SOUTHPORT, England — On Day 1 of the British Open I battled unusually warm temperatures, little wind and friendly locals to tour Royal Birkdale, site of this week’s 146th Open. I wanted to get a feel for the terrain, the weather, the fescue and layout. So far, so good.
I walked four-plus miles and took more than 11,000 steps — and climbed 23 floors, my phone tells me! — as I Christopher Columbus’d my way around Birkdale. Here are 17 things I learned on my trek.
1. Our latest major champ, Brooks Koepka, was the most popular man on the putting green this morning, according to where the crowds were bunched and where their phones were pointed. Koepka is 30-to-1 to win this week.
2. Here’s the scene on the 1st tee as Marc Leishman and crew were getting ready to tee off. Based on its history, this opener is a gut-punch of a welcomer to Royal Birkdale. When the Open was here in 2008, this ranked as the fifth-hardest hole on the PGA Tour that season.
3. The first thing I noticed when walking the 1st hole, and later as the day went on, is the narrowness of the landing zones in the fairways. Ball-striking off the tee will be critical—that’s why Johnny Miller hit 1-iron on 12 of 14 tees when he won the 1976 Open here.
4. Word is local boy Tommy Fleetwood has played Royal Birkdale more than 20 times in the past month, through his own practice and corporate events. Sleeper pick, anyone?
5. Some of the fescue doesn’t look too bad, while in other areas, like here, to the right of the par-4 2nd, it looks much more menacing.
6. Between the 4th green and 5th tee you’ll see this modest white building, which is actually the home of the Royal Birkdale Artisans Club. They essentially trade their skills for tee times and are the friendliest bunch of folks I’ve met in a long time. But more on them later…
7. Here’s Irish Open winner and trendy pick to win John Rahm chipping onto the 6th green. Smart hole to get his practice in on, because the par-4 6th was not only the hardest hole at Birkdale during the 2008 Open, but it also was the hardest hole on the whole Tour that year. The average score was 4.764 and only 10 birdies were made all week. It has a narrow landing area from the tee, a hazard if you miss deep and left and one of the most narrow greens you will see guarded my three pesky pot bunkers in the front. The 1st-and-6th-hole combo is a reason Birkdale’s front nine is brutal, that and the fact that it doesn’t have any par-5s.
Jon Rahm chipping on the par-4 6th, which played as the hardest hole not only at Birkdale in ’08 but all of the Tour. Only 10 birdies made. pic.twitter.com/uTs1PI4iSh
— Josh Berhow (@Josh_Berhow) July 17, 2017
8. Open marshals are damn proud of the holes they oversee. While waiting to cross the fairway on 10, which is a par-4 dogleg left, my guy was telling me what all the players were doing off the tee. Most were laying up before the turn, but only one, Francesco Molinari, cut the corner. “Although he hit two balls,” the marshal said.
9. Look, a pot bunker.
10. A quick stop at the putting green, and this time most eyes are on Rory McIlroy, who’s missed three of his last four cuts. He was using a blade, which appeared to be the TP Collection Juno Tour Proto he decided on at the Travelers a few weeks ago where, looking for a spark, he experimented with three different models. He’s stuck with the blade since.
11. Speaking of McIlroy, he’s grouped with Dustin Johnson and Charl Schwartzel for the opening two rounds. DJ, like McIlroy, has played several practice rounds already at Royal Birkdale, and he and the World. No. 1 are both coming off missed cuts at the last major, the U.S. Open. Time to bounce back.
12. This is a look at par-3 14th from the bleachers behind the green. What a fantastic viewing spot, especially with the tee box elevated and a clear viewing angle to the players hitting in. With its massive wraparound bleachers framing the fescue and pot bunkers surrounding the hole, it’s a similar setup to Erin Hills’ par-3 9th.
13. Here’s the par-5 15th from the green. Why is this notable? Because after 14 holes we finally got to a par-5.
14. Oh, and here is the world’s loneliest porta-potty.
15. Walking down the left side of the 17th, a spectator picks up some grass and tosses it into the wind. The wind takes it up the fairway and toward the green. A perfect segue to the other par-5 at Birkdale, the 17th. If the wind is with the players, like it was on this Monday, it could be a fantastic finishing stretch on Sunday. The 15th and 17th go different directions, however, so players won’t be so lucky to have the supporting wind tempt them on their second shots of both holes.
16. There aren’t many better walks in golf than strolling down the 18th at an Open venue. The theater is just on a difference scale. At Birkdale, there’s a massive three-level building for suites on the left side of the fairway, and some of the biggest bleachers in all of golf lead players to the green, which has Royal Birkdale’s — er, unique? — clubhouse as a backdrop. But the real show begins in three days.
17. Lastly, thank you, England.