From Brian Keogh at Royal Birkdale
Royal Birkdale has reduced some of golf’s superstars to quivering wrecks but Padraig Harrington still wishes the course was even harder.
Vulnerable to gale force winds from the Irish Sea, the Merseyside links is a fearsome beast when the weather gets rough.
In 1961, the tented village was reduced to wreckage, but the weather still didn’t stop Arnold Palmer producing a miracle par from impossible rough at the 15th to win his first Open.
Only St Andrews has hosted golf's biggest Major more often and that's because Royal Birkdale is regarded as the fairest of all Open courses.
But that’s not what Harrington wants to hear as he bids to become the first European to win back to back Opens Championships for 102 years.
He wants to see his rivals shaking with fear on the first tee rather than rubbing their hands with glee.
The tougher it is, the fewer players he has to worry about.
Harrington explained: "I can understand why a lot of players would rate this very highly. It's not a tricky course, there's nothing funky about it. Everything is there in front of you.
“There might be a lot of players coming here and liking it, which is not what I want.
“I'd be happier if everybody turns up and hates the place, that's a good thing for me.
“I prefer a difficult test because it limits the number of people who can compete on the golf course, though if there is more pressure on you, you’d prefer to be on a more straightforward golf course than one that throws up a lot.”
High dunes frame flat fairways at Birkdale and the challenge is relatively simple in Harrington’s eyes.
You must hit it straight, avoid the bunkers, hit the greens and take your chances with the putter.
For all the armchair fans out there, here’s the Dubliner’s TV guide to all 18 holes and how to play them:
1st (450 yards par 4)
A good testing opening hole, but one that can also help create some early momentum. Which club to hit off the tee will depend on the strength and direction of the wind, but there is a strong possibility of being aggressive with a driver. With a bunker in play at 232 yards, a safe tee shot requires a semi-blind second, whereas a driver would carry the trouble and make for an easier approach.
2nd (421 yards par 4)
At just over 300 yards to the bunkers, a 5-wood is my preference off the tee when it is down wind. As long as you are laying up short of the fairway bunkers, it is a big target off the tee. However, the difficulty of the hole will be seen when it plays into the wind, whereby if you have to force a driver, those bunkers come into the equation. Playing down wind, a lay up and a pitch make it more straightforward, but it will play very different and much tougher when it is into the wind.
3rd (451 yards par 4)
A super hole – as long as you hit the drive straight and avoid the bunkers at just over 300 yards. I think the tee shot will be the toughest part of the hole, leaving an approach to a green that gathers a little off the left edge. I think the 2nd and 3rd holes are the exact reverse of each other – one’s going to be easy and the other is going to be tough depending on the wind – so they should even themselves up over the four days.
4th (201 yards par 3)
A beautifully framed par 3. Interestingly enough, the danger first appears to be all at the front of the green with the bunkers, but anything turned over going long and left could well run into the bushes at the back, especially if it is firm. It is one of those holes you’d be happy to hit into the middle of the green everyday and take a chance on holing a putt from there.
5th (346 yards par 4)
A nice risk and reward hole. If you want to take on the dog-leg with the driver, then the green is obviously reachable in calm conditions. But on the other hand, you could find a nasty lie in the rough or greenside bunkers. However, if I go for the green and hit it in one of the bunkers I won’t be too unhappy. But if you were to hit the fairway each round and then a wedge, you could possibly score better over the four days.
6th (499 yards par 4)
A tough par 4 hole, usually played into the prevailing wind. Again, the premium is on the tee shot and finding the right spot, ideally just carrying the bunker at 282 yards. But the likelihood is that you lay up short of or level with the right hand bunker off the tee and play a longer approach shot into the long elevated green. A good solid hole.
7th (178 yards par 3)
A really nice par 3 with a lovely shape to the green. However, the ball can easily spill off the small green into the bunkers, leaving a tough up-and-down. So again, I’d be looking to hit the middle of the green and work from there. There is nothing about the hole that is unplayable.
8th (457 yards par 4)
A very good and very tough par 4. You need to negotiate your drive between the three bunkers on the right and one on the left, but I think once you’ve done that then you are pretty well set up. However, if you hit any of the fairway bunkers, then effectively it is a penalty shot. It’s a bigger fairway than the previous holes, but that’s because the punishment for missing it is more severe. It has a big, wide green, so even if you are hitting a long iron in, you should have a chance of setting up a birdie putt.
9th (414 yards par 4)
Not a long hole, but a challenging dog-leg. Unless you hit the fairway off the tee it could be a semi-blind second shot to the raised green. However, for The Open I wouldn’t normally be aggressive and cut the corner, but am likely to play it safe by getting to the top of the hill and playing it from there to the green. It depends on the wind, but the likelihood is that it is not going to be a driver hole.
10th (408 yards par 4)
Another hole that you could attack with a good drive – this time close to the corner of the dog-leg and avoiding the bunkers that are a 250 yard carry. Depending on the strength and direction of the wind, the second shot could be either a lob wedge or up to a 5-iron if I have played safe off the tee, to make the small green. It is a hole where I will need to formulate different plans to get the best results over the duration of the Championship.
11th (436 yards par 4)
This hole provides a very tight tee shot in order to miss the well placed fairway bunkers, especially the new one on the left at 270 yards if played into the wind. The second shot needs to be precise and well placed given the angle at which the green is set.
12th (184 yards par 3)
A really good par 3 with an attractive green setting. The wind is likely to be off the right side, so you need plenty of club and commitment to the shot in order to control the ball into the breeze. Missing the green leaves a tough up and down, especially from the deep front bunkers.
13th (499 yards par 4)
Getting a good drive away is vital on such a long par 4, although it will generally play downwind. A new bunker has been added on the right of the fairway at 290 yards and there are two others on the left at 324 yards and 350 yards, so will be a real challenge to avoid the traps. Once the tee shot is negotiated you are left with a shot to a green surrounded by sandhills.
14th (201 yards par 3)
It is difficult to measure the strength and direction of the wind from the tee on this hole due to a sandhill guarding the tee box. The approach to the large green is relatively narrow and pin placements can take the hole up to nearly 220 yards. The new bunkers are well placed so I’d be looking to hit into the middle of the green and go from there.
15th (544 yards par 5)
A good strategic par 5 that requires some thought. The tee has been moved to the left to make the drive tougher. The hole incorporates new bunkering at around 300 yards from the tee and the second shot has also been made tighter. Whilst it is generally played into the wind and has a green that is more undulating than most on the course, there will still be birdies.
16th (439 yards par 4)
A good hole normally played into the prevailing wind that has been lengthened recently. Tee shots have got to be straight, because of the thick rough on the left and some gorse and bunkering on the right. The approach to the green is testing, especially given the number of deep surrounding bunkers and the wind factor.
17th (572 yards par 5)
This is an obvious birdie opportunity as it is normally played downwind. If you can hit a good drive past the sandhill on the left and avoid the new bunkers on the right, then you give yourself a good chance of reaching the green and picking up a shot. But if you don’t hit a good drive, then it can be a very dangerous hole. The new green is undulating, but I think you need something like that at the end of a par 5.
18th (473 yards par 4)
A terrific finishing hole off the new Championship tee, with the wind normally at your back. A tight fairway means either a driver or a 3-wood is needed to avoid the bunker and out-of-bounds on the right and a new bunker on the left at 300 yards. Distance control on the approach shot is key, as you need to avoid the bunkers that guard the front of the green, but then avoid going too long and facing a tricky up and down in front of the famous clubhouse.