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North West England

North West England.

I often amaze fellow golfers with my statement that the Liverpool area probably contains more world class courses than anywhere else. At the very top level you have Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham & St Annes, Royal Liverpool, Formby, Hillside and Wallasey and not far below this top quality you can choose West Lancashire, Southport & Ainsdale, Formby Ladies, Hesketh and St Annes Old Links.

Approaching from the south you reach the Wirral Peninsula, home to Royal Liverpool at Hoylake and Wallasey closeby. Royal Liverpool may be lacking in tall dunes but it is anything but featureless. You need to think your way around, as best evidenced by the clever way Tiger Woods played here to win the Open in 2006. And beware right from the start as the practice ground is close by and is OOB. Holes 9 -13 are closest to the Dee Estuary which always looks more attractive when the tide is in. The last 5 holes are a tough finish with some of the new Donald Steel greens being rather undulating and with menacing deep straight faced revetted bunkers.

If Wallasey was a little longer and there was better car parking nearby then surely it would be a contender to hold the Open. That is, if they wanted to. When I was there several years ago the Secretary forgot our appointment which I confirmed the day before and then they ignored my two requests for some historical information for my award winning book Journey through the Links. There are some splendid undulating holes at Wallasey. The elevated 4th tee looks along the shoreline and is followed by a par 3 heading straight for the sea. The uphill 11th is a fine example of the bunkering here. The 12th is a great par 3 with the green surrounded by five deep bunkers and the 18th is a majestic par 4 bordered by dunes at the sides and the old church and clubhouse behind the green.

Caldy was on my list to play but with one day left we chose Hesketh instead. From all my photos Caldy looks like a fun holiday course that would be worth playing. Although it plays pretty much beside the sea it is not on links soil. To find it, turn off the A540 between Heswall and West Kirby which is just before you reach Hoylake if driving from the south.

When I visit Liverpool I stay at Blundellsands Guesthouse. Nearby is the challenging  West Lancashire. The links are partly bordered by the shore line and partly by the railway. The rough is usually tough here and the bunkers can be small and straight faced. I t is probably not the prettiest course but I would rate it as an excellent test of your golfing skills.

The links at Formby are close by Freshfield Station just north of the town of Formby. The whole site here is 470 acres that has been declared a site of Special Scientific Interest and includes a course owned by the ladies that is surrounded by the Championship course. I f I had to choose just one club to join in the Liverpool area then it would be Formby. This is a great links course and yet it also is treed and at times has a heathland feel. All the holes are good with perhaps the 18th being the least challenging.

         (photo Formby's tight 7th hole - the green is around to the right)

Playing at Machrihanish and a chance meeting with a former Captain, Daphne Thomas, led to our invitation to play Formby Ladies in 2009. You will enjoy this links immensely. It is not too long but is still a very good test and has plenty of heather if you are not driving well. All of the holes were fun to play. The par 3, 5th is a delight and holes 9-11 require accuracy as a premium. Formby Ladies ends as it starts - two par 4's and plenty of heather. Greg Norman caddied for his son here in the 1998 Junior World Championships. Afterwards he wrote to the club: "Over 100 years old and still your course can stand the test of time. What a beautiful course. I t clearly shows that courses do not have to be 7000 plus yards to be formidable." Golf course designers of today -take note!

Close by is Southport & Ainsdale, affectionately known as S & A, home to the Ryder Cup in 1933 and 1937. The start is tough, particularly as you begin your round with a 204 yard par 3 featuring a green guarded by nine bunkers. The par 5, 16th is memorable for the 'Gumbleys' - a large sleeper faced bunker at the 300 yard mark. I enjoyed S & A and found it rather less difficult than West Lancashire.

Hillside sits almost next to Royal Birkdale and, on the other side of the railway line, Southport & Ainsdale. Whilst the front nine doesn't feature anything out of the ordinary it is just as well the two nines are in their present order because the back nine is so good anything else would seem an anti-climax. The 10th is one of the best par 3's you will ever see and the 11th is an outstanding par 4 with its elevated tee amongst the pines and the curving fairway. The 13th, 14th and 17th wind through high dunes and the 16th  is a great uphill par 3 that needs no bunkers to be a challenge. If you are not impressed by Hillside then you are very hard to please.

                (photo Hillside  11th hole)

Royal Birkdale contains the best dunes of any links on the Open rota. There is a whole wall in the clubhouse dedicated to Peter Thomson who had two of his five Open victories at Birkdale. Many brilliant holes here including the majestic par 3, 12th, the long 498 yard par 4, 13th and the par 5,15th containing no less than thirteen bunkers. Is there a tougher closing hole in any Open than the 18th at Birkdale? This simply is an imposing links - but you are here to enjoy your golf so play off the forward tees. The adjacent Sefton Coast contains over 2000 hectares of Dunes. When driving to the pretty nearby town of Southport go along the coastal scenic drive and you will be amazed at the expanse of duneland.

