Editor's Note: With the Open Championship returning to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Fairways + Greens publisher Vic Williams looks back on his first journey to England in October 2005, where he and several other golf journalists sampled some fine golf and singular English experiences in the country's northwest section, which encompasses Manchester, Liverpool and the lovely Cumbrian District. A lifelong resident of America's West Coast, he felt a certain kinship with his fellow golfers on the Mother Country's port side. This story originally appeared in the February 2006 edition of Fairways + Greens.
We West Coasters are long inured to the semi-pervasive attitude of our counterparts Back East and Up North. You know what I’m talking about. “Yeah, you’ve got Pebble and a couple other decent tracks, but you’ll never measure up to what we’ve got — the tradition, the history, the blue blood pedigree. The Shinnecocks and Winged Foots and Augustas. We’re just better, and you know it.”
Actually, we know better. We know golfers in New England or the upper Midwest need to catch a plane west to get their winter fix. (OK, there’s Florida or the Caribbean, but work with me.) We know they’re really hiding their envy at our year-round riot of world-class golf, especially in the public play domain. Whatever the month, under any hue of sky, anybody can tee it up at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill, the Bandon trio, PGA West Stadium, Troon North or Shadow Creek. All they need is the bucks, a plane ticket and an appreciation for unsurpassed variety. Then we have stellar munis like Torrey Pines, where we don’t even need a bagful of scratch to get on — just a fast phone finger and a little luck.
Yep, deep down those easterners know we rate. But still they turn up their frozen noses at us, and we’re used to it.
So are the lovely blokes and lasses on the other West Coast — of England. There they are, in the middle of a rich, deep-rooted golf goldmine, and they can’t seem to get the slightest milligram of respect from their counterparts in Scotland, Ireland and even on the world stage. Until now.
Actually, I’m not talking about the entire west coast of this island nation of 60 million souls, but specifically the region known locally as the “North Country,” which starts in Cheshire and stretches to the Scotland border. Tourism is the red-hot commodity there, and the overall economy is humming. Every pint-sized Peugeot, Renault and Mercedes on the crowded M6 (one of the first “interstates” built in England) seems to be less than five years old, gingerly burning petrol at the princely sum of ten bucks a gallon. The pubs are packed and life is good in that sunny California way, even when the sun stays away from late fall to early spring. Modern commerce and technology has transformed the hub city of Manchester from a once-derided industrial city into one of Europe’s most vibrant and progressive destinations. The charming, Roman-walled, 2,000-year-old town of Chester is just down the road, as is Liverpool, itself in the midst of a monster turnaround and a pilgrimage point for Beatles fans everywhere. And a short left-sided drive away are two of England’s most beautiful regions — Wales and the Lake District.
“This is the real England,” said one tourism representative, a gregarious bloke named Peter who also owns the region’s most popular tour guide business, Busy Bus. He carted a foursome of golf writers through his beloved homeland during a whirlwind five-day tour in October, and he was heavy on the PR prattle. “London is like another country. This is where people need to come if they want a true British vacation.”
It’s also where American golfers should consider spending a few days the next time they get the itch to head over the pond. More than 1,800 courses golf courses dot the evergreen landscape of the British Isles, and several of the best call the North Country home. Open Championship rota regulars Royal Lytham at St. Annes and Royal Birkdale, two of golf’s most storied venues, hug Liverpool Bay. Scores of lesser-known links are scattered eastward, northward and south into Wales, which will host the 2010 Ryder Cup — on, ironically, a modern design. Dozens if not hundreds are within a two to three-hour drive of Manchester.
“As far as I’m concerned, northern and western England has the greatest concentration of top golf experiences in Europe,” said Andrew Campbell, park estates manager (we call them superintendents) for the two courses — one designed by Jack Nicklaus — at Devere Carden Park Resort south of Chester. “You’ll find all styles — links, heathland, parkland, short courses, ones that are good enough to host a major, ones that have hosted the Open in the past.”
Then there’s Royal Liverpool at Hoylake, host to this year’s quest for the Claret Jug. The course has waited nearly four decades to get back in the R&A’s good graces. In 1967 Roberto de Vicenzo beat Jack Nicklaus by two strokes on the stunning and underrated links layout. Two generations on, we’ll see Tiger and company take their shots along the River Dee before what’s expected to be the largest Open crowd in history.
“I think we could see crowds of over 300,000 people” during Open week, said Barrie Kelly, director of marketing and communications at Cheshire and Warrington Tourist Board, over English fare in the Blue Bell — a supposedly haunted eatery housed in a 13th century building in the heart of Chester. “By all accounts it could be the biggest Open in history.”
