Robert Halsall couldn’t wait for 1940. The professional at Birkdale, Halsall, 26, was about to play host to the world’s best golfers at the 76th Open Championship, the first Open to be held on the course where he’d started as an 11-year-old caddie. Instead, he went to war.
So did the Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England. While Halsall joined the First Battalion of England’s Cheshire Regiment, the greenskeeper back in Birkdale put the flags away. With Great Britain fighting for its very survival against Nazi Germany — standing alone for more than a year before America entered World War II — golf fell off the radar. The 1940 Open was canceled; in fact, the Battle of Britain began in the second week of July, the very week the tournament would have been held. Not-yet-royal Birkdale — it was still to nab its regal prefix — became a training ground for volunteer soldiers.
Other courses suffered more. At Turnberry in Scotland, the Royal Air Force bulldozed fairways, bunkers and greens to make room for concrete runways. More than 1,200 men were stationed at the Turnberry airfield, where pilots zoomed skyward to hunt German U-boats off the coast. At Rye on England’s southeast coast, a possible site for a German invasion, soldiers planted mines under the golf links. Not far away at Prince’s Golf Club in Sandwich, where Gene Sarazen won the 1932 Open, the RAF used the grand old clubhouse for target practice (an exercise that British aviation pioneer Lord Brabazon of Tara likened to “throwing darts at a Rembrandt”). Some Brits played on, of course, but under new rules, such as at Richmond Golf Club, whose local rules declared: “[D]uring gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take shelter without penalty.”
Soon the Nazis were pounding the shipyards of Liverpool, 15 miles down the coast from Birkdale. Fearing an amphibious assault, English officers ordered their men to string a barbed-wire barrier between the beach and the links at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. Searchlights and antiaircraft fire traced the night sky over the course, but the German planes kept coming, dropping bombs that sometimes plugged without exploding. Even today there are three unexploded shells under Liverpool’s 17th green.
Southport heard rumbles as the Luftwaffe rained bombs on Liverpool. “There was less damage here, but we Sandgrounders kept our heads down nonetheless,” says historian Geoff Wright, using the local term for Southport residents. German bombers returning from sorties over Liverpool dropped any bombs they had left on Southport, aiming for the railway line by the golf course. In 1941 a firebomb scorched the Birkdale links. A month later, a direct hit on the Sunshine House Home for the Blind near the course killed two nurses, but by some miracle spared dozens of blind children.
A towering dune beside Birkdale’s third fairway became an RAF observation post. On the seaward side of the dune, Sandgrounders hammered posts into the beach to keep enemy planes from landing there. Meanwhile the Home Guard trained on the links. The all-volunteer unit consisted mainly of patriotic, beer-bellied men who were too old to enlist. “One patrol spent a night on the course, blundering in and out of bunkers in the darkness,” says club historian Tony Johnson. The Birkdale Home Guard began the war with bayonets, but no guns. When rifles finally arrived, the men practiced loading and unloading them in the clubhouse. “While one man stood on the balcony, watching for hostile aircraft, the others lay prone in the dining room, following the sergeant’s instructions, which were punctuated with the words, ‘Don’t touch the trigger.’ This was of paramount importance as, in the absence of blanks, live ammunition was being used.” One jumpy Guardsman fired a bullet that tore through the dining-room carpet, ricocheted through a chair and shattered a clubhouse window.
There wasn’t much golf at Birkdale during the war, but there was at least one great shot. An American soldier, recovering from his wounds in Southport, limped to the links and smacked a long drive. He breathed the sea air, looked at the empty course and said, “This is as good as anything we got in Texas.”
Birkdale’s pro made it home in one piece. In 1945 Robert Halsall, who had crossed the Rhine with the Cheshire Regiment, returned to the club he would serve until 1979. Halsall played host to the ’46 British Amateur — a riotous success, thanks to the free-flowing whisky that spectators guzzled after six years of rationing. Five years later, King George VI gave the club its royal title. And in 1954, after a 14-year delay, the Open Championship made its long-awaited Birkdale debut.
Peter Thomson won the Claret Jug that year. He finished a shot ahead of Bobby Locke, Dai Rees and Sid Scott, and eight shots up on a surprise contender: 40-year-old club pro Halsall, whose fellow Sandgrounders toasted his efforts long into the night.