SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND. Major championships cause many players to have sweaty palms and induce a shortness of breath as they approach the start of any round. At Royal Birkdale, the opening hole can cause a severe case of hyperventilation.
Often times opening hole on many courses — including those hosting major events — can be more of a warm-up hole to get into the flow of the round. Not all major championship venues follow that script. Winged Foot / West and Oakmont are notorious in putting immediate pressure on players commencing their rounds with demanding openers.
Yet, as good as those two holes are the 1st at Royal Birkdale can ignite an overwhelming sense of tread goings beyond those two famed American holes.
Birkdale’s starting hole plays 448 yards. The hole is often subjected to crosswinds — especially coming from the west off the nearby Irish Sea. It’s not uncommon for the wind to be slightly into the players from that direction. The situation is further complicated by the fact the hole turns slightly left in the drive zone. Having to turn a ball from right-to-left when a crosswind is pushing the ball to the right is one of the most demanding of golf shots with a long club.
There is a devilish pot bunker on the left side — requiring a carry of roughly 235-240- yards. Those unfortunate souls who find the bunker will not likely get to the green in the regulation stroke as the depth precludes anything more than a short iron to escape. There’s also a mound on the same side that complicates one’s stance if you get too close to it as well as varying heights of rough grass. In short — going left is not an ideal situation.
Those players who wish to carry the bunker can do so but they must negotiate the narrowest portion of the fairway when doing so.
On the flip side — going too far right can find not only rough but if too extreme there’s out-of-bounds which hugs that side.
Once players find the fairway — no easy matter for sure — the approach is mo less demanding. The hole moves back to the right where the green is located. A large dune cuts the visibility of the right side of the green with frontal bunkers flanking the frontal sides. The choice for the players is to decide how aggressive off the tee they wish to play. Laying up is a smart option but then one can be left with approaches upwards of 200 yards or more depending upon the win velocity at any given time.
In the last Open held at Birkdale the 1st played as the second toughest hole — a whopping stroke average of 4.52. That means the hole, on average, was bogied 50% of the time. To give a better appreciation of its demands — there were 40 double-bogies or worse when held against a total of just 23 birdies made there. Stingy indeed.
Getting off to the right start can set in motion a player being confident the day ahead will be a good one. As the players arrive at the opening hole they know full well how they handle the 1st could very well determine if their opportunity to strive for possession of The Claret Jug is reality based or nothing more than a pipe dream.
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