Forgive Kelly’s bombastic bent. It’s born of frustration and sheer excitement and backed by one big fact — his home’s booming economy. Still, England’s northwest coast gets short shrift from more than few Brits, including the gent seated next to me during a 10 ½ hour, ever-so-comfy business class flight from Manchester to Las Vegas on British Midland International airlines, better known as BMI, which, in my book, should be the first transatlantic choice for any club-carrying Yank.
“What brought you to this part of the world?” he asked.
“A golf writers’ visit,” I told him. “We took a tour of Manchester, then went north to Cumbria and played a course there, then headed back south to play Royal Liverpool.”
“You didn’t get to Scotland?”
“Not this time.”
“Too bad. That’s where the real golf is played.”
Turns out he was a Scotsman, raised in Glasgow and now living in Sterling, near the world-class golf resort of Gleneagles. He has a right to his attitude — Scotland is the ultimate overseas golf getaway to most Americans — but as they say in the proper of English of Lancashire, I ain’t so sure he speaks the truth.
Carden Park’s Campbell isn’t so sure, either. Over cocktails he rattled off a litany of names and designers and towns that hold their local clubs close to their hearts, and are happy to share a tee time or two with anyone willing to seek them out. “A lot of Americans try to ‘do’ England golf in four or five days, and you can’t. There are just too many outstanding courses to discover.”
Campbell and his like-minded band of Brits are making it easier for us to discover them. The region has finally found its modern PR footing, with various parties teaming with local golf officials, including private clubs, to raise its profile internationally. According to Kelly, often all it takes a phone call to the local tourism bureau to nail down a tee time, even at the most elite private courses.
“It’s not like the old days where you had to write a letter to the club captain and wait six months for an answer,” he said. “Now, in a lot of cases, you can call us and we’ll set everything up — the transportation, the tee times, the lodging. It’s an uphill climb to get everyone working together, but we’re starting to see results.”
The big payoff comes in July when the world’s biggest golf tournament return to the region, with a rejuvenated 150-year-old links at the ready [Ed. Note: Tiger Woods won that Open in record fashion, his first major victory following the death of his father, Earl]. This year’s Open puts the spotlight back on a Hoylake course that has finally cleared 40 years’ worth of conditioning hurdles. Local governments have put a workable tournament infrastructure in place. The rail system will shuttle the crowds in and out of a venue that’s wedged between an urban area and the sea, and players will be carted to a practice at a par-3 course across the street. “We can’t have the world’s best players having to walk over there, can we?” said Graham Brown, Royal Liverpool’s secretary. “They’ve got to conserve their energy for the course.”
And what a course it is. The middle stop in the October trip’s three-course rotation, it’s got everything Americans want in a classic Mother Country links course — dry, tight, runway-wide, windblown fairways; row upon row of deep, sod-faced bunkers; blind tee shots over patches of bushes and tall grass; greens ranging in size from hockey rink to five-pound note; myriad humps and bumps and funky angles; and a cozy brick clubhouse whose lobby is rife with artifacts from the days of Old Tom and James Braid and where an observant member may ask you to “remove your hat, please” while indoors.
Brown has been bombarded with requests to play the course in advance of the Big Event, but he’s pulling back the reins a bit to keep it in shape. Afterwards, the demand will only grow, and with the tourism folks’ help it will be within reach — though not as easy-access as made-for-tourist tracks like Carden Park, where business groups and vacationers alike tee it up in a classic English countryside setting and, contrary to local habit, ride in carts if they’d like. We lazy writers did just that, in a potent rainstorm, wailing away with our waterlogged weapons until the not-so-bitter end — in our case, a pint in the hotel. My only question: Why don’t these “buggies” steer from the right side, too?
Then there’s the Lake District of Cumbria, home of 19th century poet William Wordsworth. A two-hour drive north of Manchester, it’s a gorgeous landscape of sheep-studded hills where Londoners go to chill out and more and more travelers are playing golf. Highlights include Windermere Country Club, a tight, tumbling par-65 beauty that plays much tougher than it sounds, and Ulverston Country Club, which opened in 1895 on a lovely spot overlooking the bay. Redesigned by Harry Colt in the 1920s, it’s home to one of the most unique tee shots in all of golf — over an old, 20-foot-high rock quarry to a narrow fairway next to which sits a three-sided mausoleum that, at one time, housed the ashes of a prominent area family. In fact, our itinerant troupe of writers could see the dome-shaped structure from half the golf course, letting us know where errant tee shots go to die. Followed up with high tea at an English countryside hotel such as the century-old Gilpin Lodge, it’s a great way to start any trip to this hidden but rich part of the Old Country.
Campbell’s right. Five days in Northern England isn’t enough. There’s too much ground to cover, too much history to ingest, too much wonderful golf to seep into the wanderlusting American soul. That’s why I’ll head back someday. Think of it as an alternative West Coast — their Liverpool is our Monterey, their Cumbria is our Bandon — whose time has finally come, after all these centuries.