Golfers at the upcoming Open Championship will face a Royal Birkdale course that has been lengthened and altered since Mark O'Meara's victory there ten years ago. The alterations were carried out by architect Martin Hawtree, whose family history has been enmeshed with Birkdale since his grandfather, Fred, redesigned the links in the 1920s.
Hawtree's brief from the R&A was to tighten up the course without adding excessive length, and the result is an addition of 155 yards on six holes, sixteen fairway and four greenside bunkers and one new green, at the seventeenth. A further 27 bunkers have been redesigned and 14 have been removed. There are 123 bunkers in total on the course; a net increase of six. Playing at 7,173 yards for the Open, Birkdale will be significantly shorter than St Andrews in 2005 and Carnoustie last year. The most dramatic change is the rebuilt seventeenth green. Significantly more undulating than the rest of Birkdale's relatively gentle putting surfaces, the green has already received criticism for being out of character with the course as a whole.
As well as the new green, alterations have been made to greens and their immediate surrounds at the fifth, eighth and fourteenth holes. The surrounds on four other greens have been significantly recontoured. There are six new championship tees, with the eighth and thirteenth having been rebuilt. Changes have also been made to seven of the eighteen fairways, the most significant being alterations to the line of play on the third, ninth, eleventh, sixteenth and seventeenth holes. The ninth fairway has been moved 25 yards to the left.
There have been several significant landscape changes including the creation and alteration of mounds on the second, ninth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth holes, with the intention of increasing the challenge of these holes and also providing further natural vantage points for spectators to view the championship.
Working in collaboration with the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) the club has also been improving the ecological aspect of the links. Stuart Ormondroyd, STRI's head of turfgrass agronomy said: "All visitors and players will notice a major visual change to the general landscape as part of the dune restoration programme. Non-indigenous blocks of trees have been removed to good effect, especially on the fifteenth to eighteenth holes, which in turn opens up the views across the course and beyond, plus the enhanced visual feast for the spectator on what was already an excellent viewing course. Ecology management of rough has also seen removal of ivy covered banks in the rough on the fifth and sixth holes, which in turn has been replaced by native grasses. Indeed, the overall theme is one of restoration of the native dune system and development of habitat improvement for fauna and flora, including initiatives such as extending the slack systems, which are already evident on holes such as the picturesque par three twelfth." R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said: "We have paid particular attention to the introduction of tee shots that give players a number of strategic options and through tighter bunkering and the recontouring of green surrounds intend to make players execute more imaginative recovery shots around the greens." Ransomes Jacobsen dealer Burrows GM has supplied fairway mowers to the club. Head greenkeeper Chris Whittle explains that fairways will be cut in one direction only, once every day from tee to green, with all clippings boxed off. Five mowers will drive in staggered formation down each fairway to achieve the required finish.
"I won't be changing my maintenance regime, it will just become more intense in the final weeks leading up to the Open," said Whittle. "We'll mow the greens at 3mm, twice in the morning and once again in the evening; tees and surrounds at 6mm daily; the fairways will be maintained at 9mm, with the semirough at 30mm. We'll be working from 4am until 10pm and we're really looking forward to it with increasing anticipation." Peter Thomson famously described Birkdale as 'man sized but not a monster.' There is only a short wait before we see how the course will play in its new form.