SOUTHPORT, England — Nestled between the 4th green and 5th tee at Royal Birkdale is a modest building that visitors might easily mistake for an equipment shed or caddie shack.
But beyond manicured bushes, hanging flowerpots and a brick patio, this cottage, in fact, houses a secret society of sorts: the Birkdale Artisans Club.
"It's like a club inside of a club," says John Conway, who at 70 is the Artisans Club's oldest playing member.
No one rakes bunkers, replaces divots or cracks jokes better than these guys. And you'll be hard pressed to find laborers who love their jobs more. The Birkdale Artisans Club and its 32 members are the toast of the town. These merry folks, ranging in ages that span six decades, live the good life.
They play golf at one of the best courses in the world, hang out in a building a flop shot away from the 4th green and take pride in the fact that they help make the 146th Open venue what it is today.
The purpose of the Artisans Club is simple: Its members trade their skilled services for tee times at Birkdale. Bricklayers and boat builders, carpenters and cooks, plumbers and electricians.
The Artisans Club formed in 1931. It was created to give skilled men an opportunity to play golf at a course where they normally couldn't afford membership dues. It was mainly for gardeners, greenskeepers and caddies. When Royal Birkdale built a new clubhouse in 1935, the old one was passed down to the Artisans Club. They still use it today, albeit with several updates to the exterior and interior. The artisans originally paid a small fee to the club and did some work on the course, which is why all the men have a trade. Now, their fee is paid to the Artisans Club, which goes toward bills and a pot for end-of-the-year tournaments.
But the time on the links is the perk. On most days, they are allowed to tee off before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m., and their weekly game is at 6:30 a.m. on Sundays (followed by a hearty breakfast in their club headquarters). The artisans also have additional 4 p.m. tee times to play friendlies against other neighboring Artisans Clubs.
As for their work, you'll see them every night this week from about 7 p.m. to sundown, raking bunkers and breaking off in small groups and filling divots on every hole. And, no, not just the landing areas—everywhere.
They are methodical. They are precise. They are the best. (And a massive help to the grounds crew.) During Open week, they are a well-oiled machine.
As well as local celebrities.
"Well," Conway said, pausing bashfully, "this week we are."
The club sees plenty of visitors. During the 2008 Open Phil Mickelson and swing coach Butch Harmon stopped in. Conway, a lefty like Lefty, couldn't resist a picture standing between the two.
Sam Torrance and Nick Price have been inside, chatting and rolling cigarettes. Tom Watson was in a couple of weeks ago and signed the poster of him that hangs by the entrance. Ernie Els dropped by. So did Adam Scott and Thomas Bjorn. Johnny Miller will be in this week, too, signing the poster of his 1976 Open win at Birkdale.
A member can bring in two guests, no more, and the club is responsible for them.
The exterior of the Artisans Club is as well-kept as you might expect from a group of handymen, but the inside has seen its fair share of facelifts as well. Conway, a carpenter and 36-year member, has been involved in three different kitchen remodels, and he can remember the days when they didn't have electricity. Lamps dangled from the ceiling and they played dominoes and cards. Now, massive, vibrant golf posters surround the room, upholstered benches and chairs fill the lounge and a 50-inch HD flatscreen TV hangs on the wall.
On Monday morning before the Open, the scene was lively as ever. Laughter, golf, repeat. An unfinished crossword puzzle sat on a table and snacks were laid out on the kitchen counter. The door was a carousel of the curious and friendly.
Member Lee Barnett, a boat builder, lounged on a chair. Michel Bourbeau, one of the cooks — "I'm the best one," he quipped — stayed busy in the kitchen, and Paul Inman, who has a new role this week, nervously awaited a meeting with Sandy Lyle, who he is caddying for at the Open.
Across the room, under a picture of Miller from '76, sat Bob Brookfield and his wife, Doris, who are loaded with local knowledge. Bob, 83, a carpenter, spent over 50 years as a member and became an honorary member in 2011. Doris remembers all the club tournaments and the prizes awarded to the winners.
In the corner of the room sat the club's youngest member, Josh Broadwell, a doorman by night who is aptly nicknamed The Doorman. He's 28, stands 6-foot-4, weighs 230 pounds and his colossal drives are already a thing of club lore.
"He hits the ball a mile, an absolute country mile," Conway said. Broadwell started caddying at Birkdale seven years ago, was approached by the Artisans Club about joining, submitted his letter and three months later was accepted. That was two years ago. (There's a waiting list for members; one qualification is a handicap preferably under 20.)
Conway, showing an American visitor the club's rooms — a wide hallway entrance gives way to the lounge and kitchen, with a small storage room in the back — waxed nostalgic about how he arrived at the club, how when his football career ended he found the club. And a new family.
"I've enjoyed every moment of it," he said.