British Open Countdown: St. Annes Old Links Golf Club

Airplane, roller coaster, Yankees headcover, Other Gene, out of bounds: St. Annes Old Links has it all.

Just a few blocks from Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where this year’s Open is being held, is St. Annes Old Links Golf Club. From the parking lot, it looks like a down-at-heels muni, and it’s usually ignored by non-locals. You can see the whole course without turning your head, there’s an airfield over the fence, and the northern vista is dominated by the roller coaster at Blackpool, a seaside holiday spot whose nearest American analogs are Coney Island and some of the tawdrier parts of the New Jersey coast. (Prosperous Britons view Blackpool as beneath them, but your children wouldn’t.) Still, the course is far better than it looks, and it’s worth a visit (as is the roller coaster).

The roller coaster in Blackpool in 1983, when I rode it twice.

St. Annes is of historical interest as well, because it occupies part of Royal Lytham’s original site: the tenth and eighteenth holes are direct descendants of the earliest layout, and their greens are said to be the oldest in the region. The course has more than a few undistinguished holes, but it also has some tremendous ones. Maybe the best is the 450-yard, par-4 seventh, called Penance. Its left side is flanked by grassy ditches, which serve the same depraved purpose as the church-pew bunkers at Oakmont. Shots to the green generally play into a fierce wind, and they tend to end up at the bottom of a trench, in one of the numerous bunkers, under a spavined bush on a bank that hugs the rear left corner of the green, or against a shed just beyond the bushes. Another superb hole is the ninth, a claustrophobia-inducing par 3, which Bobby Jones liked well enough to measure, in 1926, for possible reproduction elsewhere.

Ninth green, St. Annes Old Links. That’s the clubhouse beyond it.

You might also see a helicopter. That’s Brendan on the left, walking toward the roller coaster.

British Open Countdown: Birthplace of the Beatles

Other members of the tour group I joined in 1983, Strawberry Field, Liverpool. The photographer is Steve Shipman.

Almost thirty years ago, on assignment for a British newspaper and an American magazine, I traveled to England with a tour group of sixty-seven American Beatles fans. (The tour members’ interest in the Beatles was not casual; one woman had tried to kill herself, twice, after the murder of John Lennon.) Our itinerary was divided between London—where we visited EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, drove past the apartment where Brian Epstein committed suicide, and stripped leaves from a shrub on property formerly owned by Paul McCartney—and Liverpool, which the tour members viewed as the promised land, and which is twenty-five miles as the seagull flies from Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where the Open begins this week.

Penny Lane, Liverpool, 1983.

The statement “We’re going to Liverpool on holiday” has no exact equivalent in American English. (Roughly comparable: “We’re spending our honeymoon in Cleveland.”) Londoners snorted derisively when we mentioned our destination. “It’s an industrial city but not an industrious one,” I was told, through smirking laughter, in a London pub. Even Liverpuddlians were taken aback by the tour members’ enthusiasm. They were used to being the butt of jokes, not the objects of adoration.

The “shelter in the middle of the roundabout,” Penny Lane, Liverpool, 1983.

For a non-fanatic, Liverpool’s charms are harder to see, but they exist, as I’ve been reminded each time I’ve returned. The city’s suburbs and their fabled golf courses are lovely—specially Formby and the villages of the Wirral. The city itself is not as bleak as it’s made out to be; even in the seedier precincts along the wharves, you can catch glimpses of what used to be one of the world’s premier seaports. And, of course, the Beatles.

Celeste Simone Sabatini, American Beatles lover, Liverpool, 1983.

At the time of that initial trip, I was still almost a decade away from discovering golf; when I first went back, in the mid-1990s, I had time for nothing else. The Beatles were still a presence, though. One day, when I couldn’t get on anywhere else, I played a round at Southport Municipal Golf Club. The course wasn’t much, and many of the regulars were local lowlifes who had been prompted by the excitement of the Ryder Cup to give up rugby for golf, which they treated as a contact sport.

Still, I had fun, as I always do. One of my playing partners was a retired businessman who had recently given up tennis for golf but whose age, he said, made him undesirable as a candidate for membership at the distinguished private clubs in the area. When I asked him about his working years in Liverpool, he said, “I knew Jim McCartney, who was Paul’s father. We were both in the cotton business, and his office was next to mine. There was a time when we were both dealing in Iranian cotton. I had better shippers and was offering a better price, but Jim was getting all the business. I later found out why: he supplied a signed photograph of the Beatles with every order. He used to fret terribly about Paul’s future.  He desperately wanted him to go to university, because what sort of future could there be for a musician?”

Sunbathing, British-style, on the beach at Blackpool, 1983. The tower in the upper right hand corner is visible from Royal Lytham & St. Annes.