‘There are no tricks here’: Royal Birkdale course manager Chris Whittle reveals the challenges facing the biggest names in golf
Crisp greens, immaculate bunkers and perfectly-manicured fairways. It doesn’t happen by chance, which is why Royal Birkdale has long been regarded as one of the best venues on the Open rota. The current custodian of the famous Lancashire links is Chris Whittle, who will be overseeing his third Open Championship since joining from Muirfield in 1994.
Few know a course better than the man who manages it, so we asked him what can we expect to see when golf’s biggest names descend on Southport?
The course is very similar to how it was in 2008. There are no trick holes. What you see is what you get. We are trying to be fair, so the course will play exactly how it does for our members. It’s been the same for the last two Opens here.
The wind can make 60 or 70 yards difference on one hole. Last time, they [the R&A] had to shorten the course because of the conditions. On 11 and 16, you need big drives to get the ball down the fairway, so we’ve introduced two intermediate tees to give back 20 yards or more.
The first tee shot is a bit of a killer. You can try and cut the corner with the hope of leaving an easier second, or you can treat it as a par 4 and a half by going straight down and playing safe. That’s the beauty of any links golf course. It makes you think.
You can’t avoid to be wild off the tee. The fairways aren’t particularly generous in places and we intend to add a second cut outside the first cut about three metres wide and three inches high. After that, we’ll just leave the rough and let it grow naturally.
The main strategy is to avoid the bunkers at all costs. We’ve got 123 on the course I think. They’re not too deep, but they’re just well positioned.
Though it’s quite a hilly course, the fairways are generally at. A few of the greens have slopes in them to catch you out – there’s some good movement on 11 – but there’s nothing silly out there. It’s just a very fair golf course.
It’s often the case that the front nine plays easier than the back nine. I remember it did in 2008. Four and five are two holes where you can pick shots up. The 5th is a very short par 4, so I expect to see plenty of birdies on there. It might even be driveable.
I think there’s always a chance the course record (63) could be broken. If we get a very benign day and there’s been some rain the day before, the course is there to be attacked. Everything is very weather dependent, though. You can turn up at 6am in the morning and the wind will be blowing one way, and come 9am it will be gusting in the other direction. It’s so unpredictable and it could come down to the luck of the draw.