TG Undercover: Hillside

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We head for the neighbour of Royal Birkdale and this year's British Masters host Hillside to find out if it deserves as much acclaim as the Open venue?

For a course that sits next to and is overshadowed by 2017 Open Championship venue Royal Birkdale, Hillside has lots of admirers. Hometown hero Tommy Fleetwod reckons Hillside boasts "one of the best back nines in world golf", so it's no surprise he chose it to host this week's British Masters.

Be assured that Birkdale's neighbour is a classy links in its own right, as befits one of the many stars on 'England's Golf Coast'. The likes of Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and local hero Tommy Fleetwood are all among the many admirers of this Southport course, which has a track record of staging high-profile tournaments including the 1982 PGA Championship (Tony Jacklin's final professional victory) as well as Open Final Qualifying for the last three years. Hillside was formed in 1911 and was originally a nine-holer on a different site on the landward side of Hillside railway station (now residential housing).

The club moved to its present site in 1923, when an 18-hole course was constructed out of the unkempt dunes. Renowned architect Fred Hawtree carried out a major re-construction throughout the 1960s and the new-look course opened in 1967.

Nicklaus once revealed that the second nine is home to some of his "favourite holes" while Sky Sports' Wayne Riley has previously declared: "You can tee up for an Open on this course." But is it really that good? Our fourball put it to the test...

Our Testers

panel of testers

Tees & Greens

JC: Hillside has great tee placement on all its holes enabling you to see the shot required. The greens had just been treated but I’m sure the surfaces will be equally impressive when this process is complete.

DC: It was relatively early in the season when we visited and in my book both were in good overall shape and condition. Definitely no complaints here.

KB: The former were neat and tidy although the greens, usually pretty fast, were a tad sluggish – probably owing to the fact they had just received some early- season treatment.

MC: The greens were a little too bobbly and at for my liking. That was my only complaint, however, as the views from the many elevated tees are simply breathtaking.

General Conditions

JC: The overall condition of the fairways and bunkers was excellent while the borrows and slopes on the greens are always food for thought... and make putting a joy.

DC: Again excellent overall and that also applies to the typical tight links turf on the fairways and the neat, tidy – and menacing – bunkers.

KB: Overall conditioning of the course was, as you would expect from a layout of this stature, first rate with the crisp links turf a joy to play from.

MC: The fairways were soft and surprisingly a little soggy in places, despite playing in May. It does make you wonder whether the course would hold up in the winter. That might explain why they charge half the price.

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Variety of Holes & Challenge

JC: People talk about Hillside’s back nine which, for sure, is the most impressive half. However, the front nine is also first class and I particularly like the 4th and 5th which test mind and swing on tee and approach shots

DC: Hillside is very varied with an excellent layout and splendid combination of holes with many offering great views.

KB: Hillside has plenty of variety and challenge, boasting contrasting nines with the back nine weaving between towering dunesland. The par-5 17th, played from a stunning elevated tee, is simply sensational.

MC: The first few holes are a little forgettable, but the rest are deserving of far greater acclaim. The 11th and 17th are simply magnificent, and up there with the best par 5s I’ve ever played.

Practice Facilities

JC: The range requires a short walk to get to, but it is well kept and allows a full range of shots to be played during a warm-up. The practice putting green surface closely mirrors those on the course.

DC: Lack of time meant we didn’t really have chance to put them to the test apart from the relatively small practice putting green.

KB: A nine-hole putting green is located next to the 1st tee, and there are three practice nets nearby if you fancy a quick warm up.

MC: Forget the practice nets. Walk a little further and you’ll find a fantastic little short-game area with two revetted bunkers, plus a 20- bay driving range. Thirty balls cost £2.50.

Booking & Welcome

JC: The pro and his staff couldn’t have been more friendly and accommodating. We had a late tee-time and the management even offered to keep the kitchen open!

DC: Impressive – the staff in the pro shop were very friendly and made us feel really welcome.

KB: I’ve played here a few times and the reception is always the same: warm and very friendly. Visitors can even use the snooker room free of charge.

MC: There are no airs and graces at all, despite it being a private club. The staff are very accomodating and were even prepared to keep the kitchen open longer than usual.

clubhouse

Food & Drink

JC: I know for a fact the food at the halfway house is first class, as is the service... again the staff are so friendly you virtually have to drag yourself away to play the back nine.

DC: Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity to sample either following our late tee-time so I will have to pass judgement on this

KB: Although we missed out this time, the Hillside food is nearly as tasty as the golf on offer and the sausage barms served in the halfway house are right out of the top drawer!

MC: They’ve just spent £1.1m on a clubhouse refurb and it shows. There’s a casual bar/lounge downstairs and a fine-dining restaurant upstairs with a terrace overlooking the 18th. Three courses for £24 on a Saturday is a steal.

Locker Rooms

JC: The guest lockers sit cheek by jowl with the members – a sign of just how welcome visitors are at Hillside. Other washroom facilities are modern and first rate.

DC: As you’d expect from a club of this stature – they were well kept with showers and towels were provided.

KB: Very modern and extensive. The restroom and showering facilities wouldn’t look out of place in a top-notch hotel.

MC: First class. The room itself is never ending and includes a drying room, four showers, and around 400 lockers. Complimentary toiletries and towels is a nice touch.

Value for Money?

JC: If you’ve never played Hillside, payment of the sizeable green fee will not be regretted. As a local golfer I’ll admit I’d like to see them lower, but that’s because I want to play Hillside again, again, and again....

DC: Admittedly it’s not cheap to tee it up here, although having said that it compares favourably with the area’s other premier courses.

KB: £130-£150 for a summer round is pretty steep but you’ve got to remember Hillside is one of England’s top links. £65 for a winter game represents excellent value though.

MC: I’d pay top dollar to play that back nine again, which is as good as it gets in my opinion. Royal Birkdale may get most of the plaudits in Southport, but I’d much prefer to pay £150 here than £245 to play Birkdale.

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Overall Verdict

JC: You’ll never hear anyone complain about Hillside – that’s because it is one of the best the UK has to offer. So if you’re visiting the area, don’t miss it and once you’ve played it, you’ll want to return.

DC: A top links which provides a special and memorable golfing experience and I would certainly recommend it to other golfers considering playing there.

KB: A class links act and easy on the eye too... if Hillside entered a beauty pageant it would be the brunette with all the curves that walks off with the title.

MC: An underrated gem. No two holes are the same and while it’s not the tightest links I’ve ever played, it’s certainly no pushover playing over 6,800 yards off the championship tees.