Hesketh is set in a lovely part of Southport along the Ribble Estuary. It is a fun course to play with the holes being part links and part parkland. The best holes are in the sand hills nearer the clubhouse especially from 14 -18. At the 5th you can sea the old wall where the sea once reached and the 6th is a brutal, if not attractive, par 4. The 7th plays around a wetland area but the real card wrecker (speaking from experience) can be the 17th. Before you leave, check out the Bentley Room. The fir tree outside the clubhouse was purportedly given to Arnold Bentley by Adolph Hitler with his prize at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Despite the members 'visiting' it after drinks in the war years and after it has managed to survive.

    (photo Hesketh -  par 4, 15th and nearby church)

It is a bit of a drive past Preston further north to Royal Lytham & St Annes. Allow extra travelling time as the course itself can be hard to find first time. Lytham wreaks of history on and off the course not the least of which was Bobby Jones Open win here in 1926 when he played his famous shot into the 17th which is now marked with a plaque. The bunkers are deep and plentiful -there are now over 200. The 7th to the 9th is a good stretch with the 9th being a lovely par 3.

Apparently I am not alone in finding the back nine rather difficult, the short par 4,13th being about the only realistic birdie opportunity. I first played Lytham in 4 hours of heavy rain and the links were almost flooded when we departed. In 2009 the course was in great condition and fortunately the rough was drier and not as penal. When I stood on the18th tee I could only see bunkers so I deliberately hit into the rough on the left side. This great finishing hole has been almost spoiled by having too many bunkers in play for the drive for all except the very long hitters. Whilst I have not stayed there myself I would rather like to experience the Dormy house at Lytham.

       ( photo  Royal Lytham & St Annes - deep bunkers at the approach to the 7th green)

St Annes Old Links is near the Blackpool airport. It is obviously not as long as its illustrious neighbour but it is still a good test of links golf. The frequently photographed hole is the par 3, 9th which plays to a green surrounded by low dunes and bunkers. Worth a game if you can't get onto some of the more well known courses in the Liverpool region.

Not too far north of Blackpool is the seaside links at Fleetwood. A member there contacted me after reading Journey through the Links to, quite rightly, point out that I had omitted Fleetwood in my review of links courses. There were several new links to be played in Scotland and about 3 that I had left out in England so the 2009 trip was planned to include all of these courses as well as re-photographing many others so as to complete Another Journey through the Links. Fleetwood is certainly worth playing and would I'm sure be rated higher if the sea wall that blocks any sea views did not exist. Not that many years ago the whole town was flooded by the sea so it is obviously essential.

In a similar fashion to Muirfield, Fleetwood has its front nine in an outer loop and the back nine more in the middle of the course. I made the mistake of announcing that the day before I had avoided every single bunker at Seascale. At Fleetwood I think I encountered most of them.

For the intrepid golfer you should consider driving a little further north to Heysham where you can catch the ferry to the Isle of Man. Motor cycle racing time should be avoided so you can explore the island in peace and, importantly, play the excellent links at Castletown at the very southern end of the island. Here you will find plenty of gorse and heather and fabulous views. The last three holes make for an exciting finish with rocks and the sea all along the right.

Most tourists travelling along the north of Preston would probably be flying along at 70 mph on the M6. The A595 coastal road is quite a bit longer but it will lead you to the often overlooked links at Seascale. The course is a little hilly but not uncomfortably so. There is a variety of interesting holes such as the dog leg 3rd where you might have to cut across farmland and the very tricky 9th with a tight driving area and then to a green bordered by a burn along the right hand side. The par 3,13th is 216 yards of potential disaster with thick rough at the sides and the burn near the center of the fairway. Overshoot the green and you could finish OOB. The last three holes can be a tough finish, particularly the uphill drive at the 17th. The railway line that runs right beside the 14th services the nearby power station which is almost hidden from view by a massive man made hill. I have to say that I very much enjoyed the variety of Seascale.

          (photo - the 14th at Seascale runs beside the railway line and the sea)

The last of the links on the northern west coast of England is certainly one of the very best. When I first played Silloth on Solway in 1996 it was very much unheralded. I am pleased to see that it is now rated highly. It is pretty much in the middle of nowhere but this never daunted the intrepid golfer. As the crow flies it is directly opposite Southerness on the south side of the Solway Firth. Straight driving is essential here. Keep your shots low as it is usually windy. This is especially relevant at the 5th where you drive beside  the shoreline from an elevated tee. The wonderful par 3, 9th is Silloth's version of the 'Postage Stamp' at Troon. The hole you will always remember is the 'Hog's Back' 13th where you play up to a very exposed green. This is a terrific course that never lets up.


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