x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The beauty of Royal Birkdale

The National's William Johnson looks back at the eight Open championships to be held at the course.

Arnold Palmer on his way to victory at Birkdale in 1961.
Arnold Palmer on his way to victory at Birkdale in 1961.

This week's Open championship is the ninth to be staged at Royal Birkdale, just outside Southport on England's north west coast. The course has produced an array of famous winners and marvellous memories since first being selected as a venue for golf's most famous tournament in 1954. Peter Thomson, the brilliant Australian won two of his five Opens at Birkdale, flanking the dramatic success of the popular American Arnold Palmer in 1961.

Tom Watson, the American who had a happy habit of winning Opens on Scottish links courses, won for the only time in England at Birkdale while Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Mark O'Meara were others to make a successful journey across the Atlantic. They were joined on Birkdale's honours board in 1991 by Australia's Ian Baker-Finch who played his part in ensuring that no home-based or Continent of Europe golfer has taken the main prize from this demanding but fair test of golf.

As usual in a major, the focus was on Tiger Woods who opened the tournament with a terrific 65, but it was the world No 1's close friend Mark O'Meara who emerged triumphant after Birkdale's first and only play-off. If Woods had matched that score on the final day, when he posted a 66 to set the target in the clubhouse, he would have been in the play-off with O'Meara and their fellow American Brian Watts. O'Meara, a comparative veteran at 41, won the four-hole shoot-out by two strokes on a day when the teenage Briton Justin Rose became an instant crowd favourite by chipping in at the last on his way to winning the Silver Medal for leading amateur.

A brilliant 64 on the third day put Australia's Ian Baker-Finch in the driving seat and he capitalised on that position by storming through the front nine on the last day in only 29 strokes.

That gave him a cushion to deal with the late drama that year, brought about by a familiar charge by the rampaging American Fred Couples. He started the day five shots behind but posted a spectacular 64 to be leader in the clubhouse. Mark O'Meara, his fellow American matched that aggregate score of 275 but Finch would not be denied and kept his nerve superbly to finish with a 66 to win by two strokes. Mike Harwood, another Australian, held his game together well to take the runners-up position.

After Craig Stadler had set an early pace to match the hot conditions, Tom Watson mounted a powerful challenge over the last two rounds to secure an elusive first Open triumph in England - his fifth in all - by the narrowest of margins from Andy Bean and Hale Irwin. Nick Faldo, roared on by a patriotic English crowd, looked like becoming the first home-based player to lift the Claret Jug at Birkdale as he stood level with Watson and the Australian Graham Marsh at the turn for home on the final day. But Faldo, who went on to win the Open three times (he also won the US Masters on three occasions at the peak of a splendid career), was not quite ready for glory here and three bogeys on the back nine saw him fade into the chasing pack.

This was the hot summer that had golf enthusiasts learning how to spell and pronounce the name of Severiano Ballesteros, who arrived at Birkdale an unknown Spaniard but departed as an idol of the fans and a future favourite for years to come.

Seve did not win - that honour went to the American Johnny Miller - but the charismatic teenager launched a magnificent career that week that saw him lift the Claret Jug three times and wear the green jacket of a Masters champion twice. Ballesteros led going into the final round but Miller covered the opening nine in five shots fewer to take the initiative and a flawless 66 under immense pressure saw him surge clear of the field and win by an emphatic margin of six shots.

Lee Trevino, who arrived in England bang in form having won the US Open and Canadian Open in the preceding weeks, made it a magnificent treble. Trevino was too good for the defending champion Jack Nicklaus and Britain's Tony Jacklin, who had won the title the year before. "Supermex", as the flamboyant Trevino was known, did not envisage his closest challenger that year being the hitherto unrecognised figure of Taiwanese player Liang Huan Lu. The unassuming "Mr Lu" came within a stroke of denying Trevino his coveted prize. He could have even done so but for his ball striking a spectator on the final hole. Lu still managed to compose himself to finish ahead of third-placed Jacklin and Nicklaus, who ended up in fifth.

The defending champion Tony Lema looked in the mood to keep hold of the Claret Jug as he posted the best opening round of 68 and was still in serious contention with only three of the 72 holes to play.

However, a missed putt at the 16th, which would have given him a share of the lead, followed disastrous bogeys at the last two holes proved Lema's undoing. These costly misses provided the impetus for Australia's Peter Thomson to win his fifth Open on the same course as he had won his first 11 years previously. Thomson's assured finish frustrated the large galleries who were divided in their loyalty behind Brian Huggett, of Wales, and Ireland's Christie O'Connor who finished joint runners-up, two shots adrift.

Arnold Palmer, regarded as the man who revived the Open after an era of disinterest among Americans, pipped Dai Rees, of Wales, by a single shot in 1961. The charismatic Palmer's fan club known around the world as "Arnie's Army" still refer to the winning margin being established by their hero's miraculous recovery from a gorse bush half way up the 15th hole on the third day. Most of Palmer's peers would have taken a penalty drop for an unplayable lie but not the "people's champion". He somehow managed to take ball and bush in one mighty swing, landing the ball on the green to make a safe par when a double-bogey beckoned. A plaque commemorating the audacious shot has been placed on the spot where the bush would have been.

The great Ben Hogan chose not to defend his title when the Open was staged for the first time at Birkdale, opening the door to the man who had chased him home the previous year, Peter Thomson.

Little did the Southport gallery who were captivated by a blanket finish involving four men realise that the Australian was about to embark on a run of five Opens in 11 years. Bobby Locke, of South Africa, will feel he should have been Birkdale's inaugural champion. However, a succession of missed putts, including one which finished agonisingly short on the last, left him in a three-way tie for second. He was joined there by Sid Scott, who had broken the course record in the second round, and Dai Rees.

@Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae