As a keen golfer, there’s nothing quite like walking the same fairways you’ve seen your heroes striding down on TV, or attempting to recreate shots you’ve seen played by the game’s best on some iconic golf holes. I’ve attended two Open Championships at Royal Birkdale in person and I’ve watched others on TV, so I know the course and the challenges it presents. Knowing it and experiencing it are two completely different things though, and recently I got the opportunity to put my limited skills up against one of the ultimate tests in golf - a championship links course in the wind!
Price and accessibility
Depending on what time of year you want to play it is you should not have any problem booking a tee time at Royal Birkdale and the price is perhaps not as steep as you might think. Booking a few months in advance is certainly advisable though as demand is high, especially in the summer months.
The cost varies depending on the season but in the depths of winter it will 'only' set you back £185 for one player. A two ball is £370 while the cost of a three or four ball is the same, £555.
Those prices go up as summer approaches. So for example, in March it rises to £210, £420 and £630, while from April throughout the summer and autumn months it maxes out at £295.00 (one person) £590.00 (two ball) £885.00 (three ball) and £1180.00 for a four ball.
You will usually struggle to get a weekend tee time though so midweek is your best option. Paying just under three hundred quid for a round of golf is expensive. While Royal Birkdale is an incredible course, there are other incredible courses that are equally stunning and challenging that won't set you back that kind of cash. For example, Hillside Golf Club is right next door and is arguably on a par (sorry!) with Birkdale, but it's a fair bit cheaper. I attended a DP World Tour event there as a spectator in the summer of 2022 and can fully attest to what a stunning golf course it is.
You aren't paying so much money just for the actual course and the test of golf that Royal Birkdale presents though. You're also paying for the history and the iconic nature of the place. You're walking the same fairways and greens that all of golf's great names have walked and you're facing the same kind of shots that they have faced. It's genuine bucket list stuff and that's worth paying extra for I think.
Bookings can be made through Royal Birkdale's website.
First tee nerves
Playing Royal Birkdale is intimidating enough, but my four ball consisted of Joe, a professional golfer whose brother plays on the DP World Tour (he was playing a couple of groups ahead of us), James - a long drive professional who plays off a scratch handicap, and Matt, a fellow amateur but with a handicap of one! Then there was me and my 12 handicap, so yeah, I was a little nervous as I stood on the first tee.
It didn’t help that I had chosen not to hit any warm up shots because of the pouring rain and strong winds. It was freezing that morning so - to my shame - I didn’t venture out of the clubhouse until the call came that my group were waiting for me on the tee.
I don’t usually suffer from first tee nerves but this was different. It was Royal Birkdale, I was playing with some really good players who I had only just met, I hadn’t hit any warm up shots and I was wearing extra layers to keep warm which felt quite restrictive when swinging the club. There was a very real fear that I wouldn’t even make contact with the ball, but thankfully I managed to get something on it and found the fairway. Not a great strike but I was in play and eagerly walking after it.
As I set off down the first fairway I had a little chuckle at the memory of the first time I was there, as a fresh faced 18 year old spectator at the 1991 Open Championship. Myself and a couple of pals watched Jose Maria Olazabal tee off and then set off to follow his group. The next thing, out of nowhere a female streaker goes running past us, sprints down the fairway and gives ‘Olly’ a kiss before being escorted away by marshals. 31 years ago that was, yet I remember it like it was yesterday. Strangely though, I don’t remember any of the golf shots I saw that week!
Scoring well is a lot harder than you probably think
Despite finding the fairway I still made triple bogey on the first hole. This included a three putt which only occurred because I hadn’t spent any time on the practice green to get a feel for the speed. Like I said though, it was cold and raining. Still, a seven on the opening hole wasn’t what I needed if I was going to shoot a respectable score.
