pros certainly enjoyed its challenges. It was in wonderful condition. And it is, by almost unanimous consensus, “very fair”. Which is not always the biggest compliment. Anyone who enjoys the quirkiness of, say, Royal St.
George’s is not going to think Birkdale is that interesting. Then again, if you like Birkdale you’re likely to think St. George’s is daft in places. Which is not to say Birkdale was devoid of eccentricity, at least in one spot. The first fairway was half the width it should be. Hardly anyone was hitting it, a fact that did nothing for the pace of play.
One last thing. Yes, Birkdale does produce great winners. But so does the Open the majority of the time. One of the world’s best players nearly always wins. So some perspective is necessary.