Among the finessing to get Royal Birkdale ready to host the world’s oldest major one of the tasks was to have a word with Padraig Harrington, the champion golfer in 2008 when the Open was last contested on the Lancashire links, and ask him for a piece of personal memorabilia for the clubhouse.
The Irishman as good as won his second successive Open with a five wood he hit 273 yards to the par-five 17th in his final round to secure an eagle and hoist himself four shots clear of Ian Poulter, who had finished and was hitting shots on the range in the hope of a play-off. The subject was brought up with Harrington’s manager and the player readily agreed, saying he still had the illustrious Wilson club “somewhere in my garage”.
It now sits in a glass case along with memorabilia from the two Ryder Cups the links hosted in the 1960s and artefacts from most of the other Birkdale champions dating back to its first in 1954, when Australia’s Peter Thomson won the first of his five Opens, and including a Daiwa three wood from Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 champion.
Preparations for its 10th hosting began this time last year when Birkdale’s championship committee attended Royal Troon as guests of the R&A and maintained a watching brief at what was to become Henrik Stenson’s Open, and in September the situation began to be addressed and industrial-scale planning became the reality.
Jonathan Seal, chairman of the organising committee, has been helping pull things together and he says the man who had his job for the 1976 Open, the late Ken Duncan, kept copious notes about the experience, which were very much along the lines of an extra barrel of beer here, an extra roller-towel there.
Just over 92,000 spectators were on course that week and record receipts of £200,000 were produced to see the teenage Severiano Ballesteros announce himself in that hottest of summers only for Johnny Miller, who will be returning this week in his role as a commentator for NBC, to overhaul the Spaniard on the final day.
This time 210,000-230,000 are anticipated whatever the weather, with the benefits to the town of Southport expected to be upwards of £70m. Course marshalling will be undertaken by volunteers from 20 local clubs and there is a bank of regulars who were on the course for the Seniors Open in 2013 as well as the Women’s Open in 2010 and 2014, and most are returning.
Chris Whittle, a former assistant at Lytham, Muirfield and now 23 years at Birkdale, is the course manager and the club are confident that of all the things that could go wrong, the condition of the links this week is not one of them.
The cold dry spring left the rough thin and spindly and in early May attention had switched to erecting the grandstands, which will seat 14,500 people in bigger seats than last time and also with improved sight lines. The improving weather and temperatures enabled that job to be finished three weeks earlier than expected and the R&A crew moved on to readying the hospitality areas and on-course infrastructure as the rough thickened up through last month and this.
Little has actually changed for Whittle and his staff since 2005, when Tiger-proofing took place in readiness for the 2008 Open and six new tees, 20 hazards and 154 yards were added. Among the subtle changes, however, the 17th green, which was the subject of some criticism after it was restructured and relaid 12 years ago and following an immediate 48-hour downpour settled in an unexpectedly severe way, has been widened. The central right bunker has been pushed back a couple of metres to make the putting surface a more inviting target and the green’s contours have been softened.
Intermediate tees 30 yards forward of the usual ones have also been added at the 11th and 16th, which are usually played into the prevailing wind and which will probably be used if it exceeds 30mph. And with a nod to last year’s reconnaissance at the Postage Stamp, the 178-yard 7th will be played from the winter tee on at least two of the days, with the yardage only 138 when the pin is in the front-right position. “We have four par threes from 177-204 yards and after Troon last year we saw that a par three doesn’t have to be long to be difficult,” Seal says.
Trees have been cut away at the 346-yard 5th to encourage some to go for the green from the front position of 279 yards which will be used only after the cut on Friday, when waiting for the putting surface to clear and pace of play is not such an issue. There are 123 bunkers, too, none of them that deep, and the course is well protected by the towering sand dunes which line the coast road to the west of it.
Conditions were damp and inclement on the final day of the 1998 Open when the 17-year-old Justin Rose was another to announce himself at Birkdale, the amateur chipping in from the semi-rough for birdie at the 18th for a share of fourth. His Titleist lob wedge is also on display in the clubhouse as is the Ping putter used by Mark O’Meara, who lifted the Claret Jug that year after a play-off with the little-known and less remembered Brian Watts.
Birkdale has a habit of being the venue for serial Open winners, with Thomson beginning the first leg of a treble there in 1954 while Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino claimed the first of consecutive Open wins in 1961 and ’71 respectively. Tom Watson and Harrington won their second consecutive Opens in 1983 and 2008, and O’Meara achieved a double of his own in 1998, winning here, three months after victory at the Masters. Now 60 and on his 31st Open appearance, the American merely needs a top-10 finish this time to extend his exemption as a former winner for five more years.