The good news was that I wasn’t competing against my playing partners. We were in fact team-mates with the two best scores from each hole counting towards our overall team score. That brings with it a different kind of pressure, especially as my 12 handicap meant I had a shot on the dozen most difficult holes and would be expected to make that count. I wanted to pull my weight and contribute to the team, and - somewhat surprisingly - I did. On a really tough scoring day our group only had two birdies between us all day and guess what? I was responsible for one of them! I made a few pars too, as well as some battling bogeys that counted towards the team score.
I shot 97 which ordinarily would have seen me going home in a sulk, throwing the clubs in the shed and vowing to never play again (for a couple of days anyway). I’m usually disappointed if I shoot 87, let alone 10 shots higher. But then again I’m not usually playing an iconic course on the Open Championship rota. Believe it or not, I had to play pretty well to shoot 97.
If I played to that same level on my local course I’d be looking at something closer to 77. In fact, I have shot 77 on my local course without hitting the ball as well as I did at Birkdale. I felt like I hit a lot of good shots, not too many awful ones and my putting was solid all day. Yet I still shot 97 because it was bloody hard going out there. In some ways I wish I hadn’t kept score because 97 makes it seem like I played badly, when that wasn’t the case.
What makes an Open Championship golf course so tough?
There were two things that made Royal Birkdale a real challenge; the wind and the rough. It’s a fatal combination, especially for someone like me who lacks the club speed to hit good shots out of heavy rough. If I miss a fairway it will cost me at least a shot most of the time, and when it’s windy you’re going to miss a lot of fairways no matter who you are. Far better players than me have been humbled by this golf course.
Yet when you stand on the tee there isn’t really anything particularly daunting about any of the holes at Birkdale. If you hit it straight there’s not much to worry about other the occasional strategically placed fairway or greenside bunker. The problem is that if you don’t hit it straight then you’re in the rough and if you find the thick stuff there’s a decent chance that you won’t find your ball. Even if you do find it you may not have any kind of a shot to the green, and when there’s a 30mph crosswind blowing from left to right it’s more than a little tricky to find the fairway.
My playing partners were all massively superior golfers to me but they were missing fairways all day. Unlike me they weren’t keeping their own individual score so there were several holes which they didn’t bother completing after losing balls in the rough. There were a lot of balls lost that day and only four of them were mine, which I’m quite proud of under the circumstances. Strong wind and thick rough will cause problems to even the best players and you only have to look at some of the scores in various Open Championships that have been held here to see the havoc the wind causes.
The last time the Open was held at Birkdale was in 2017 and a couple of players in that field shot 82. In 1998 the great Phil Mickelson shot 85 in the third round and there were a lot of scores in the 80s. In 1991 and 2008 the highest score was 87, which is only 10 shots less than I managed in the depths of winter. These are highly skilled professionals being soundly beaten by this golf course, so I’m not embarrassed by my score even if it sounds really high.
I’d like to play here on a calm summer’s day though just to see how I'd fare. The course plays a lot different in June than it does in November as it’s faster, firmer and the ball travels further in warmer weather. The wind can get up at any time as Birkdale is located right on the Southport coast, but there’s something about winter wind and rain that just makes golf a lot more difficult, mentally as much as anything. It’s hard to focus when you’re cold and icy rain is whipping into your face. Even with the best golf waterproofs it’s still going to be quite unpleasant.
When the wind blows the rough becomes a big problem. Of course you can still find the rough even on a calm day, but it’s easier to accept punishment when it’s your own fault. In the wind you can hit a great shot that will be carried a long way offline and end up in the long grass. That brings a sense of injustice as there’s very little you can do about it. In the summer it isn’t so punishing as the grass is dry and wispy, but in the winter it’s wet and clingy it’s hard enough even finding a ball in there, let alone being able to hit approach shots into greens. The pros might be able to save par after missing a fairway but for the likes of me it’s simply a case of how many shots are going to be dropped.
