THE QUIET NEIGHBOUR
Southport & Ainsdale sits among some of the world’s best-known links but as Chris Bertram explains, the two-time Ryder Cup venue is outstanding in its own right.
Sat between two of the world’s best-known links, Southport & Ainsdale could be easily overshadowed. Chris Bertram shines a light.
Afull eight decades have admittedly passed since it did so, but it is now extremely hard to imagine the Ryder Cup being hosted by Southport & Ainsdale as you pull into the car park of this storied club on Lancashire’s fabled ‘golf coast’. A standard golf club barrier gains you entrance to a standard golf club car park, from which you climb up a few stairs towards a homely little pro shop attached to a neat but characterful two-storey clubhouse.
There is certainly nothing extravagant about your first impressions of ’S&A’. Instead, the principal feeling is that this is very different experience to that of arriving at courses that have hosted the Ryder Cup since the mid-80s. In fact, you might amuse yourself at the thought of all the superfluous stuff that surrounds the Ryder Cup (and Open) these days somehow fitting in at somewhere like S&A.
But if you can do without billowing flags, enormous signs, grand driveways, vast car parks and general noisy fanfare, you will agree it is none the worse for that.
S&A can in fact look down on all but one European host of the Ryder Cup, having hosted the matches twice. Only The Belfry – with an overindulged four – tops it.
Those GB&I v USA occasions, in 1933 and then four years later, are part of a storied history of one of England’s great clubs. Founded in 1906, as early as 1914 it staged the Lancashire Amateur – something it has done eight further occasions, most recently in 2009.
The first professional event to be held here was in 1917, when JH Taylor, Ted Ray and James Braid played an exhibition match to raise funds for soldiers wounded in the war. It then staged numerous tournaments in the formative years of what was to become the European Tour, including the Dunlop 2000 Guineas, which offered one of the richest prizes in British golf.
As a result, few of the sport’s great players have not played here. It was the stage for Jack Nicklaus’ first overseas professional tournament, the Piccadilly tournament that was staged at S&A in 1962.
Five-time Open champion Peter Thompson also played in that event, and in fact won it. Arnold Palmer represented
his country here in the Nine Nations three years later.
It is however the twin Ryder Cup matches for which it is best known. Although quite how well known it is that S&A hosted two Ryder Cups is a moot point. It’s hard to escape the feeling its Ryder Cup pedigree should be far more widely recognised than it is. Certainly if a venue hosted consecutive matches in this era, it would be revered… and as we all know these days, the venues are now selected for more than just the merit of the course.
Back then, the course’s worth was the pre-eminent factor. And this quietly excellent links on the northern edge of Liverpool would greet some of the great names in the game’s history when it staged its two matches.
In 1933 the captains were Walter Hagen and JH Taylor and the contest went down to the last match between Syd Easterbrook and America’s Denny Shute. The latter threeputted the 18th to hand a singles victory to Easterbrook and the match to GB&I. Four years later, Ben Hogan and Henry Cotton captained, but this time the visitors strolled to a 8-4 victory with a young Byron Nelson their star man.
S&A’s storied existence continues to this day, with the head pro a celebrated golfer, having won two European Tour titles and played in The Open on four occasions.
Jim Payne forged a stellar amateur career that culminated in a Walker Cup appearance and a pairing with Nicklaus in the final round of the 1991 Open at Royal Birkdale, when he finished as the leading amateur.
‘The handsome 2nd is typical S&A; heather, marram and a gently undulating linksland’
He was Rookie of the Year on the European Tour and won the 1993 Turespana Iberia Open and 1996 Italian Open, but now he has to content himself with an epic view from his pro shop every day he is in his ‘office’.
Indeed, it is hard to think of an opening hole on any Ryder Cup venue that you’d rather play more than S&A’s.
While starting with a par 3 is widely thought to affect pace of play – and especially when it is as exacting as this one – seeing the full, glorious hole from the clubhouse and starter’s hut in this manner has loads of appeal.
This 204-yard opener plays downhill to a small green pock-marked by nine bunkers, scattered randomly around its front half. On a calm day or with a breeze helping, it feels like a gorgeous start to a round; with conditions not in your favour, reaching for a three-wood for your first swing of the day with which to try to locate this narrow, undulating green will feel a touch less appealing.
Even in that scenario however, this idyllic links scene has you already engrossed in your round.
It is followed by a handsome par 5 that shows off typical S&A landscape; heather mixing with marram and gorse as it frames gently undulating linksland punctuated by pot bunkers – the course’s main defence.
Then comes ‘Braids’, named after the course’s designer, James Braid. The Scotsman was drafted in to set down a new course in the 1920s after the original layout was split in two by a new Liverpool link road.
After that muscular two-shot 3rd comes a mid-length par 4 that starts from an elevated tee, as several holes do here. It plays to one of S&A’s most undulating greens.
So, so far we have had a par 3, a par 5, a stout par 4 and a sporty two-shotter, and this start illustrates the pleasingly eclectic mix visitors can expect at S&A.
The 4th turns back south and the 5th – a worthy stroke one and a magnificent driving hole – and dog-leg 6th, with
its appealingly blind tee shot, follow in that direction to complete the first of S&A’s loops. This is not the familiar out-and-back route.
The next section, from the 7th to the 12th, snakes in a northerly direction like an unruly ‘S’ before the run for home begins around the western edge of the site.
Out of bounds features on par 5s at 7 and 9 – strategic and awkward in turn – which sandwich a wonderful short hole. The 8th is just 150 yards but often plays into the prevailing, and its elevated, infinity green rejects anything short or slightly right. The surface is also notably undulating and this can stand comparison with most short holes in even this preposterously well-endowed golfing region, known as ‘England’s Golf Coast’ with some justification.
Coming home, the blind drive over gorse on 12 and the very well bunkered 13th catch the eye before you move into the trees on the mid-length par-4 15th for what the club’s Strokesaver accurately describes as “the calm before the storm”.
For it is then that the famous ‘Gumbleys’ moves into view. This 528-yard par 5 has out of bounds up the right where the railway is but is in truth a relatively straightforward tee shot. From there, though, you must launch your second over a 20ft high bank of sleepers that give notice of one of England’s great bunkers, and hope you have picked the correct line and club.
The walk to the top of the dune is a little nervy but mainly exhilarating as you wait to set eyes on your ball while also taking in the wonderful linksy scene. Your work isn’t over though, with a long narrow green set at the foot of a dune to find.
It starts a very strong three-hole finish given it is followed by arguably the best hole on the course (see previous page) and then a super climax in a terrific ‘snug’-like amphitheatre to round off what is a super collection of green complexes.
As you putt on the enjoyably funky home green, your mind may cast back to Shute’s costly three-putt on that very surface in 1933. The Ryder Cup will never return to S&A or its ilk, but it’s hard not to think that is the competition’s loss.
The 18th’s gorgeous green complex is a stellar climax. The 12th is one of the most exacting par 4s on the card.
S&A sprawls over gently undulating linksland.