The images might not be as vividly captivating as, say, those from the Masters, with its colorful azaleas and soaring dogwoods set against manicured, velvety fairways. Nor do they necessarily capture such challenges of professional golf as hitting out of ankle-high rough or tackling the slick, undulating greens of the U.S. Open venues. By contrast, the British Open, or as they say in the UK, the Open Championship, is all about nuance. An errant bounce here, a fortuitous roll there—and all of it on a seemingly featureless, pallid, and ever-changing meteorological canvas buffeted by ceaseless winds and frequent rain, even in the height of summer.
But to purists and diehards, the British Open brand of golf, dominated by the elements and mastered by champions like Tom Watson, for whom weather was but a minor inconvenience, is what the game is truly all about. Adaptation. Improvisation. Imagination. And, they contend, to fully appreciate it you need to see—and experience—it in person. This year, 156 competitors, watched by a gallery of thousands of fans, will have to bring all their ingenuity to bear when they tee it up for the 141st Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes—a course that, unlike most in the British Open rotation, isn’t on the Atlantic or the North Sea but a mile inland. When the Open was last played at this testing Lancashire venue in 2001, it proved to be a milestone in the unfancied career of David Duval, who took home the Claret Jug and claimed what has since remained his lone Major victory. This year’s event, played across 7,118 yards and to a par of 70, will doubtless be equally riveting.
For fans, meanwhile, buoyed by all those hours spent watching and analyzing the workmanlike methods of the pros, a pilgrimage to this corner of Britain offers golf on a monumental scale. In fact, the region has been dubbed England’s Golf Coast for the 20 stunning layouts that speckle the shoreline. A handful of vaunted golf clubs are within a scant 45-minute radius of Royal Lytham & St. Annes, each with its own storied provenance and challenges. Access varies from club to club and from day to day, and some guidelines must be adhered to (for example, handicap certificates must sometimes be produced in person, and arrangements should always be made with the pro shops or clubs secretaries in advance). But with a little planning, you too can be inveigled by the lure of links golf, regardless of what the weather throws at you.
Founded in October 1889 as the Birkdale, this brawny, coastal link-land didn’t get its royal charter until 1951, bestowed by King George VI. Through the years, however, it has hosted the Open Championship no fewer than eight times (most recently in 2008), the Ryder Cup twice, the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup once each, and in two years it will host its sixth Women’s British Open. One of the less arduous courses in the Open rotation, Royal Birkdale represents stadium golf in its earliest iteration, with dunes that frame flat-bottomed valleys through which its tight fairways are routed. Anchored by an imposing whitewashed art deco clubhouse littered with mementos, silverware, and images, seen from the 9th and 18th tees, the course features a myriad of strategic pot bunkers and unforgiving greenside rollaway areas. A test for any golfer. www.royalbirkdale.com
As with many of the courses in the UK, this 105-year-old gem has seen its layout altered a few times since its 1907 founding, no more so than in 1922, when, after it was bisected by a newly built road, the great architect James Braid had to re-envisage the design entirely. Fortunately for him, a parcel of adjacent land on which he could sketch six new holes was available. Today, the course plays punishingly along the blustery northwestern coastline through towering sand hills and diminutive dunes, with blind tee shots into tight fairways situated in valleys and protected by cross bunkering, and semi-blind approaches to slick, tricky-to-hold greens. A sleeper that might leave you with nightmares! www.sandagolfclub.co.uk
Founded in 1911 and sitting, humbly but proudly, in the shadow of its more gilded neighbor, Royal Birkdale, this highly regarded par-72, 7,029-yard track is one of England’s unheralded prizes. Hillside hosted the R&A’s Amateur Championship in 2011, and it’s just one of four golf courses to be chosen as a final qualifying venue for the Open Championship each year from 2014 to 2017. Designed by Fred Hawtree and routed through imposing sand hills and pinewoods within view of the Irish Sea, it was lauded by Greg Norman, who after a round wrote the club: “The back nine were the best in Britain.” Few are likely to disagree. www.hillside-golfclub.co.uk
With Blackpool’s tower, inspired by the Eiffel in 1889, serving as a local landmark, the Fylde Coast has an unmistakable marker. The same coastline is also home to this 6,941-yard, par-72 brute, which predates the tower. The course, comprised of dunes, sand, and wild grasses along the Lancashire seashore, also has a unique obstacle: a quartet of ponds, which come into play on six holes. In all, only two of the original 18 holes—the 10th and the 18th, which run parallel to one another—have survived the many changes the club has undergone through its century-plus existence. Still, playing it was such a rousing experience that, several redesigns ago, the great Bobby Jones was quoted as exalting, “It’s difficult to see how you could improve on this.” www.stannesoldlinks.com
Designed by a trio of legendary architects, including the indomitable Harry Colt, and stretching to a confidence-beating 7,218-yards along the banks of the Dee, this is England’s second oldest seaside course (after Royal North Devon)—and arguably one of its toughest. The course, colloquially referred to as Hoylake, is a bit of a trickster. There aren’t a lot of the bumps and humps found at its rivals. But in their place are a prevailing and howling wind, blowing in from the Welsh hills in the distance; high-sided bunkers, from which the direction of play can sometimes be backward; and carpets of swaying fescue. More hospitably, the Royal Liverpool offers a stunning refurbished Victorian clubhouse that is home to a vast golf memorabilia collection. Truly a treasure that, come 2014, will host the Open Championship. www.royal-liverpool-golf.com
A longtime contributor to RL Magazine and an avid golfer, Farhad Heydari is the international managing editor at Centurion and Departures magazines for Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America.