It is the sign of a special golf course that you find yourself trotting to every tee box, eager to discover what awaits. I could feel that excitement early in my round at Royal Birkdale, and I wasn’t alone. Beginning on the second hole, my playing partners, Michael Bamberger and John Garrity, were supplying a steady soundtrack of wonderment.
“Look at this hole.”
“Is it me or is this one of the best golf courses in the world?”
Indeed, it is. There is a special grandeur to Birkdale. It boasts some of the world’s most rugged linksland, and the fairways and greens are nestled artfully among the towering dunes. Golf courses are always most beautiful in the evening, and John and Michael and I had caught a lovely one, the English skies having opened up and bathed Birkdale in a soft twilight. Most of the golf I play with these esteemed colleagues and old friends is late in the day during Open week. I have raced the sunset with one or both of them at Royal Troon, Turnberry, Prestwick, Royal Cinque Ports, Western Gailes, and Royal Porthcawl, to say nothing of the Southport (England) muni. (Just typing those evocative names makes me smile.) Michael and John love golf, and especially links golf, and at Royal Birkdale they offered a primer on different ways to navigate the old sod.
Garrity is a supreme ballstriker, and it was a pleasure to listen to his sizzling draws tear through the wind. Bamberger likes to play the ball on the ground, and it was a blast to watch his crafty shots bounce and wiggle and trickle ever closer to the hole. It is a measure of Birkdale’s excellence that it allows such differing styles to prosper.
Of course, the best rounds of golf are about fellowship as much as shotmaking. The life of an SI writer is an unusual one; the home office is in New York, but the scribes are scattered around the country and rarely cross paths. Ian Thomsen and I have shared a masthead for 15 years and never met. There are plenty of other colleagues I haven’t seen in a decade. So it is a treat for a handful of us to come together at golf’s biggest events, and it is on the golf course that we catch up on office gossip, book projects, expense-account battles, story ideas and lesser topics like family and health scares. At Birkdale, as always, our round was punctuated with much laughter. Michael had headed to the course straight from a red-eye from Philadelphia, but at one point he said, “It must be the company, but I feel great — I could easily go another 18.”
I was somewhat less perky as it had taken me 23.5 hours to reach the first tee. My journey had begun the morning before in California. When I landed in Washington that evening, a rude message awaited on my phone: my connecting flight to Manchester, England, had been cancelled. Honestly, my very first thought was, “This better not screw up our game at Royal Birkdale.”
I sprinted through Dulles to get the last seat on the last flight to London, knowing with an aching heart that my clubs wouldn’t be joining me. (Clothes? Who cares.) After renting a car at Heathrow, I drove clear across England to get to Birkdale, a 4.5 hour journey despite occasionally hitting 100 miles per hour on the motorway. (European rental cars are way more macho than the utilitarian rides we get in the U.S.) Michael and John sort of knew what was going on with my travel travails, but communication became dodgy when, during a hurried lunch while I drove, I spilled olive oil on my Blackberry, rendering it temporarily useless.
I have never received a more rapturous reception from my pals than when I roared up to Birkdale a few minutes ahead of our 4 p.m. tee time. One problem: all I had to wear was the jeans and t-shirt/sweatshirt I left home in. In a monumental act of friendship, Garrity lent me trousers and a polo. (All I got from Michael were a couple of swing thoughts.) I haven’t worn pleated pants in at least a decade, and John is 6-foot-7 — a lot taller than I am. I would certainly never pair olive trousers with a brown belt, white shoes and a blue shirt two sizes too big. Michael took one look at me and couldn’t stop laughing.
“Your whole persona has changed,” he said. (And yes, I was wearing tennis shoes. Years ago, after another airline screw-up, I toured the Old Course in rented golf kicks, the thought of which becomes more repulsive with time.)
So, anyway, Birkdale starts with a series of great holes and just keeps getting better. Many of the holes play from elevated tee to well-bunkered fairways and back up to elevated greens. This requires exact shotmaking and makes the holes look all the more spectacular from the tee. The par-4 11th was a like a Bud Chapman painting; the green looked at least half a mile away, and we all refused to believe it was barely over 400 yards. The par-3 12th, with the green set in an amphitheater of dunes, might be the prettiest par-3 in the word that’s not on the water. The par-5 17th, where Padraig Harrington clinched the last Birkdale Open, has a fairway that snakes between two vertiginous dunes. It’s the kind of shot you fly across the ocean to hit, and I made my best swing of the day there, ripping a wind-aided, 300-yard 3-wood to set up a hard-fought birdie.
After the round Michael and John and I enjoyed a long dinner, the primary topic of conversation our favorite links. Needless to say, we’re already looking ahead to Open week in 2013.