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Playing Royal Birkdale is pain and pleasure wrapped into one | Scott Murray | Sport

A few weeks before the 1976 Open Cyril Ritson, your man from the Guardian, teed it up at Royal Birkdale. Ritson threw himself into the lion’s den with neither whip nor chair, in order to discover how a self-confessed “20-handicap hacker” would fare on this most testing of championship courses. His opening drive went 40 yards into thick rough; he ended up carding a 12. Though to be fair to the sporting Mr Ritson, he later creamed a three-iron into the heart of the green at the 16th and also drained a monster putt on the 17th. And it was blowing a gale. Nice one, Cyril.

Forty-one years later another member of the Guardian travelling circus came to town. In calm, positively balmy conditions, he sent his opening drive away to the left. His second out of tangled rough did not quite reach the green; a heavy-handed third was bumped through to the fringe at the back. At which point he trundled in a 60-foot putt for par. Thank you, thank you. There will be guys at this week’s Open who would not necessarily say no to a spirit-boosting start like that.

As for the rest of the round? Hey, there is no need to bore you with unnecessary detail. But standing knee deep in thick scrub atop a mound to the right of the 2nd hole, ball lost and head gone, it was still not too difficult to appreciate my astonishing good fortune: a weekend hacker, the sun on his back, given a precious chance to experience one of the world’s premier venues. I resolved to explore as much of the famous old links as I could in one afternoon. Rationalisation in excelsis. Fore left!

Birkdale is arguably the best of the English courses on the Open rota; maybe nearby Lytham would have something to say about that. It is certainly the most iconic, with its gleaming art-deco clubhouse looming over the 18th green. Built in 1935, a condition of the local council granting the club a new 99-year lease, it was one of the first major buildings in the land to equip itself with new-fangled water-heating and cooking equipment powered by Calor gas. It is a brave, beautiful, striking design, though other interpretations are available: Matthew Engel once spoke wittily in these pages of its “unfortunate resemblance to a 1930s garage”. Ah well, each to his own: one man’s gorgeous is another’s gauche.

Either way this pristine pile has since witnessed some remarkable events: Jack Nicklaus’s famous concession to Tony Jacklin at the denouement of the 1969 Ryder Cup, for one, as well as Open wins for some of the greatest players ever to fire a low iron under the wind in anger: Peter Thomson (twice), Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Ian Baker-Finch, Mark O’Meara and most recently Padraig Harrington.

Birkdale’s honour, as is the usual way with links golf, will be defended this week by the weather. Take the 1991 tournament by way of illustration. On the first practice day Seve Ballesteros hit a booming drive into a gale on the testing par-four 16th; his ball only just made it as far as the fairway. On the third and fourth days of the tournament proper, the wind benign, the eventual winner Baker-Finch shot 64 and 66. Mind you, this is no hard and fast rule. In high winds during the opening day one player still managed to get round in 66 strokes. There will never be another Seve.

So beware the Birkdale wind … and indeed its fresh air. In 1983 Hale Irwin motioned to tap in from three inches on the downhill par-three 14th with the back of his putter – and whiffed. That one air shot proved ever so costly, the difference between Irwin and the eventual winner, Tom Watson.

An infamous moment, yet arguably it was not even the most outrageous flat-stick blunder that week. On the dogleg-left par-four 10th, Denis Watson was already in serious trouble after an errant drive, reaching the green in four strokes. Two putts later he back-flicked towards the cup from eight inches. That insouciant tap-in stayed out. In high dudgeon, he quickly knocked the stubborn ball into the hole. Unfortunately, it was still rolling from the previous putt. A two-stroke penalty. Once everything was tallied accordingly, he had carded 10. He withdrew that evening citing hay fever, as if one irritation was not enough.

Yes, rank amateurs hacking haplessly around the place from shrub to bunker – I stand alongside my people – can take succour that it happens to the best of them. And there is more. The 1995 champion, John Daly, for example, who would have made the cut in 1998 had he only bogeyed the last. Instead he ran up 10, visiting two fairway bunkers along the way, plus another by the side of the green.

Mark O’Meara

Mark O’Meara plays up the 18th to the clubhouse in 1998. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Or how about Bobby Cole in 1976? He had finished in a tie for third the previous year but this time five-putted on the very first green of the tournament. Four of those strokes were made from inside four feet. Meanwhile the defending champion, Tom Watson, started out with a seven.

Perhaps the Wigan professional Craig Corrigan had those misfires in mind on the opening day of the 1991 championship. Out in the first group, he took an iron from the tee to play safe. He found rough, shanked his second, then whistled his ball into a bush. After a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie, he did well to get up and down for the double bogey.

The 1971 event saw Jimmy Kinsella break the course record with a 68, having played the front nine in 30. The day after, he shot 80. Adding insult to injury Peter Oosterhuis made off with his record after shooting 66. And in 1961, Palmer signed for a second-round 73, one over, not bad when you consider he had thinned a bunker shot through the 16th green and into willow scrub, the result of causing his ball to move while addressing it. The penalty stroke, plus scrub extraction manoeuvres, led to an ugly double-bogey seven.

But what golf regularly taketh away, it sometimes also giveth. At the same hole in the following round two days later – a great gale swept across the ’61 Open, taking the refreshment tent and a whole day’s play with it – Palmer parred in five. But it was one of the great pars. Having hit a wild drive, he hacked back on to the fairway, only to send his third dangerously towards the out of bounds on the right. The ball nestled beneath a small blackberry bush atop a gorse mound, the pin 10 feet below it, near the edge of the green. The logical response was to hack carefully out and suck up a bogey or maybe even a double.

Instead, Palmer opened up his 6-iron, slashed the ball up and through the bush, over the gorse, and landed it softly – “it dropped like a pancake,” according to the Observer – beside the hole. Palmer’s bravery paid off handsomely: par scrambled, he went on to win the tournament by one shot from Dai Rees of Wales. The committee at Birkdale struck a plaque in honour of the shot, incorrectly citing the date play had been suspended (when Palmer was in the clubhouse, whiling away the hours playing bridge).

That green is now the 17th, changes having been made before the 1965 Open, a new par-three 12th built on the dunes behind the 11th green, and the old par-three 17th removed. The order of the holes was shuffled along accordingly, creating one of the longest homeward slogs on the Open rota. As a result, despite Palmer’s storied heroics, the hole is perhaps more famous these days for Harrington’s spectacular five-wood to three feet for eagle en route to his 2008 win. He is still the last man to win back-to-back Opens; Godspeed, Henrik Stenson.

And Godspeed your bedraggled hacker, who eventually traipsed home in … well, I will always fondly recall lovely splashes from pot bunkers at the par-threes, the 12th and 14th, and two dreamy, creamed hybrids that transported me from tee to green at the long par-four 13th, a troublesome hole split in style.

“Why isn’t golf always that easy?” I later wondered, glancing back down the course, my internal temperature dial cranked past rolling boil and all the way up to Tom Weiskopf, having flayed a tee shot at the 15th into deep nonsense down the right. I then sent a hysterical provisional after it which made the original drive look like one of Calvin Peete’s. But it is a question they have all asked at some point, from Arnie to Seve to Tiger to Rory. In that sense I am in good company. And in the end, Maurice Flitcroftian shame was avoided, just about, so that is something, too, right? No more need be said. Apart from one thing: all is forgiven, Cyril Ritson.

Scott played Royal Birkdale courtesy of Mercedes-Benz, an Official Patron and the Official Car of The Open. Thanks also to my caddie for the day, Steve, for all his kind help, wise advice, good humour and infinite patience.

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