On a still, hot summer’s day I’d like to think I could knock 15 shots off my score and maybe even get close to breaking 80 if I played well and had some luck. The key is to avoid trouble from the tee, which is a lot easier without a sideways wind blowing your ball 40 yards offline. That’s the challenge of links golf though, a strong wind can easily add 20 shots to a score. Just ask Mickelson!
Seeing my playing partners struggle and losing so many balls off the tee showed me just how tough this golf course is. Had I been been in a group with players of a similar level to me I would not have had much of a reference point to judge my own performance, but when I see guys who are much, much better than me at golf having the same kind of difficulties I’m having, it makes it easier to accept the inevitable double and triple bogeys that come any time you stray from the fairway.
It’s not the same as playing in an Open, but it’s close enough
There are significant differences between an Open Championship Sunday and a regular Friday morning in November. I wasn’t facing the same test that golfers in the Open are facing, but it was close enough to be very relatable. They’re still the same holes even if they are playing differently due to the length, conditions and pin placements. In some ways I would argue that this was even tougher than what the pros have to deal with at an Open. For one thing, in colder, wet conditions the ball doesn’t travel as far in the air or on the ground, and the rough is more punishing.
Nevertheless, an Open Championship is seen as the true test of golf so the courses are set up to ensure that is the case. The pin locations will be in trickier spots for the Open but I don’t actually think that makes it any more difficult for the likes of me or other golfers of my level. Why? Well I’m not usually shooting at flags, I’m just trying to get it on the green! So I don’t particularly care where the pin is located as it makes little difference to how I approach my shot.
The length of the course is a big difference too, obviously. When the pros play here in the Open they’re hitting from the back tees and the course plays much longer. I wouldn’t be able to reach several of the par four holes in two shots from the back tees (I struggled to reach some from the yellows!) but the pros hit the ball miles so the extra length doesn’t make the course any more difficult for them than it is for me playing off the yellow tees.
It’s the same reason that the women on the LPGA play from their tees and not the same ones as their male counterparts. The idea is to negate the distance advantage and make it an even test of skill. Essentially, once the tee shot is away we’re all playing the same golf course after that.
That makes it very relatable and it’s the same whichever famous course you play. If you’re playing the 13th at Augusta from the front tees, you still have to hit your approach over Rae’s Creek onto the green and can therefore try to recreate the shot you’ve seen on TV a thousand times. The 18th at Royal Birkdale is an iconic hole regardless of where the tee is. You don’t need to play from the same tees as the pros to be able to hit your second (or in my case fourth!) shot into the green with the beautiful backdrop of the clubhouse giving you the perfect photo opportunity.
Putting is easier than you think
Surprisingly, the one thing I did find to be much easier at Royal Birkdale compared to what I’m used to was putting. I always imagined that putting would be incredibly tough on courses where the Open is held but I’d say it was the opposite. The greens are sensational so you know your ball will roll true. That was not a surprise, but what did take me a good while to get used to was how little break there was in most putts.
It wasn’t until the back nine that I eventually started to trust my eyes. I was seeing putts as being fairly straight but my brain just couldn’t accept it. After all, this is an Open Championship golf course, putting is supposed to be hard so there must be all kinds of hidden breaks, right? My speed control was really good but I wasn’t making putts because I was reading breaks that weren’t there. Even on relatively short ones I was overthinking it.
I’m sure on other Championship courses there will be all sorts of subtle breaks and borrows, but Birkdale’s greens were a lot flatter than I expected. Dare I say it, putting is easier at Royal Birkdale than it is at pretty much any other course I play at regularly. I wish I’d known that when I started as I may have holed a few more than I did.
- Garmin Approach S60 v Apple Watch with a golf app
- What should you look for when buying a golf wearable?
- Which TaylorMade golf ball is best for you?
It's all about making memories
I loved every second of my experience at Birkdale. Even just driving into the car park was exciting, while walking into the clubhouse and looking at all of the memorabilia and pictures on the walls gave me a real buzz too. The place is just dripping with history. Every step I took, either on the course or even in the car park, I would often find myself thinking things like “I wonder if Tiger Woods has ever stood on this spot?” or “Jack Nicklaus has walked on this green”.
