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.

Golf World (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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