SOUTHPORT, England -- Even when the weather was its worst at Royal Birkdale during the 2017 Open -- 30 mph wind followed later with downpours -- it was still preferable to the alternative: the 104-degree temps back home in Texas.
Refreshing in more ways than one, The Open Championship is a treat to experience firsthand. I'm no stranger to links all over Great Britain & Ireland, and have attended past European Tour Irish and Scottish Opens, But my week in Southport was the first as an attendee of the oldest -- and likely classiest -- championship in golf.
There is so much to like about a day (or week) on the grounds. For starters, the lack of bugs and energy-sucking humidity energizes fans to traverse many miles during their day. The dunes that frame the fairways of links were the original "TPC" layout, as it's quite easy to find a good vantage point.
Then, perhaps most notably, are the fans themselves.
"As players, we look very much forward to this event," said Jordan Spieth as he accepted the claret jug on the 18th green in front of several thousand fans. "It's top class."
"You are the most respectful, educated fans in the world and we couldn't appreciate it more."
Spoken with the grace of a true champion, an underlying message can be read in those words from Spieth about U.S. galleries. Fans at U.S. events these days to straddle the line of civility, particularly in the late-afternoons on weekends. Yes, Masters patrons have a certain heightened decorum, but given the generational waitlist for tickets and heightened etiquette expectations (like no phones or running), there is a real impetus to not be a hooligan.
At the Open, fans don't come to see-and-be-seen like in Phoenix or to heckle like at a Ryder Cup. They come to watch golf and applaud a well-played shot from whomever struck it. Cheers for "Kooch" were as loud if not louder than Britain's own "Beef!"
And maybe it's confirmation bias or a simply just a result of a weak signal on the links, but fewer fans seemed buried in their phones while action was literally right in front of them. Boorish behavior was in the extreme minority. I didn't hear a "mashed potatoes" blurted on TV or while roaming the course -- maybe that's because by the third day an American is in Britain, you're sickened by the mere thought of this oft-served starch.
The next biggest difference between top U.S. events and Open Championships, aside from fan aptitude and the weather, are the convenient venues, often smack dab in the heart of town with little if any need for a car. This year, spectators could find accommodations in either Birkdale, Southport or other towns near a Merseyrail train station and be at the gates in a matter of minutes. Others chose to ride their bikes on the path along Marine Road. Ample bike racks were available right next to the entrance.
A few more observations from the grounds of Birkdale
- Birkdale is a regular venue as much for its logistics as it is for its test on the links. This was an event that ran about as smooth as you could hope for. Tournaments in the U.K. are generally more lightly attended than the biggest U.S. events, and even this major, despite a expected attendance over 230,000 (the largest Open crowd outside St. Andrews), had day tickets available during tournament week.
- The weather seemed to be better than expected each of the 10 days we were in town. I don't know if that's getting lucky or if the "Larry David theory" -- the local weatherman embellishing weather threats to keep his course's first tee open -- was employed. That said, dress in layers, because when the sun is out, it heats up in a hurry.
- Security procedures allow fans to bring backpacks inside the gates. That may be a necessity given the wardrobe changes needed over a full day on the links. Wise fans show up with an umbrella even on a day that calls for little if any precipitation.
- The R&A recently extended their free tickets for juniors from under 21 all the way up to under 25, hoping to grow the game amongst today's youth or maybe just assuming they'll make their money back at the beverage stand. They also have their nearby camping village that is free to young persons.
- If you can, spend at least an hour or two in the grandstands that surround 18. It's a special vibe that can't be duplicated.
- Food & beverage at The Open has a mix of typical British food like fish 'n chips with American staples like pizza. There's Mr. Whippy ice cream and coffee trucks around many corners. My go-to in the fan village was a pizza joint whose "Americano" pizza came with cheese, pepperoni, jalapeño and red peppers. I didn't notice canned beer, which perhaps makes it more difficult to two-fist while climbing dunes.
Playing golf during The Open
Playing your own round of links golf, followed by an afternoon of watching the best players in the world up close, is an irresistible combination for many golf tours. You won't be the only group with that idea, and area courses fill up quickly. During this Open week, it was pretty difficult to be too picky with our tee times. Morning times were basically sold out at any club with a decent reputation. Courses we inquired with had a little more availability Mon-Weds, but by the end of the week it was more difficult and on weekends, societies and member events really chew into tee sheets. Hillside Golf Club, located literally right next to Birkdale, was jammed all week. Green fees seemed to be raised a little higher than normal at area clubs, but not to the extent Augusta courses are known to raise them around the Masters.
One alternative that might save money and be easier to set up last-minute would be to play golf in a neighboring region early in the week before driving to the tournament site. When events are on the Northwest links of England, the "Atlantic Links" of Cornwall, County Kent or North Wales regions would all be viable pairs.