The highlight for me was making birdie on the ninth. I’ve stood next to that tee as a spectator at the Open. Indeed, I was there in 1991 when Richard Boxall famously broke his leg while hitting his drive on that hole. Now I’m playing it and making a birdie. It was a surreal experience. It was a good birdie too as it’s a tricky hole.
It’s a blind tee shot and the wind was blowing strong off the right. None of us knew exactly what line to take and when it was my turn to go I couldn’t really take anything from the line the others took anyway, as they all carry the ball so much further than I do. Especially James, who hits his drives a hundred yards further than I do.
On that note, seeing a pro long driver in action really is something else. Wow. He was hitting it so far my eyes couldn’t even track it. My eyes don’t usually need to see a ball past 250 yards so this was a new experience for them! There is a downside to hitting it that far though, as if it’s not going straight then it’s going miles offline and on a course like this in the wind that usually means a lost ball.
I hit a nice tee shot on 9 but the wind didn’t take it the way I hoped and I found the rough on the right. Thankfully it was sitting up quite nicely and from 156 yards away I smoked a 7 iron to 10 feet. It’s those shots that keep us coming back. Of the 97 shots I hit that day, in a few months time I’ll remember less than a handful but that will be one of them. In fact I’ll never forget it.
The putt was straight, just a tiny bit of right to left on it but my line was the right edge. I struck it on a good line and it trickled down to the hole and dropped in. Fist bumps all round and it felt great. I’d done my bit for the team and made birdie on a hole that has been graced by all of the legends of golf. I took a screenshot from my Garmin Connect account showing just how I did it (see below). I might even get it framed. Not joking.
The memory of that birdie will never leave me but it isn’t just the special shots that will stay with me. While I can easily forget most of the bad shots (indeed I have already) it’s the missed opportunities that are hard to shake off. The 17th was an absolute debacle. It was downwind and I hit a monster drive by my standards. 273 yards down the right side of the fairway. I was so shocked I took a photo of the shot details on my Garmin Approach S62 GPS golf watch.
I then smashed a 3 wood up there just short of the bunker that guards the front right of the green. Joe was in the same spot, just a couple of yards behind me. I watched as he duffed his pitch shot into the bunker, and unforgivably I then did the same thing. Oh no!
We both made bogey from being just short of the green in two. I’ve thought about that horror shot two or three times a week since it happened. I’m shaking my head now as I type. The only reason I remember it though is because it was at Royal Birkdale. And that’s kind of the point. It’s the reason why playing on these iconic courses is such a great experience. It isn’t about what score you shoot, it’s purely about the memories you make, good and bad.
If you have the opportunity to play an Open Championship course or indeed any of the great, iconic courses around the world, my advice is to set your expectations to a realistic level, especially if it’s in the winter and the wind is blowing! After all, if these courses were easy they wouldn’t be playing host to the most prestigious tournament in golf.
Your overall score is unlikely to be what you’re hoping for and if you fixate too much on that it can ruin the experience. So instead, enjoy the scenery, take some photos, soak it all in and try to make some special memories. That may be a great drive or an approach shot that you hit stiff to a few feet. Or perhaps you hole a putt from off the green or pull off a lovely splash shot from a green side bunker. If you can do any of this on a signature hole, all the better.
I came away with a distinctly forgettable score but some memorable shots that will stay with me for a long time, such as the booming drive on the 17th, the birdie on the 9th and a terrific 7 iron on the par 3 12th that almost bagged me a second birdie. The next time the Open returns to Birkdale, I’ll see those holes and I’ll remember fondly the shots I hit. I’ll probably tell the story of it to whoever is unfortunate enough to be within earshot too. But that’s the beauty of playing on these iconic courses - you can make memories that will last a lifetime.