SOUTHPORT, England -- For adorers of links golf and the layers of history that rides along with it, a trip to England's holiday town of Southport, home of the "links along the line," is about as satisfying as it gets in the British Isles.
Royal Birkdale is the area's most reputable links, having hosted The Open ten times since 1954. Arnold Palmer won at Birkdale in 1961 and a plaque commemorates a heroic shot from under a bush on the 16th. Birkdale is located between the coast's two other Open rota courses, Royal Liverpool and Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which makes Southport a great hub for the popular tour of playing the trio.
But be sure to include a number of links closer to Southport, all north of Liverpool, which make for a special golf trip on their own.
"Southport in itself is up there with, say, St. Andrews as a golfing town," said local golfer Tommy Fleetwood in advance of The Open. Without question, the locals are prideful of their many clubs, and with good reason.
From a golf tourist's perspective, the region's lay of the land more closely resembles Scotland's East Lothian -- a delightful line of smaller towns within easy shot of a major metro with a high density of reputable links, many of them accessible via Merseyrail. Anchored by the town of Southport, Lord St. has a nice mix of pubs, shops and restaurants (plus a casino and bet shops for when you're in town during a big golf event.)
The challenging links of Birkdale is hardly indicative of the style of its neighbors; each has its own personality and colorful history all their own to enjoy.
The oldest of the golf courses along the line is a popular candidate for the most scenic of the bunch. The West Lancashire Golf Club (1873) was founded by seven members from Royal Liverpool. "West Lancs" kicks off the southern end of the links along the railway. The design blends a stout, Open qualifying test from the 7,000-yard tips with a delightfully thorough-yet-gettable loop from the member tees. Elevated tees throughout the round provide for ample sea and windmill views. The par-5 11th hole hugs the railway from tee-to-green, where you'll want your best swing on display for the passer-bys.
Farther north towards Southport is Formby Golf Club, considered as stout as any area links, has an interesting dynamic: the similarly historic Formby Ladies Club play on their own 18-hole, 5,374-yard course set within the greater men's course. Gentlemen, never fret, you're certainly welcome at this ladies club, and could enjoy a 36-hole day sampling both links.
Next stop is the east side of the tracks from Hillside is Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club. Just a 10-minute walk from Ainsdale station, two of the Ryder Cup's earliest events were held here in 1933 and '37. Despite being well off the sea and beginning with a par 3, the dunes are no doubt still impressive on this full-on links designed by James Braid.
S & A borders Hillside Golf Club, which is the area's relative newcomer, a mere babe established in 1911. It claims host to Jack Nicklaus' first professional competition in Britain, a 1962 event called the "Picadlliy Cup," and it's especially known for its dramatic back-nine dunes. Hillside's back nine backs up to Royal Birkdale's western border. Combined, these three clubs all bordering one another makes for the densest collection of links holes in the area, and they are all within a short walk of a rail station.
Heading north, the railway curves inland as it heads north and ultimately up to, but back towards the coast is more golf to see. Hesketh Golf Club's history really is rare one and home to what many call the "Hitler tree." One-half of the English team who competed in Germany's "Great Golf Prize of Nations" tournament shortly after 1936 Olympics in Berlin was a member at Hesketh. The team came back from behind on the final day to win the event, much to the dismay of Hitler. Part of the prize presented to the team by the Germans was a fir tree, which was planted near the clubhouse. Members were known to relieve themselves on the tree during World War II as Allied Forces waged war with Hitler and the Axis powers. (Though these days, visitors should use the club's proper facilities.)
The 14th hole at Hesketh
Hesketh is separated not by a rail line but a road, and the most dramatic holes come on the east side that encircle the clubhouse. Back-to-back blind shots on Nos. 14 (approach) and 15 (tee shot - aim at the cathedral tower) will certainly give members a leg-up in any matches they are hosting. The loop ends with back-to-back par 5s.
With such a plethora of clubs for locals to choose from, it's a bit surprising there would even be a muni, but across the street from Hesketh, Southport Golf Links, recently renovated by the town council. On the opposite of the area golf spectrum from Birkdale in terms of prestige, even this H.S. Colt layout from 1912, as little as 11 pounds, holds a level of distinction as "England's oldest muni."