After a wait of nine years the Open Championship returns to Royal Birkdale. STRI’s Alistair Beggs, looks at the preparation that has gone into making the course one of the most enjoyable golf venues in the world.
Royal Birkdale has a rich history of hosting Opens in the modern age. The Southport-based club has witnessed some of the finest players lift the Claret Jug. Peter Thomson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson to name but a few.
Immediately after The Open in 1991, won so impressively by Ian Baker Finch, a significant amount of work was done on the course. This included tree and scrub removal and architectural adjustments to the greens and green complexes.
The changes to the putting surfaces found favour with everybody but the grass mix on them needed to be improved – a process many links courses were attempting at the time with varying degrees of success.
The new course manager, Chris Whittle, who had recently arrived from Muirfield, had a challenge he was determined to succeed with. Chris knew that he had to replace the meadow-grass, which had become the dominant grass type on greens and surrounds, with perennial bent and fescue grasses. As he understood it, these grasses would provide a more authentic and more predictable links experience. It is easy to talk about such change (and many in our industry do), but it is very difficult to deliver it on a busy links course where expectations of all who play are, rightfully, extremely high.
Chris embarked upon an agronomic journey, which is arguably one of the greatest achievements in modern greenkeeping. Not only did he achieve a tremendous level of success, but throughout it all Chris helped Royal Birkdale strengthen its reputation as one of the best and most enjoyable golfing venues in the world.
Fertiliser programmes were reviewed, top dressing programmes were changed, mowing and refinement philosophies were adjusted, and the best seed money could buy was repeatedly worked into the bases of the greens. Both bents and fescues were used and injected using a variety of methods, from drop seeders to drill seeders and everything in between.
Worthwhile agronomic change is never quick to facilitate and it needs endurance, commitment and good communication. Chris knew this and by the time Mark O’Meara (another American champion) triumphed in 1998 the primary shoots of success were beginning to appear. The greens performed very well and they were equally good during Padraig Harrington’s win in 2008.
Nine years after the last Open was played here we can safely say the job is complete and the greens now provide one of the strongest and best examples of a botanical mix on the Open rota courses. While this mix still has to be turned into a first-rate product for The Open, this should be more than achievable given the expertise and experience on offer through Chris and his wonderful team of greenkeepers.
In my experience the botanical change process, which is often talked about in our industry, but rarely delivered, cannot be showcased more successfully than here. There is a great deal for all turf custodians to learn from the process Chris Whittle has masterminded, leaving a superb course with an equally great and wholly authentic mix of grasses on which to play the game.
You also can’t underestimate the importance of having the right grasses in place. They give excellent year-round performance and allow Chris and his team the opportunity to provide a world-class golfing experience for those who turn up to play, be they from Merseyside or Melbourne and everywhere in between.
The overall result is a magnificent layout, in an impressive condition, in a quite wonderful and authentic links environment.
We will all revel in the excitement of another Open Championship on this great Royal Birkdale course. But spare a thought for all the hard work, delivered on a day-to-day basis by a highly committed and talented team of professionals. They ensure the stage upon which the greatest of games is played can be enjoyed by all.
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