Birkdale has a devoted group of members who care for the course in return for playing rights. Meet the artisans;
This is a story of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, who are all members at Royal Birkdale.
The butcher and baker (OK, there isn’t actually a candlestick maker) are joined by joiners, plumbers, electricians, a gas man, a postman and a host of other tradesmen, who team up to put their various skills to work on their beloved links.
It’s been that way since the formation of the Birkdale Artisans – a golf club within a golf club – in 1931. The chief role of the artisans – a dying breed of work-to-play member at some of the UK’s most established courses – is to back-up the greenkeeping team, helping ensure the course looks immaculate, with regular raking of the 123 bunkers and repairing considerably more divots high on the list of duties.
In return, these unsung heroes of Birkdale receive courtesy golf at certain times on the world- famous links. Not a bad deal, eh?
Each and every single one of the 32-strong working members has no doubt, as secretary Stephen ‘Stan’ Matthews told us: “Rumour has it, this is the most exclusive golf club in the country. If you want to become a member, it’s sort of not what you know, it’s who you know!”
“Generally, we’re local lads living within a 15-mile radius of the golf club, local working tradesmen – I’m on the greenkeeping staff myself.”
When TG met them, Birkdale’s artisans were in the throes of applying the finishing touches to their refurbished clubhouse, now a smart wooden building conveniently located between the fourth green and fifth tee.
Once upon a time it was the old pro shop (see photo, top right) and honorary member Peter Scott – an artisan with over half-a-century’s service – reflects: “Our HQ has never looked better than this. Back in the day it was so small and cramped and didn’t have water or electric, let alone a bar and widescreen TV!”
Clearly the artisans will have a birdseye view of The Open, though they will be kept busy throughout assisting course manager Chris Whittle and his team. Duties will include divoting fairways after play from Sunday to Sunday, some bunker raking, clearing fairway walkways to ensure debris doesn’t interfere with mowing in the morning and anything else Whittle requests.
And, as in the past, they’re hoping some of the players and personalities will pop into their HQ and say hello.
“Christy O’Connor Jnr came in here when it was rained off and joined us for a bottle of whisky and a game of cards, saying if the ‘hooter’ didn’t go he wouldn’t be going back out,” recalls Stewart Greenwood. “Sure enough, he finished the whisky and went back out and played in The Open!”
Butch Harmon and Phil Mickelson made an appearance and stood at the bar for photos in 2008, while Colin Montgomerie is well known to the artisans, too.
“He came in with his caddie and though dour and deadly serious out on the course, Monty’s mask came off in here and he was really funny, signing autographs, posing for photographs, everything,” Stan tells us. “He has loads of banter with the lads but once he walked out he was back to normal.”
Sam Torrance, Nick Price and Birkdale Open champion Ian Baker-Finch have all been in, too, while artisan member Jimmy Singleton caddied for Brian McElhinney, winner of the 2005 Amateur Championship, at Birkdale, and did a course walk with Birdie Kim prior to one of the Ricoh Women’s Open. She introduced herself as “Birdie Kim” to which he replied: “Nice to meet you, I’m bogey Jim!”
Highlight of the artisan week arrives when the club stages their Sunday morning competitions, starting at 6.30am on the first tee. During the week they get to play from the fifth tee before 8am (14 holes) and get to play 18 holes, again starting from the fifth, in the evening. They can also take to the course on Saturday afternoons and regularly play matches against other artisan clubs both locally and nationally.
The best bit about being a Birkdale artisan? They all agree. “We’re all friends and we work as a team. Plus, getting to play the course on a regular basis, and you never get fed up with that,” says Stan. The artisans have high hopes that will continue to be the case.
“Hopefully we’ll be here for another 80 years,” adds Stan. “We’re very lucky and though we’re somewhat biased, there’s nowhere better to play golf.”
How it works: ‘Our course duties pay for our golf’
“Set up with the parent club, we do a token number of hours per week and duties consist of things like bunker raking, divoting and basically any other things they require, including during tournaments,” says Stan Matthews.
“It’s primarily divots and bunkers – we pair up and double up on a hole, raking bunkers on Saturday morning. Twice a week we walk the course to ensure everything is in place and intact. Our duties pay for our golf – that’s the deal, though I gather other artisans have different arrangements.
“Members do pay a fee to join, but we’re non-profit, so whatever we make goes back into making our clubhouse look nice.”