Alfie Fyles, who caddied for Tom Watson in all five of his Open victories, grew up in Birkdale and frequented a Southport pub and caddie hangout called the Masons Arms. On my first golf trip to the Lancashire coast, a little over fifteen years ago, I decided to make a pilgrimage. I found the pub on a forbidding side street and sailed through the door, anticipating an evening of colorful storytelling. Instantly, I wished I hadn’t come. The patrons looked like—well, they looked like British caddies, but they were indoors, boisterous, in a group, and drunk. The bartender was sitting on a foot-tall stool, so that his head was barely visible above the bar. Oddly, he seemed scarier in that position than he did when he stood up. I made the mistake of sitting at a small table directly below the wall-mounted television set, which most of the patrons were watching. During breaks in the action on the screen, they would permit their chilling gaze to drift downward. I drank my beer as fast as I could and fled back to my hotel, the dowdy Prince of Wales.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
My friends and I have taken some terrific golf trips over the past dozen years, including one to Scotland and two to Ireland. Our best trip ever, though, may have been the one we took in the spring of 2010 to the part of England where the Open Championship will be played this week. England’s Lancashire coast—which is also known as the Golf Coast—contains one of the world’s densest concentrations of superb links courses, including three on the Open Rota (Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale, and this week’s venue, Royal Lytham & St. Annes.) My friends and I played fourteen rounds on eleven courses in eight days, and over dinner on the final night we went around the table and each named the one course we’d most like to play again. There were nine of us, and we picked eight different courses.
One reason the trip worked so well is that we did very little driving. The distance by air between Royal Liverpool (at the southern end) and Royal Lytham (at the northern end) is less than thirty miles, and we rented three three-bedroom apartments in Southport, a resort town roughly halfway between them. The rent worked out to something like $30 per man per day. We had views of the Irish Sea, and we could walk into town.
We spent just one night away from our apartments, in nine single rooms in the Dormy House at Royal Lytham. That club offers several package deals, and they’re a bargain. We got two rounds of golf on the championship course, three meals in the clubhouse, and a night in the Dormy House for less than the à-la-carte price of two rounds of golf.
My bedroom window looked out on the practice putting green, the eighteenth green, and the clubhouse (the building on the left).
Lytham is the only Open course that begins with a par 3, a 200-plus-yarder with a circular green surrounded by ravenous bunkers. My favorite hole on the course is another par 3, the ninth, which looks like a golf hole in a dream: the green is elevated and undulating, like a graduate-level problem in topology. It’s tucked into the farthest corner of the course, and a cluster of red-brick buildings rises directly behind it, and if you flub your tee shot, an assistant pro told me, you can easily make 10.
Within the city limits of Southport are three excellent courses—Royal Birkdale, Hillside, and Southport & Ainsdale—and one quite good one: Hesketh, which is the home of the Hitler Tree. The first three are laid out almost continuously along the coast to the south of town; they are so close together that if you miss the driveway for Birkdale, heading south, the handiest place to turn around is the side street that leads to Hillside. And at Hillside it’s entirely possible to hook a ball onto Southport & Ainsdale. I’ll have more to say about all those courses, and the others we played, later this week.